The youngest son of Akhtar Ali was allegedly murdered, and when the Muslim panchayat looked the other way, the family converted to Hinduism, believing it can get justice.
What followed later can be gauged by Ali’s words: “We are neither Muslims nor Hindus. We are just miserable.”
A poor man’s religion is different from a rich man’s religion. The poor, usually, hold on to religion for practical purposes; the rich become interested in it to seek the meaning of life.
Akhtar Ali and his family left their religion out of humiliation and anger towards their co-religionists and embraced Hinduism for community benefits. The benefits are hard to evaluate in terms of material gains. What their religious conversion has given the family, however, is a sense of reprisal against fellow Muslims who, they say, sided not with justice but with the rich.
Ali and his family are residents of Jat-dominated Badarkha village in western Uttar Pradesh's crime-ridden Baghpat district.
In October, 64-year-old Ali, along with his family of 12 members, participated in a havan, recited Hanuman Chalisa, and declared that they were all Hindus from then onwards.
By no means was the conversion spurred by any religious interest. Ali had just lost the youngest of his four sons and accused the police of taking bribe and covering up the murder to show it to be a case of suicide. As both sides were Muslims, the matter was also heard in a Muslim panchayat. The verdict, again, was not in Ali's favour.
When we visited Ali’s house this week – around six months after the family's conversion – the first sight was the pictures of Hanuman, Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose and Bharat Mata pasted at the entrance.
Ali, who now calls himself Dharam Singh, greeted this correspondent with a namaste and, as if on cue, moved out of the frame for taking pictures. His wife soon emerged with a large polythene bag containing a large sheaf of papers – copies of complaints to the police and the Chief Minister, cuttings of Hindi newspaper reports, documents of his land deal and photographs of their dead son, Gulhasan.
On the morning of 23 July, Ali's family found 22-year-old Gulhasan hanging from a hook in their rented shop near their previous house in Newada, an adjoining village almost wholly inhabited by Muslims.
Ali is a native of Badarkha village, where around 350 Muslim families live among 3,500 Hindu families, but he has no relatives here. In February, he sold off his house in Badarkha and shifted to Newada to be close to his relatives after striking a land deal there. But after his son's death in July and an eventual snub by the Muslim panchayat, he returned with family to Badarkha in September, where the Hindu community helped them get accommodation for a paltry rent.
The family's property in Newada, despite legal documents, remains a "disputed" one.
"Dabangon ne kabza kar liya hai [goons have occupied our property]," Ali said. "It's impossible for us to live there now. They aren't even allowing us to sell it. We can't enter Newada as we fear for our lives."
There is a dispute even over Gulhasan's death, on whether it was a suicide or a murder.
The version of Newada residents is that Ali drove his son Gulhasan into committing suicide and then tried to cover it up by skipping post-mortem and taking the body straight to a burial ground. They allege that the newly married Gulhasan was unhappy that his wife was still staying with her parents and would sometimes go to meet her. The night before Gulhasan was found dead, he was allegedly beaten up by his father for these visits.
Ali's version, as noted in the first information report (FIR) dated 27 August, is starkly different. As per his statement, his nephew Dilshad of Newada village held a grudge against him and his son Gulhasan and carried out the killing to get even. In a dispute between Dilshad and one Raju a few days ago, Gulhasan had sided with Raju, and even made Dilshad pay an amount of Rs 60,000 due to him. The statement says that on the eve of 23 July, Dilshad came to Ali's house and took Gulhasan away, saying they both needed to talk. Around half-an-hour later, Ali's elder son saw Dilshad and a group of three other men with Gulhasan on the streets, and they all promised to send his younger brother home soon. The family only found Gulhasan's body the next morning.
As per Ali and his son Irshad (who is now Kavi), they have enough reasons to believe it was a murder. They shared with this correspondent a photograph of Gulhasan's body that shows his lips had turned a dark blue. Irshad says his brother was most probably poisoned.
"When we found the body, it had injury marks on it. The hook was too close to the ground for hanging oneself to death," he said. "He was killed and hanged there only as a cover-up."
Ali says that as soon as they found the body, a crowd of 300-400 people got into his house and started accusing him of killing his son. “It was they who weren’t allowing for the post-mortem,” he alleges.
Ali says that on the very same evening, he went to the local police and recorded his statement, but a sub-inspector named Dharamendra Singh Sandhu tore off the complaint. "He had been bribed by the other side," Ali alleges. "We then went to the court, and it was on the direction of the court that an FIR was registered more than a month later."
What's the status of the case after all these months?
"No arrest has been made till date," said Ali.
"Even after the magistrate's order, it has not been done," said Irshad.
Irshad shared with this correspondent copies of several letters sent by them to the police commissioner and public information officer asking for Gulhasan's post-mortem report but to no avail.
"We also went to Lucknow hoping to meet the Chief Minister, but weren't granted any audience," says Ali.
He recalls that in the Muslim panchayat, his plea for justice was dismissed after being told "in Yogi's rule, only Hindus can expect justice".
Was this the trigger for Ali to consider conversion?
"No," he says. "This was their excuse to deny me justice. Their sympathies were with the dabang, the rich."
The trigger – as Ali told a number of media houses in October – was ill-treatment at the hands of their Muslim brethren. At that time, the family had expressed hope that Hindu organisations would help take their case to CM Yogi Adityanath.
Ali showed this correspondent several reports on his son's case that appeared in the local newspapers, the cuttings neatly tied up together. With official paperwork failing him at every level, it is only these paper cuttings that seem to lend credence to his version.
Now, he simply says, "A poor man is neither Hindu nor Muslim. He is just poor. He fights but eventually gives up. "
The plight of Ali and his family lays bare the failures of the criminal justice system, especially in remote corners of India where the police and the courts remain the least-preferred channels for resolving disputes, and sparring sides often resort to mob justice. It exposes lofty claims made by tall leaders such as Yogi Adityanath of providing justice to all.
It also exposes the shallowness that plagues a large section of the English news media that more often than not, chooses sensationalism over sense.
This case received wide coverage in the national media and even made it to some international publications. For a section of the press that routinely turns a blind eye to incidents of entire villages converting en-masse to evangelising religions, the coverage of conversion of these 13 members of a family was ostensibly disproportionate. The tone was invariably disapproving.
"...the perceived failure of the state to deliver justice have given local Hindutva forces a chance to swoop in as benevolent benefactors," said one such report.
"It's 2018 and this Muslim family from UP had to convert to Hinduism to get justice," said another.
The ground reality belies these claims.
Did the "local Hindutva forces", that is, activist Shokendra Kochar who facilitated the conversion, take advantage of the family’s situation? The village pradhan Rajkumar Singh and several other villagers that this correspondent spoke to, said there was nothing like a Hindutva effort at play here.
"The family had already threatened conversion in their community. When they decided to finally do it, someone recommended Kochar to them," said Singh.
Kochar explains his stance, "If a Hindu wants to convert to Islam, he goes to the nearest mosque. When a Muslim wants to convert, he gets little help from temples and looks for activists like me." Kochar is a businessman who heads the Uttar Pradesh wing of one Yuva Hindu Vahini (not to be confused with Yogi's Hindu Yuva Vahini).
Rajkumar Singh, who took some time to recall the case when we mentioned it, dismissed it as "too small".
"They did it in anger. You see, they were angry with their community,” he said in a matter-of-fact way. “It happens," he added.
Singh isn't wrong. This, after all, is not the only case where a family sought to leave the religion of the group they were angry with. Only last year, in two separate cases, a Hindu family in UP’s Bijnor district and a Hindu family in Meerut district threatened to convert to Islam over being denied “justice” by police and administration.
The Meerut case was covered by this correspondent in detail, where a Dalit Hindu family threatened to convert to Islam after facing humiliation from members of their Dalit clan. The reason for the dispute was that the family was being stopped from installing an idol of goddess Kali in the temple of their choice.
Again, by no means the threat was spurred by any religious interest.
Rajkumar, head of the family, had told Swarajya at that time that as soon as his statement appeared in the local reports, a large number of maulvis from various mosques approached him and even offered him monetary benefits if he and his family converted. (The dispute was eventually resolved without any conversion attempt after intervention by a Hindu rights organisation named Agniveer).
While Rajkumar’s statement does suggest that the ‘local Islamic forces swooped in as benevolent benefactors over perceived failure of the state’ (to borrow from the report cited above) to resolve dispute, Ali’s family has firmly maintained throughout that they were never lured into entering the Hindu fold.
We asked Kochar if the Hindus of the village were helping the family.
"We are doing that. The community has provided them a house. We'll do all we can," he said.
He, however, claimed that he had no knowledge of Ali's immediate grievance: non-issuance of Aadhaar cards in their new names that is coming in their way of getting ration cards and gas cylinders.
"Now that you have told me, I will look into it," Kochar said. “After Holi,” he added.
The festival of Holi was just days away at the time this correspondent visited Ali’s house, where two water guns were lying on the floor. "I got them for my grandchildren," Ali smiled and said and, without us asking, added, "Yes, we bought them for the first time."
The women in the family, so far silent on matters of religion, came forward to say that they continued to offer namaz but were cultivating the habit to worship their new gods. Irshad interrupted to say that he is completely a Hindu now.
Ali, who squirmed at the mention of religion, did not want this question to drag on.
He simply said, “We are neither Hindus nor Muslims. We are just miserable.”