Bijnor: Sonu alias Saquib, aged 18, and a 16-year-old former classmate were said to be on an innocuous outing on 14 December — they shared a pizza and a few sips of a soft drink, and went for a walk — when trouble began brewing.
Before their “outing” was over, the Dalit girl, daughter of a farmer, was sitting in a police station and Sonu was in jail for allegedly trying to convert her under the promise of love.
The case of the two teenagers is among the latest controversial instances involving the month-old Uttar Pradesh ordinance that seeks to check and penalise forced conversions in the state — brought in after scores of BJP leaders, including Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, talked about the need to foil an alleged conspiracy to convert Hindu women to Islam.
Sonu has been booked for allegedly “inducing” the minor girl to elope with him with the intention to marry and forcefully change her religion, with the FIR purportedly based on a complaint filed by her father, a farmer in Berkheda village in this western UP district.
However, the case has sparked controversy because the father of the girl has accused the local police of dictating the complaint to him and “blowing the episode out of proportion”.
He has denied that his daughter tried to elope, while the girl insists Sonu never discussed marriage or conversion with her.
There are other issues too.
The police has said Sonu is 18 years old, but his family claims he is a minor. The family has also disputed the girl’s claim that she was unaware about his religion.
Apart from the illegal conversion law, police have booked Sonu on charges of abduction and under sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
While the father’s complaint, accessed by ThePrint, doesn’t mention any sexual assault, the police have defended the case against Sonu, citing the girl’s age to claim his intentions were amiss. They have also denied the allegation that they dictated the complaint to the father.
The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, came into effect on 29 November, and aims to check “unlawful religious conversions” and “inter-faith marriages conducted with the sole intention of changing a girl’s religion”, laying out a jail term of up to 10 years for offenders.
While the law has been invoked against Sonu, the girl and her father said there were no grounds to do so.
Speaking to ThePrint, the girl’s father said, “I told them (police) that she had gone with him for an outing and she made a mistake, but police and then the media made it out to be an episode of elopement.”
He added: “I had told police that I do not want to complain but they scolded me and said they may elope in the future and I must do it for my daughter. I do not understand much of how things work, so I agreed.”
His complaint, based on which the FIR has been filed, reads: “Sonu meri ladki… ko shadi karne aur dharam parivartan karne ke irade se behla fusla kar bhaga ke le gaya (Sonu induced my daughter to elope, he intended to marry her and convert her).” But the farmer said he never said this to the police.
“He never spoke about getting married or changing her religion, so why would I say that in my complaint? But maybe that was his intention, I cannot say. He just lied about his name,” said the father. “He did not tell my daughter that he is Muslim, but he did not mention marriage or intention of converting her religion. I did not write this.”
The girl echoed her father’s claim, saying the two were on “an outing” and Sonu never asked her to marry him or change her religion.
“There was no talk of marriage. We used to meet and speak on the phone some times. That night too, I just went out to see him. We were not eloping.”
She said she had made the same statement before the magistrate under Section 164 of the CrPC, and stated categorically that Sonu did not force her for either marriage or conversion.
The father’s complaint does not mention any sexual assault or abduction bid. However, the police claimed the sections of abduction and POCSO were “automatically invoked” since the girl is a minor.
“Even if she went with him willingly, it will be considered abduction since she is a minor,” Dhampur Circle Officer Ajay Kumar Aggarwal said. “In such cases, we consider that the man took the minor with him with an intention to commit a crime and that is why these sections have been invoked. It does not matter what the girl says,” he added.
“The fact that Sonu took a minor from her house, for whatever reason, is evidence enough to prove our case,” he said.
The police have also denied allegations that they forced the father to file the complaint.
“How can the police force someone to file a complaint? It is baseless. He came to us and gave this complaint. Initially, he was reluctant to file a complaint because he feared for the safety of his girl. Once we assured him that she will be safe, he gave the complaint,” a senior police officer from Dhampur police station said.
A walk and a chase
Among other things, the FIR states that the girl somehow managed to “escape” from Sonu and return home on the night of 14 December. But her father has disputed the claim, as have the villagers who first raised the alarm after spotting them together at night in Naseerpur.
It was 11 pm on 14 December when the girl left her house to meet Sonu and both went to Naseerpur village for a walk and to share the pizza Sonu had packed. “He came with food and we went to Naseerpur village (4 km from her home),” the girl said.
The teenagers, however, landed in trouble when a few local residents from the village saw them walking around.
“They were walking around the village at midnight. Someone even saw them having a meal near a temple. When some boys from the village tried to stop them and ask questions, the girl ran in one direction and the boy in the other. The boys then called more people and started chasing them both,” Naseerpur pradhan Manoj Kumar told ThePrint.
“They had been coming to this village for the last one week, but got caught that day,” he said.
According to the pradhan, after the local residents caught hold of the girl, they made her call Sonu and her father.
“We asked her to tell Sonu to come out from wherever he was hiding and also her father. Both of them were then taken to the police station,” he said.
When the father asked her if she knew Sonu was a Muslim, she said she didn’t.
The girl told ThePrint Sonu had been her classmate till Class 4. She claimed she met Sonu again two months ago and both started talking, but he did not mention to her that he was Muslim.
“I did not know he was Muslim. That day, while we were talking, I told him that I do not like Muslims. It is then that he told me his name was Saquib. I then told him that I do not wish to stay there with him any longer,” she said. “If he was Hindu, there would be no problem.”
Manoj Kumar, however, said the girl knew about Sonu’s real identity.
“Sonu and the girl live only 1.5 km apart in adjacent villages and she knew about his identity. Kirarkhedi (where Sonu lives) is a Muslim village, she knew Sonu was Saquib,” he added.
At Kirarkhedi, Sonu’s anxious family claimed their son had been framed because “he is Muslim”. His mother Sanjeeda said he was a minor too, born in 2003, but added that they had no document to prove his date of birth.
“My child is 17 years old. Just because two teenagers got talking, police have now arrested him and put him in jail,” she said.
Sabeena, Sonu’s sister-in-law, said the girl had visited Kirarkhedi, an all-Muslim village, to meet Sonu and knew about his identity. Sabeena added that the girl changed her statement under pressure.
“That girl has even come to this village to meet him and there is no way she did not know that he is Muslim. Moreover, he just went there to meet her along with another friend. They were not eloping. Is meeting a Hindu girl also a crime now?” Sabeena said.
“He used to be on his phone with that girl all the time and I had even warned him. Once that girl even came to our village to meet him and I told her to leave. She knew he was Saquib, a Muslim. No Hindu lives in this village. Now, she is changing her statement because she is scared of her parents,” she added.
According to Sanjeeda, Sonu worked as a mason in Jalandhar and had returned to his home in Kirarkhedi during the lockdown. “He has been put behind bars because he is Muslim and that is his fault,” she said, adding that he was the sole breadwinner for her family. She pleaded helplessness, saying she didn’t even have enough money to engage a lawyer for Sonu.
Kirarkhedi pradhan Ismail said they were trying to arrange Sonu’s documents from his school to prove he is a minor.
“This is a case of two children making a wrong decision of meeting without their parents’ knowledge. But does it call for this 17-year-old to be thrown behind the bars with hardcore criminals who are in there for murder and rape?”
Ismail added: “This could have been solved with the intervention of village pradhans, but police insisted that there be a case and now Sonu is in jail.”