Days before the first phase of polling for the Uttar Pradesh assembly, the Bharatiya Janata Party presented its election manifesto, the Lok Kalyan Sankalp Patra. In it, the party promised to amend the state’s anti-conversion law to introduce a minimum imprisonment of 10 years and a fine of Rs 1 lakh.
At present, the law, which was passed in November 2020, invites a penalty of up to 10 years in jail.
Conversion and fanning fears of “social engineering” have been among the BJP’s election planks during the recent campaign. When listing his government’s , chief minister Adityanath mentioned the anti-conversion law. In October last year, an article by Adityanath’s biographer Shantanu Gupta in the Organiser – a publication affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – described the anti-conversion law as a “”.
One of the cases that Gupta wrote about in some detail was the arrest of the founder and chairman of the Islamic Da’wah Centre, Mohammad Umar Gautam: “The Anti-Terrorism Squad found that Gautam had allegedly converted over 1,000 people to Islam and got many of them married to Muslims to prevent the possibility of their relapse to their earlier faith.”
Gupta claims that during interrogation, Gautam admitted to targeting “people from the economically-weaker society” for conversion.
In fact, there is no such admission in the chargesheet filed by the ATS.
Instead, the chargesheet quotes Gautam, 56, responding to the allegations of forced conversion with, “I have not done any such thing. If you are saying so, then show me if I have offered inducement to anyone in the form of money or job.”
Missing persons to conspiracy of conversion
Gautam was arrested in June 2021 following two missing persons’ complaints.
Abdul Manan, 22, and Aditya Gupta, 24, were reported missing by their fathers. Both are deaf and non-verbal, and studied at the Noida Deaf Society, a residential school for the specially abled. Both had faced opposition when they told their families that they’d converted to Islam. Manan had changed his name (he was born Mannu Yadav). Gupta did not change his name, but admitted to getting circumcised. Both Manan and Gupta had conversion certificates issued by IDC. Gupta’s is dated January 14, 2021. Manan’s certificate is dated November 11, 2020.
Manan and Gupta eventually returned home on their own, but the probe into their disappearance turned into an investigation into what would be termed “” by certain sections of the media.
On June 16, 2021, Gautam was summoned by Dasna police thana in Ghaziabad. The first visit went without incident. He was asked to appear at the police station again on June 18, 2021. His family they were told at 2 pm that they could pick Gautam up by about 7.30 pm. However, when Gautam’s son went to the police station in the evening, he couldn’t find his father and the police were unhelpful. The next morning, the family was informed that the ATS had taken Gautam to Lucknow.
On June 20, 2021, Gautam was formally arrested along with Mufti Qazi Jahangir Qasmi, who had signed the conversion certificates issued by IDC.
Later, the ATS would that Manan and Gupta’s conversion certificates helped the police to establish a link between the missing students and the allegedly forced conversions by IDC. However, Manan would go from being seen as a victim to being arrested on June 29, 2021.
More arrests followed – by November 2021, the ATS had made 17 arrests – including those of Irfan Sheikh, a sign language expert with the ministry of child and family welfare; and Gautam’s son Abdullah, who was arrested on November 7, 2021.
All the accused have been charged with criminal conspiracy and outraging religious feelings under various sections of the Indian Penal Code as well as violating the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Act.
Community interest vs personal choice
In August 2021, the ATS filed its chargesheet in Gautam’s case. In it, the agency alleged IDC was among those Islamic organisations that are “changing the population balance” in the country and “impacting the unity and integrity of India” by “carrying out illegal conversions in a stepwise manner and includes vulnerable targets such as the poor, women and those who are deaf and non-verbal”.
“Even if one believes what Umar Gautam and others are saying that conversion is one’s personal choice, this help, be it social or cultural, being provided by Umar Gautam proves that the Islamic Da’wah Centre is trying to establish one’s identity as a Muslim, which is definitely aimed at changing population demography,” said the investigating officer in the chargesheet.
The emphasis upon the threat that IDC allegedly poses to the social fabric is important to the ATS’s case because in 2021, the UP government had assured the court that it would ensure “” while implementing the state’s anti-conversion law.
A close examination of the chargesheet, which Newslaundry has seen, suggests there is little to substantiate ATS’s allegation that IDC was “changing the population balance”. Also, the evidence to support the claim that Gautam offered inducements in order to ‘lure’ people into converting to Islam is questionable.
For instance, ATS asked Gautam questions like the following:
“Does your Da’wah centre distribute free copies of the Quran and related books, either a translated version from Hindi to English or any other language?’
Do you provide a guided tour of mosques for Muslims as well as non-Muslims?
Is there a designated group that helps non-Muslims understand Islam better and helps in embracing it?”
Gautam has admitted to the above activities and said there was no coercion involved in any of them.
Another item of evidence is an IDC brochure that the police recovered from Umar’s mobile.
According to the ATS, the promise of providing financial and legal help to the recently-converted in the brochure should be seen as “coercive means”. Also, organising interfaith dialogues and classes (as part of the Islamic Online University) have been defined as attempts at “indoctrination”.
Examples of IDC’s “predatory tactics” are outlined by Paresh Harode, who claims he was forced to convert to Islam in 2015 by his college batchmate, Prasad Kanwre. Kanwre looked after IDC’s activities in Maharashtra.
“Kanwre had told me that all those who are not Momin would suffer in the fire of hell. I told him that believing in one religion or not is a personal matter, why should one undergo conversion? To which he [Kanwre] replied that those who are kafir, save them from going into hell,” Harode is quoted as saying in the chargesheet.
Harode embraced Hinduism again in 2018.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Supreme Court lawyer Abu Bakr Sabbaq, who is representing some of the accused in this case, said, “Be it the brochure or conversion registers recovered, nowhere do they say that money or jobs will be offered in lieu of conversion. They don’t establish that any inducement was offered.”
Sabbaq pointed out that the concept of allurement is not well-defined in the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act. “Even in the Act, allurement has been covered in a vague manner. And the same approach has been used in this case as well,” Sabbaq said.
To formalise religious conversion, the recently-converted is required to file an affidavit signed by a sub-divisional magistrate. Once this is done, a conversion certificate, like the ones IDC gave to Manan and Gupta, may be issued.
Gautam had first-hand experience of how complicated the process of putting together the necessary legal documentation could be because he had converted from Hinduism to Islam in 1984. He became interested in Islam because of the care he received from a Muslim friend, Nasir Khan, after Gautam had an accident as a college student in Pantnagar University.
“Nasir would take my husband on his cycle to the temple every week,” recalled Gautam’s wife, . When Gautam asked Khan why he accompanied Gautam to the temple so diligently, Khan replied, “To please my God. My religion teaches me to take care of those in my haqooq [circle].”
After a year of reading various religious texts, Gautam decided to convert to Islam. Razia remembers Gautam had called a family meeting, inviting both his immediate family and his in-laws, to tell them of his decision.
IDC was founded more than 20 years later, in 2010. The word da’wah in the name means “invitation”.
IDC is a charitable institution that helped those who had recently converted to Islam with the paperwork required to formalise their new religious identity in exchange for a fee. IDC also participated in drives like distributing blankets to the needy during the recent lockdown.
“If anyone approached my husband expressing a will to convert to Islam, his role was that of a facilitator who would help with documents,” said Razia. The two have been married for more than 30 years.
Since Gautam’s arrest, IDC has shut down.
The ATS has claimed that Gautam lured people like Manan and Gupta to convert to Islam, but the individual statements in the chargesheet show the arrested converts were all interested in the religion before they met Gautam.
According to the ATS, Manan was influenced into converting to Islam by one Rahul Ahmed (born Rahul Bhola). Manan in turn allegedly coerced Gupta into converting. Yet this chain of events is nowhere to be seen in the statements included in the chargesheet.
In his statement to the ATS dated July 4, 2021, Ahmed said he became interested in Islam in 2013, after going to Delhi’s Nizamuddin mosque with his friend Faisal.
“Faisal said that just like you believe in bhagwan, they [preachers] tell us that there is one God or Allah. Your bhagwan is not nice, you should convert to Islam,” Ahmed is quoted as saying in his statement. Ahmed converted to Islam in 2018 and had approached Gautam for legal documents.
Similarly in his statement, dated July 5, 2021, Manan has mentioned feeling curious about Islam as a child because of the company of a Muslim friend named Shakeel. “It was in 2017 when I started gathering more information about Islam and by 2018, I had made up my mind about embracing Islam,” Manan said in his statement. He said he was introduced to Gautam by a friend named Gagan, for the purpose of finalising the process of registering himself as a Muslim.
The chargesheet also includes a statement by Gupta’s mother, Laxmi, who says her son had been in contact with someone named Wasif since 2012. “He [Wasif] had told my son about Islam after which I had scolded him. But somehow they managed to stay in touch,” Laxmi said in her statement.
While the allegations of forced conversion against Gautam seem unsubstantiated, the ATS does have an admission from him that he got money for IDC from foreign countries using the hawala method.
During an interrogation conducted on June 25, 2021, the ATS flagged a series of transactions as suspicious.
These included the following:
“Out of a total amount of around Rs 2 crore received between 2010 when IDC was formed till June 2021, Rs 52 lakh has been received by Umar Gautam from foreign countries for which an exact reason is not known,” said the ATS in the chargesheet.
Gautam has maintained that these funds were sent and used for charity. “I have several such friends who send me money from foreign countries. This money is used to help the poor,” he told ATS.
Between 2002 and 2009, when Rs 34 lakh was deposited in his account, Gautam was working as the head of the fundraising committee of Markazul Marif Education Research Centre. (He was associated with the Delhi branch of the organisation between 1994 and 2010). Some of the deposits were from Qatar-based residents, while others were from local contributors, including All India United Democratic Front president Badruddin Ajmal. (Between 1995 and 2007, Gautam had worked for a company owned by Ajmal.)
The sums received between 2011 and 2021 were “from different individuals with the purpose of helping the poor,” Gautam told ATS. Similarly, Rs 2,87,000 was deposited between 2018 and 2021 by a Gurgaon-based engineer “in order to aid charity activities for the poor.”
In February 2020, Gautam received Rs 25,75,000 from Riyadh-based Syed Arif Pasha, which was for the Azad Subhani Human Foundation and to help Delhi riot victims in Shiv Vihar colony. Another Rs 3,33,000 was given by a convert based in Mumbai who wanted to offer financial help to a madrassa.
When asked whether he has got money from foreign countries using hawala, Gautam replied “yes” and explained the process in detail.
An amount of money would be transferred by Abdullah Adam Patel, general secretary of Majlis Al-falah Trust in London, into the account of Vadodara-based Sheikh Salahuddin, who works as the trust’s manager in Gujarat. Once the transfer was done, a photo of a Rs 10 note would be exchanged between Gautam and Patel on WhatsApp and an agency in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk would give Gautam that amount in cash.
Receiving funds using the hawala route is illegal under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.
The allegation of being involved in hawala transactions is further substantiated by the statement of a Fareed Miya, who used to work as a computer operator and accountant with AFMI Charitable Trust. Salahuddin is a managing trustee of AFMI Charitable Trust.
Miya told ATS that Salahuddin had asked him to use an angadia (courier) to transfer Rs 2 lakh to Delhi in 2020 and that till date, he had transferred Rs 30-35 lakh “via hawala to Umar Gautam”. He also said no audit was done for the hawala transactions and at regular intervals, Salahuddin would tell Miya to delete the document that listed these transactions and was saved on a portable external drive.
Salahuddin was arrested on July 1, 2021. He told the ATS in a statement dated July 2, 2021, that he met Gautam by chance in 2017 and introduced him to Patel.
“When Umar Gautam told me that he works for religion, aids in the conversion of non-Muslims to Muslims and helps them with money, jobs, etc, I told all this to London-based Abdullah Patel who too was influenced by Mohd Gautam’s conversion-related activities,” Salahuddin has been quoted as saying in his statement.
Salahuddin also admitted to availing services of angadias to transfer money from Abdullah Patel to Umar Gautam. Using angadias is not necessarily illegal if one has issued receipts for each transaction, as illustrated in this 2013 . Gautam did not keep any record of the transactions.
Salahuddin runs two charitable trusts – AFMI Charitable Trust and ABC Trust – in Vadodara. AFMI provides health-related facilities to the poor and ABC Trust works in the education sector. According to a by the Indian Express, the ministry of home affairs revoked AFMI’s registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act in December 2021, following a report by the Vadodara police that the trust was involved in “illegal Islamic activities.”
In a supplementary chargesheet, the ATS has added sections 121 (attempt to wage war against the government of India) and 123 (conceal with intent with a design to wage war) to the charges.
Advocate Abu Bakr Sabbaq told Newslaundry, “Funds sent by Sheikh Salahuddin were meant for relief work post Delhi riots. Receiving funds by illegal means should not imply that it was meant for anti-national activities.”
The chargesheet also makes references to the “Dewsbury Muslim Plan”. The Markazi Masjid in Dewsbury, in the United Kingdom, is one of the largest mosques in Europe and the town in northern England was seen as a hotbed of extremist Islamic ideology in the mid-2010s. While right-leaning sections of the British media expressed anxiety about the dominant Muslim community in Dewsbury, locals pointed out that the town was not only a .
The ATS justifies the inclusion of Dewsbury in the chargesheet by pointing to a document that mentioned the “Dewsbury New Muslim Plan” and was recovered during a raid on a madrassa in Ghaziabad’s Masuri colony, in UP. The Dewsbury New Muslim Plan refers to conspiracy theories about the spread of radical Islam in the UK where, according to their 2011 census, Muslims made up 4.4 percent of the total population.
As far as the connection to Gautam is concerned, the ATS claims the founder of IDC wanted to lure people to Islam and create a radical Muslim area in India. “This is nothing but Indian version of the Dewsbury New Muslim Plan,” said the investigating officer in the chargesheet.
Responding to the ATS’s questions, Gautam said, “I’m not aware of any planning on the lines of Dewsbury New Muslim Plan.”
If the attempt to cast the donations Gautam received as funding for anti-national activities feels like an overreach, then the references to Dewsbury are even more so. For advocate Abu Bakra Sabbaq, the messaging is easy to read – “Inclusion of such Islamophobic content is aimed only at invoking religious sentiment,” he said.
For those who know Gautam, the charges against him seem absurd. One of their neighbours told Newslaundry, “Food and religion can’t be forced down anyone’s throat.”
The chargesheet does little to clarify how much of the information submitted by the ATS proves either forced conversion or any anti-national activity. It is one of against religious conversion filed by UP police between November 24, 2020 and August 31, 2021. It remains to be seen if these cases can prove to the court’s satisfaction that the allegations in their chargesheets uphold not the agenda of any one group or ideology, but community interest.
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