No one’s quite sure how many Muslim residents of this small town are working in places such as Dubai, Muscat, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Muslims estimate the number to be between 100 and 250; the majority Hindus think it’s in the thousands. Hindus are certain they are rolling in money abroad; Muslims insist they are engaged in menial jobs they would be embarrassed to do here.
In this town that now enjoys the dubious reputation of having seen probably the first arrests under Madhya Pradesh’s Freedom of Religion Act, that’s what lies at the bottom of this story.
There’s no palpable tension as such, but in a region that boasts of little development and a large number of unemployed, “foreign connections” are a constant source of interest, intrigue and speculation, ever since the first Muslim youths began to find work abroad more than two decades ago.
Muslims, most of them goat traders who trace their origin to Rajasthan, are relatively better off than their Hindu counterparts, especially lower castes who say they are still discriminated against, making them battle poverty and lack of opportunities, often all together. The draw was obvious.
Mohammed Kasim, who was probably the first to change his faith three years ago, says, “It’s not the money the Muslims have but the feeling that Islam will treat us better that drew me to it.”
Earlier named Keshav Jatav, the 22-year-old and younger brother Mohammed Ibrahim have stuck to their adopted faith even as their father Maniram, mother and younger brother returned to Hinduism last week in a ceremony organised by right-wing organisations.
The re-conversion, or ‘Ghar Vapasi’ as the Hindu organisations call it, took place within 48 hours of affidavits submitted by nine members of the Jatav community saying they wanted to embrace Islam of their own volition. They also claimed in private that they were doing so to escape caste discrimination. The ceremony also came a day after the arrest of four for “illegally converting” to Islam, including Keshav, father Tularam, Maniram and Makhubai Jatav.
The re-conversion ceremony was probably the only time the Jatav community members had entered the temple, perched on a hillock, and priests and other upper-caste members of Hindu organisations had jostled to be seen close to them.
“It’s not that we were stopped from entering the temple, but we thought it was not meant for us because we did not see any elder going there,” says 25-year-old Brijesh Yadav, an uncle of Tularam, who converted to Islam last year.
Tularam was accused of pressuring his wife to follow suit, but she had reportedly refused and returned to her parents.
The discrimination comes in other forms. “The upper castes don’t let us fill water from their wells when our wells run dry. We are sworn at,” says Santosh Jatav, 25, who like many of his age group in the community is unemployed.
Jehan Jatav says an upper caste man from whom he bought land warned him not to build his home facing the main road as he planned to construct own house on the other side.
“Ghulami karate to pani bharne dete (we could havee slaved for them and got the water),” says Brijesh. In contrast, he adds, “There’s no hierarchy in Islam. They all eat from one plate at social functions.”
He and his relatives haven’t converted, but as the 25-year-old says, who could put up with the daily humiliation.
But the upper caste Hindus insist it’s not discrimination but the money offered by rich Muslims that is instigating the Dalits to convert.
When Keshav converted, followed by his father Maniram, there were rumours that the family hailing from Chhirwaya village, about 30 km from Khaniyadhana, had accepted money to become Muslims. A small shop opened by Maniram and Kasim near the bus-stand in Khaniyadhana was cited as proof that they had received more than Rs 1 lakh each.
Kasim alleges the police tortured him to try and extract the name of the person “who had financed the conversion”, but failed as there was none.
“In this age when people don’t lend money to their siblings, who would pay so much to convert someone?” say stone traders Yusuf Ali and Karim Bhati. “When the convert prays, he will pray for himself. What benefit will such prayers bring to those financing the conversion?” they add, calling the ‘conversion for money’ a systematic campaign by right-wing organisations.
“It’s has been eight days since the FIR was registered. Have the police traced anyone who paid for conversion?” asks Sajjad Ali, one of the three Muslim councillors.
Kasim, who along with his brother is under watch from right-wing organisations, which are maintaining a vigil outside his rented home in Khaniyadhana, says he converted after coming in contact with a Muslim youth with whom he shared a room in Delhi.
Pinpointing the exact moment he took his decision, Kasim says he had attended Tablighi Ijtima, an annual congregation when Jamats from all over the world come to Bhopal. “They knew I belonged to the cobbler caste, but I was given respect.”