New Delhi: “Forceful conversion” of nearly 5 lakh people, a “hawala network” and crores of rupees pouring in “from the UK and Gulf countries” — this is what the Uttar Pradesh Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) is probing in an alleged illegal conversion racket, which it claims was running across 24 states, including Assam.
In the last four months, the ATS have arrested 16 people in the case, including famous Muslim cleric Maulana Kaleem Siddiqui, who runs the Jamia Imam Waliullah trust in Phulat, Muzaffarnagar, among several other trusts and NGOs, and Umar Gautam, chairman of the Delhi-based Islamic Dawah Centre (IDC).
According to the ATS, these men lured and manipulated the vulnerable and needy, including women, and individuals with speech and hearing impairments, to embrace Islam, by offering them monetary benefits and jobs.
The men did this to make India an “Islamic state”, the ATS alleges.
The ATS claims to have a list of 1,000 people who were “forcefully converted” by Gautam.
ThePrint traced 25 people out of those 1,000, who said they converted “out of (free) will” and were “never forced”.
The accused in the case have also claimed that the IDC only gave “legal assistance” to people who wished to convert and didn’t force anyone.
In the FIR, accessed by ThePrint, filed on 20 June against Gautam, IDC worker Qazi Jahangir, IDC, and other unknown persons, the ATS said it received information about some “anti-national and anti-social elements” and certain “religious organisations” using funds from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other foreign sources to convert Indians to Islam.
According to the ATS, the conversions were being done to “change the demography” and “create animosity” between different religious groups.
In the last two months, police have filed two charge sheets against 10 of those arrested — Gautam, Qazi Jahangir, Salahuddin Zainuddin Sheikh, Irfan Sheikh, Rahul Bhola, Mannu Yadav, Prasad Rameshwar Kaware alias Adam, Kausar Alam, Bhuriya Bando alias Arslan, and Faraz Shah — for alleged cheating, criminal conspiracy, promoting enmity, among other sections. They have also been booked under UP’s new Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act.
Seven out of the 10 arrested by police, including Gautam, are those who converted to Islam.
Additionally, eight accused — Gautam, Jahangir, Salahuddin, Irfan, Faraz Shah, Prasad Rameshwar Kaware, Bhupriya Bando and Kausar Alam — have been booked for “waging war against the country” by trying to make India an “Islamic State”.
“Bhola and Yadav have been victims themselves of this racket and later got involved in influencing others. They aren’t a part of the main nexus run by Siddiqui and Gautam and were only pawns,” said Gajendra Kumar Goswamy, Inspector General of Police, UP ATS.
Six others arrested but not charge-sheeted by police include Maulana Kaleem Siddiqui. They have been booked for alleged criminal conspiracy.
How police ‘stumbled upon’ the alleged racket
According to UP Police, it was during the questioning of two other men in a separate case lodged in the Masuri police station that they received key information on the alleged racket and began to probe it.
“Two people were arrested for disguising their identities to gain entry into the Dasna Devi temple (in Ghaziabad) and had planned an attack on the temple’s chief priest Yati Narsinghanand. During their questioning, we received important information that such a racket is on,” said Prashant Kumar, Additional Director General, Law and Order, UP Police.
Yati Narsinghanand is a controversial figure known for passing Islamophobic comments. Muslims are barred from entering the Dasna temple.
“We then started collecting information on the same,” Kumar added.
‘Tycoons’ of conversion racket
According to IG ATS Gajendra Kumar Goswamy, Gautam and Maulana Siddiqui are two “tycoons” of the alleged conversion racket and received funding from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, other Gulf countries, and the UK.
The funds came through hawala channels, the IG said.
“Over Rs 57 crore were received from the Al-Fatah Trust (a UK-based trust) by Siddiqui’s Jamia Imam Waliullah trust, among others, and one (Lucknow-based) Al Hasan Educational and Welfare Foundation, with which Gautam is associated. They also received funds from other trusts in the UAE,” said Goswamy.
The ATS alleged the racket was a “well-oiled system”, running over two decades, and the funds were used to lure and conduct the conversions in the name of relief and social work.
The Muslim clerics also used the funds to buy property in Delhi-NCR, UP and Haryana, an Uttar Pradesh ATS source said.
The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has started a probe into the alleged money laundering.
The ATS claims their probe has revealed that the conversion racket has been ongoing for over two decades, and called it Maulana Kaleem Siddiqui’s “family business”.
“Maulana told us during interrogation that in the last 30 years he has converted around 5 lakh people to Islam. They were lured with jobs and other benefits. They were also manipulated with incriminating speeches and threatened with ‘jahannam’ (hell fire). We have electronic evidence,” the source said.
The ATS chief alleged that the men looked for soft targets. “Women and the hearing- and speech-impaired were their easy targets for conversion, they were lured into embracing Islam by providing monetary benefits and some on the pretext of jobs,” IG Goswamy said.
He added that there were three WhatsApp groups, all named ‘Revert, Rehab and Dawah’, through which people were lured to embrace Islam.
What the accused’s family and lawyers say
Umar Gautam’s family denied the charges of money laundering, saying they have documentation for all the funds that came from abroad.
“The ATS said he travelled to the UK for years. That was when he was working for AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal’s trust Markazul Ma’arif for 16 years for trust-related work. IDC was created only in 2010 and he hasn’t gone to the UK after that,” said Raziya, Umar Gautam’s wife.
The funds were used for the needy — for Covid ration kits, and riot victims from Muzaffarnagar and Northeast Delhi — she added.
Zubair Nadwi, a former student of Maulana Kaleem Siddiqui who graduated from one of his madrassas, said the 64-year-old always helped the needy.
“Where is the property that police are saying he bought for himself? Yes, a lot of people gave funds — ‘zakat’ (wealth tax that practising Muslims donate for the poor) — but those were used for education and other social causes,” Nadwi added. “Jamia Imam Waliullah trust-run madrassas provide Islamic as well as modern education. Over 200-300 people pass out every year,” Nadwi said.
Siddiqui’s lawyer Momim Malik said he has been framed and they are preparing for a “long legal battle”.
Abu Bakkar, another counsel for Siddiqui, termed the arrest a “witch hunt”.
“What is forceful conversion? This is a new terminology they have started. Also, funding from Pakistan ISI? To link everything with Pakistan and ISI has become a pattern for these agencies,” he said.
‘Only provided legal assistance’
Gautam’s family claimed he only helped people with the legal framework for conversion via IDC. His wife said Gautam converted to Islam in 1984.
“We were Rajputs from Fatehpur, extremely religious. Gautam and I would read the Hanuman Chalisa. We converted after we read and researched about Islam,” Raziya said, adding that Gautam himself told police about the “1,000 converts”.
“There is no question of forceful conversion. Anyone who comes to IDC is already a convert. We have no role in initiating the conversion process. Qazi Jahangir and Gautam only assist people on the legal aspect of it,” she said.
“When someone approaches us, they have to submit a self-declaration form stating that they are converting out of their own will and not under force. After the form is filled, it is attested by a sub-divisional magistrate. Following which it goes to Qazi Jahangir who then gives a certificate and it is printed in the Gazette and then a person is legally a convert,” Raziya said.
“In fact, IDC was started because my husband felt there is a lack of legal assistance in matters of conversion,” Raziya added.
In the charge sheet, Gautam has also been accused of providing monetary support (funding) to anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protesters, said his lawyer Asma Izzat.
Izzat, however, questioned the connection between anti-CAA protests and this. “They want to show that he… provided funds and supported a protest. Does this make him an anti-national?”
‘No one forced us to convert’
Police have claimed that Gautam converted 1,000 people to Islam under the alleged racket. ThePrint spoke to 25 out of these. However, all of them claimed they converted of their own free will and had only gone to get their documentation done from the IDC.
A 33-year-old associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences said she started practising Islam in 2012 but legalised it only last year.
“They say Gautam targeted women, that isn’t true. I am an educated woman, who changed her religion of her own will. Thank God I am not married yet, otherwise they would have made it a case of ‘love jihad’,” said the woman who didn’t wish to be named. She was born to a Yadav family.
Meera Ghataniya, a Noida resident, her son Raman and his wife Prabjot also took Gautam’s assistance for their legal documentation about three years ago. All of them had embraced Islam earlier.
“When my son went to Gautam four years ago, he phoned and told me that he wanted to take up Islam. Initially, they sent him back to read more books and research before legalising the conversion. We are all educated adults, what force is police talking about?” Meera said.
Sufian, a government employee, said he was born to a Brahmin family, and only converted after reading about Islam for years. He said he was neither forced nor lured.
Asked about these 25 people who say they weren’t forced to convert, IG Goswamy said his unit isn’t “saying that all 1,000 have been forcefully converted”.
“There are some hearing- and speech-impaired people, some women who have been converted under the pretext of monetary benefits and jobs,” the officer said, but didn’t specify the figure. He added that the unit has “strong evidence and witnesses” to back the claims.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)