She calls herself Ameesha Thakur now, a name given by her husband Arvind. Dressed in a blue and pink sari with sindoor in her hair and a shiny bindi on her forehead, she looks the archetypal obedient bahu. But all is not what it seems in the Thakur home in Chaubiya Rampur village in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Kushinagar district. Just across the lane is Ameesha’s nanihal (maternal grandparent’s house), where her family doesn’t even acknowledge her existence. Abducted three years ago when she was just 13 and now married to a Hindu and living as one, she is not their little Zubeida Khatun any more.
“They made a public announcement in the panchayat that they will make her a Hindu. Now she is living like one, how can we accept this?’’ questioned her uncle Abdullah. The reality is hard to accept for the family, which is one amongst the few Muslim families in the village. He alleges that their little girl was kidnapped by the powerful Thakur family and was forced to convert.
According to the FIR filed by Zubeida’s family in 2013, Rameshwar Thakur and his sons Arvind and Nagin Thakur have been charged with kidnapping and compelling a young woman into marriage. As per the family, Rameshwar Singh’s friends in the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) and the right-wing Hindu group, formed by BJP MP Yogi Adityanath, engineered Zubeida’s abduction.
A few months after she disappeared, Zubeida appeared before a magistrate and voluntarily accepted to marry Arvind. Her family resisted, claiming that she was under age and had been tricked by Arvind. “We tried a lot, filed police complaints, took the matter to the court, but eventually they produced false documents proving her legal age and she got married to the Hindu,’’ said Abdullah. What stings even more is that the Thakurs showed their clout during a panchayat, beating drums in a procession to celebrate a Muslim girl’s conversion into Hinduism. “They did this to shame us in the village,’’ Abdullah added. Zubeida alias Ameesha, the girl in the proverbial centre of the storm who claims she is 21, says she got married willingly. “My family is angry because I married a Hindu,’’ she says. Her abduction, she says was a ‘misunderstanding’. “Every couple has some problems, we also had some. I do everything as a Hindu, pray to god, fast and live as my in-laws tell me to,’’ she says, cradling her three-year-old son.
Communal fault lines
The real story lies somewhere between Abdullah’s claims and Ameesha’s statements. But whatever the truth is, Kushinagar seems to have become ground zero of what is being called ‘reverse love jihad’ — a reversal of the label BJP leaders, including Adityanath. Cases of Muslim boys getting married to Hindu girls had become a hot potato issue in politically sensitive Uttar Pradesh during the 2014 elections with Adityanath and others calling it a threat to national security. On its website, under the section ‘ideology’, HYV cites a write-up that says, “the journey of Islam from jihad to love jihad”.
Between 2014 and October 2016, 389 cases of underage girls missing or kidnapped were registered by the district police. Superintendent of Police Bharat Kumar Yadav says, “No parents would want their daughters to marry willingly. Sometimes these girls are underage or have no documents to prove their age, in such cases we take their statements in front of a district magistrate. Some of them voluntarily choose to marry the opposite community,” Yadav added. A fact finding report of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat (AIMMM) on Kushinagar found dozens of cases of rapes and forced kidnappings of young Muslim girls for religious conversion. The report, submitted to Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in January 2016 blames ‘local goons of HYV’ for the atrocities against girls.
According to AIMMM President Mohammad Sulaiman, who believes all men accused of crimes have a connection with HYV and, the strong influence of HYV and backwardness of the Muslim community in the region is a major factor behind the increasing number of cases. “The Muslims here are backward and socio-economically weak. Many families where the girls were abducted either had no elder male member or their father was a migrant worker, they are helpless and vulnerable.’’
Almost one-fourth of the country’s Muslim population lives in Uttar Pradesh. Within the state, 36 per cent of the minority community is concentrated to the east. However, in Kushinagar, which borders Gorakhpur district on the eastern end and also Bihar, the Muslim population is a mere 16 per cent. Despite the communal fault lines, the social dynamic in this part of the state has been a syncretic one — cultural and social practices in this part bordering Bihar are so syncretic that it’s hard to differentiate a Muslim from a Hindu. Many Muslims share common Hindu names, women sport red bindis and even celebrate the popular Chhath festival. Yet, trivial issues like land demarcation, the size of the taziya (Muharram procession), sexual harassment and love affairs can snowball into violent communal flare-ups, revealing how volatile things actually are. Muslim families live on the periphery of villages and some are even segregated by a village wall.
Ameesha was abducted when she was 13 and forced to convert; (right) Sameena Khatun was threatened and assaulted by her neighbour
Eastern Uttar Pradesh has a high poverty rate and low literacy rate, low income and low socioeconomic status. Most of the population here is rural based and dependent on the cultivation of sugarcane — the only profitable crop in Kushinagar. Over the last few years, more than half the sugar mills have closed down. As a result, men have migrated to urban areas for better prospects. Suleiman found that girls who were abducted and disappeared belonged to such families. Local journalist from Padrauna, Muhammad Anwaar Siddiqui who extensively reported on the cases of reverse Love Jihad said many of these girls are untraced; others remain silent fearing stigma and ostracism. “Families try hard to keep news of such incidents tight as the girls are still to be married off. Only a few of such cases are lodged with the police as the girls say they are harassed and threatened by the abusers who happen to be neighbours in the same village, pressurising to withdraw the complaints,’’ he said.
Tale of a village divided
In October 2016, Advocate Satyendra Rai received an appeal from his client Bhulai alias Habib Ansari to withdraw the case of his daughter from the Juvenile Justice Board, Kushinagar. “He said he wanted to get his daughter married and if the case is still in the court, no one would marry her.’’ In March 2014, Noori was abducted from her home in Gauri Sriram by four men from the Hindu community and was gang raped. She returned home 10 days later. Noori gave a statement to the magistrate in which she identified the four men, including a juvenile. The families of the accused harassed her after her father filed an FIR, she said. Her family was forced to withdraw the cases and drop the names of accused, who lived in the village and roamed around freely.
“But only the juvenile was imprisoned. The remaining names were dropped by the police,’’ Rai said. Villagers allege that the accused are all HYV members. On the behest of the local family of one Munna Shahi, the Muslim community of this hamlet has now been segregated by a 500-meter wall. “The whole village knows Munna Shahi is from HVY. He and his men have created terror in the village,’’ said Munni, a villager.
In the same village, third year BA student Sameena Khatun says she lives in fear everyday. It started when she was threatened and physically assaulted by a neighbour named Santosh. “Woh humko bhaga ke le jane ke liye aaya tha, aur kya? (He came to kidnap me, what else?).’’ What saved her is her loud scream that got the attention of her relatives. “He belongs to HYV. Wohi toh sab jagah danga karvate hai (They engineer riots).’’ The FIR filed by her mentions Santosh but not the allegation.
MISSING GIRLS IN KUSHINAGAR
116 Number of cases in 2014
137 Number of cases in 2015
136 Number of cases in 2016 (till Oct)
Love Jihad, a controversial term used to describe an affair or marriage between a Muslim man and a Hindu woman, under the guise of religious conversion, surfaced around 2009 in BJP ruled Karnataka. The term soon entered the political lexicon when similar cases were flagged off in UP, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala with right-wing organisations like the RSS and the BJP alleging a conspiracy by the Muslim community targeting Hindu women who were honey trapped for conversion to Islam.
Kushinagar — a communal cauldron
Intimidation by the HYV runs deep in Kushinagar, popular in the tourist circuit as the resting place of Lord Buddha, the place of Mahanirvana. Gorakhpur activist Parvez Parvaz says it is a ground for experimenting with communalism for the right-wing HYV. “The Muslim community is socially very weak and the HYV has a free hand as it has the support and backing of Adityanath. They instigate communal violence and hatred wherever they reach,’’ he said.
In 2008, after Parvez moved Allahabad High Court, police filed a case against five BJP leaders, including Adityanath and party workers, for instigating communal riots in Gorakhpur. The 2007 riots had lasted a fortnight with 10 members of the Muslim community being killed. The Supreme Court had halted prosecution against the accused and asked the Uttar Pradesh government to submit its report. “This case had reined in the terror of HYV in Gorakhpur. Before 2007, MP Adityanath would be on ground, giving hate speeches and riling up HYV youth against the Muslims,” Parvez said.
Senior lawyer and Kushinagar resident Shafiullah Khan has defended hundreds of HYV activists in courts after the 2007 Gorakhpur riots. “Kushinagar is undoubtedly the biggest ground for HYV. Every village has a saffron board with the names of local members and office bearers displayed at the entrance.’’ HYV’s influence can be seen when its members take to the streets flaunting saffron scarves. “The police and the administration will not take any action against an HYV member. Till date, there has been no conviction of any HYV member in a communal case, as their names never appear in the charge sheet,’’ Khan said.
With the multiphased state elections beginning February 11, Muslims are fearful of violence breaking out. Muzaffarnagar riots, that began with an incident of harassment of a Hindu Jaat girl by a Muslim boy are still a fresh reference on how things can go bad.
Kushinagar is reeling from communal clashes in Batrauli village in October during Navratri and Muharram procession. More than 50 Muslim families were on the run, their houses locked, shops and jaggery making units destroyed. It started on a bizarre note when the sarpanch (village chief) came riding on an elephant wanting to carry a procession through the narrow lanes adjoining the local mosque which was objected by the Muslim community. Within minutes the crowd gathered and set houses of the Muslims on fire. Local families said many from this crowd were outsiders belonging to the HYV. Sensing a flare-up, police stepped in and prevented HYV leaders including Rajeshwar Singh from visiting Batrauli on the day of the riots.
The administration says it is on an alert for any communal violence and acts directly on any complaint—in a neutral stance it has registered cases against both Hindus and Muslims. HYV leader Singh, hoping for an election ticket, has demanded that the administration release the Hindu men and drop their names. “This riot was done by the Muslims; they have run away and burnt their houses. Not a single Hindu will be arrested in this case,’’ he said.
District Magistrate Shambhu Kumar rejected the claim of HYV’s command on police. “They like to project themselves as powerful. We are controlling the situation,” said Kumar.
Families try hard to keep news of incidents tight as the girls are still to be married off. Only a few of such cases are lodged with the police as the girls say they are harassed and threatened by the abusers who happen to be neighbours in the same village, pressurising to withdraw the complaints
— Muhammad Anwaar Siddiqui, Local journalist
My family is angry because I married a Hindu. Every couple has some problems, we also had some. I do everything as a Hindu, pray to god, fast and live as my in-laws tell me to do
— Zubeida alias Ameesha Thakur, a convert
No parents would want their daughters to marry willingly. Sometimes these girls are underage or have no documents to prove their age, in such cases we take their statements in front of a district magistrate. Some of them voluntarily choose to marry the opposite community
— Bharat Kumar Yadav, Superintendent of Police