Bharuch, on the mouth of river Narmada, is about 200 kms from Ahmedabad. I have very early memories of visiting the place with family. My grandmother was born and brought up in Bharuch and I have grown up hearing stories of how she had seen Gandhiji walk towards the Dandi beach on the historic Salt March in 1930.
Earlier in January, I was in Surat covering the stories of forced religious conversion as well as cases where loopholes of Disturbed Areas Act were exploited. You could read them here, here and here. While in Surat, I borrowed my cousin’s car and drove about 80 kms to Bharuch to learn more about the recently reported mass religious conversion cases.
Amod is a taluka in Bharuch district. It falls on the ‘Dandi heritage route’.
When you take the right turn from the national highway towards Amod Taluka, which has a population of about 1 lakh people (in 2011), you are welcomed with huge masjids which are well constructed with beautiful stonework. Even cities don’t have such huge masjids as this little town with a population of about 32% Muslims had.
For a small town, the place does have a lot of masjids, as one can see from above map.
Little further, you take a left turn on the main road and drive on a single lane state highway/road which takes you in the interior of the taluka. If you have ever driven on state highways in India you would remember seeing those blue boards which point you to some obscure villages which are further in the interior.
I always wondered how these villages were. As a city girl, I had never been to a ‘village’ and for me they were always a romanticised concept heavily inspired from movies.
In Amod when I took the left turn towards Kankariya village, the roads started getting narrower and there was hardly anyone else on the road. Occasionally one would see a herd of cows and buffaloes walking back home to the villages. I missed the turn towards the village because the signboard was rusted and the text on it had faded. I called up my source for direction to the village.
When I took yet another turn towards the village, the road got even narrower. Babool trees planked both sides of the narrow road and my mobile phone network disappeared.
I was on my own in a strange place where I knew no one.
It was in this village that in the past few years mass religious conversion to Islam had taken place of tribals from the Vasava community.
I spoke to a few people in the village who were lured to convert to Islam on the promise of money, food and job offers. They opened up on how they were lured and what finally got them to speak up and file a police complaint against it. Since there is a threat to their life and there have been attacks on some of them, I am not revealing their real names.
Prakash (name changed) converted to Islam in 2018 and became Salman Patel. In November 2021, he filed a police complaint against 9 people. On November 15, 2021, Amod Police had registered an offence under the Gujarat Freedom for Religion Bill. Following the complaint accused Abdul Aziz Patel (Ajitbhai Chhagan Vasava), Yusuf Jivan Patel (Mahendra Jivan Vasava), Ayub Barkat Patel (Raman Barkat Vasava), Ibrahim Punabhai Patel (Jitubhai Punabhai Vasava) all residents of Kakariya village in Amod taluka were arrested.
On December 16, Bharuch Police arrested six more accused in the case. Yakub Ibrahim Shanker from Patan, Rizwan Mehboob Patel from Palej, Thakorbhai Girdharbhai Vasava, Sajid Mohammed Patel and Yusuf Patel from Amod while Ayub Bashir Patel from Jambusar were arrested.
How poor tribals were lured to convert to Islam
When you enter the Kankariya village, you can see that there is only one house in the village that is a ‘pakka house’, the two-room house of the village sarpanch. “We are very poor people here. We work in the fields here, most of which are owned by Muslim landowners. For us, even Rs 500 is a big deal,” Prakash said.
Thakorbhai Girdharbhai Vasava, one of the accused named in the original FIR, was one of the shop owners. Shabbir and Samaj Bakerywala, also accused named in FIR, were his suppliers. They lured Vasava to convert to Islam first back in 2008-09, Prakash said. Subsequently, he took Ajit Chhagan Vasava (also named as an accused in FIR) and converted him to Islam a few months later. After them, about 5-6 people from the village converted to Islam.
The seventh person to convert to Islam from the village in 2009 was the one who would carry out bhajan and aarti in the village temple. That is when the villagers protested. The villagers asked Thakor and others to either revert to Hinduism or leave the village. All 7 men then left the village. While Thakor left the village for good, the remaining six returned to the village and decided to revert to Hinduism sometime in 2009-10.
Except, Ajit Vasava, who had reverted to Hinduism, has now started to convert people to Islam again. Between 2010 to 2018, 37 tribal families were converted to Islam. This continued till 2021 till the FIR was filed.
“In a village where we live in jhopdis and don’t have permanent structures like homes, Ajit’s house was turned into an ‘Ibadat Ghar’ (prayer house). It was built at the expense of Rs 16 lakh,” Prakash said. He added that the Ibadat Ghar was used for offering namaz and preaching Islam. A maulana, who used to run a madarsa too, would come from Achhod (a nearby village) for preaching,” he said.
Money, insulting Hindu gods and goddesses and brainwashing: How tribals were converted to Islam
“It was a racket they were running. They would call for money, including foreign funds, by claiming that they are giving it to us as they promised us money if we converted to Islam. But if they would ask for Rs 1 lakh per person converted, they would pay us only Rs 500 to Rs 2,000. Crores would come in our name but they never reached us,” Prakash said.
He further said that Ajit would claim entire village has converted to Islam and call in money in their name.
When inquired what were they taught upon conversion to Islam, Prakash said that they were taught how to do the namaz (Islamic prayer). “We were told that there is nothing like Hinduism. Hinduism is not a religion because everyone prays to different gods. ‘How can there be so many gods?’ we were told,” said Prakash.
He further informed that they regularly defamed Hindu gods and goddesses and used derogatory terms for them to ‘prove’ that Hinduism is bad and Islam is the one and true pure religion. “We were told about the story of Parvati and Ganesh. How when once Goddess Parvati was having a bath and Ganesh ji was standing guard. They said that Lord Shiva got angry and beheaded Ganesh ji. ‘What kind of father would not recognise his own son?’ they would ask. They further said that it was cruel to kill an innocent elephant to use the head for Ganesh ji. ‘If Lord Shiva was a real god, he would have brought back his son to life’, they would tell us,” Prakash said.
He further said how derogatory language was also used to defame Lord Ram. “They told us that it is not good to worship Lord Ram. ‘Lord Ram wasn’t god, he was a king, a human and so why should we worship another human? we were told,” he said. They were also told how the prasad offered to gods often have flies on them. “If your (Hindus) god was that powerful, will they let the flies be on food? If that god cannot get rid of flies from prasad, how will he protect you?” they were told.
“We were told that in the Godhra carnage, (PM) Modi and (HM) Shah actually burned alive Muslims inside the train and then claimed that Hindus were killed. They told us that there was no temple at the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya and that it will always be a mosque,” he said.
Prakash also said that they were told how women must be kept in pardah and not let them go out without burqa. “They also wanted to train us for jihadi attacks. They inspired us for suicide attacks and told us that by dying for the deen (religion/faith) we will get jannat (heaven). We were told that it is not a crime to kill kaafirs (non-Muslims), who do idol worship. These radical things were told after a few years of us being Muslims,” he said.
Funding for forced religious conversions
“Aapka paigam London pahucha diya hai, achha kaam ho raha hai (your message has been conveyed to London. You guys are doing a good job),” One of the prime accused in the conversion racket, Haji Abdullah Fefdawala can be heard saying in a video that had gone viral earlier.
Fefdawala in above video says that he is from London. “I came to know about you guys that you have embraced Islam. I have come to specially meet you. I will pass on your message in London that Allah has accepted you. Now you are our brothers as per Kalma. We will provide all possible help we could,” he said. In the undated video, he could be heard saying that he has passed on the message in London that he is in Kankariya village in Amod where 37 families had turned to Islam. He thanked ‘Ajit bhai’ for the help. He then asks ‘Ajit bhai’ if they need any help with respect to food, houses or any such financial aids.
Currently, an arrest warrant is issued against Haji Fefdawala. Originally from Nabipur near Bharuch, he currently lives in London.
In October last year, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of Vadodara city police found that city-based American Federation of Muslims Of Indian Origin (AFMI) had routed hawala funds for activities including construction of 400 flats for ‘displaced’ Bangladeshi and Rohingya Muslims near Ghaziabad. It was also accused of funding maulvis near the Indo-Nepal border.
Salauddin Sheikh is one of the trustees of AFMI. Sheikh started the trust after getting influenced by Islamic preacher Zakir Naik in Mumbai a few years back. His name had also surfaced in the Uttar Pradesh mass conversion racket where Umar Gautam is one of the prime suspects.
Haji Fefdawala is also accused of giving a provocative speech in Vadodara in 2019 and had invoked the 2002 Gujarat riots which took place in aftermath of the burning down of a train in Godhra where Hindu karsevaks returning from Ayodhya were burnt alive. He had said that in 2003, he set up the trust in the UK where he contacted about 125 donors and started sending donation money to India. Fefdawala had said that the money was collected to strengthen the community so it can ‘defend itself against attacks from other religions’. For an hour, Fefdawala continued to speak about ‘strengthening community’ in Gujarat.
The said event was also attended by Salahuddin Sheikh and Umar Gautam, who were recently arrested for their involvement in hawala and religious conversion. It is believed Fefdawala has routed ‘donations’ of over Rs 150 crore in the past 18 years to India.
In December 2021, after Vadodara Police sent a report, the Union Home Ministry cancelled the FCRA licence of AFMI trust. Police have also started the process of issuing Red Corner notice for Fefdawala and Mustafa Thanawala, two of the biggest beneficiaries of the Trust.
Hawala and terror funding
According to a report by Indian Express, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Vadodara City, said that the money through the trust was misused for various Islamic activities including illegal religious conversion, construction of mosques and funding individuals for activities in Kashmir and near the India-Nepal border. Fefdawala and Thanawala have reportedly disabled their communication channels and are not responding to the summons. The investigation further revealed that Salauddin Sheikh had arranged for money for two people for carrying out religious conversion to Islam.
In November 2021, a charge sheet filed by the SIT revealed that of the Rs 80 crore received by AFMI which are under probe, Rs 1.65 crore were siphoned off by presenting fake invoices in collusion with one IH Kasuwala Trust. The Police have also accused that the Trust routed foreign funds for fuelling the February 2020 anti-Hindu riots in Delhi as well as the anti-CAA protests which turned violent as well.
Salauddin Sheikh along with Umar Gautam of Indian Dawah Centre are currently booked under various sections of the IPC and are currently in the custody of the Uttar Pradesh ATS.
One of the prominent ways to fund such activities is routing through over-invoicing and GST refunds said a source in the know of the things. “If the government is really serious, they would check these sales of diamonds from Surat. Over invoicing or under-invoicing for diamonds and textiles, two of the main products from Surat, are very prominent ways to route money to India ‘legally’ while hoodwinking the authorities. Most of the money is routed through Dubai from Pakistan,” he said.
Most of the money routed in such a way is used for terror funding, he added. “A person sells diamond worth Rs 10 to person B in say Dubai. He creates an invoice of Rs 1,000 and pays Rs 1,000 in Dubai. Money is then withdrawn immediately in India and taxes are paid on this remittance. This is the new legal way of hawala,” said the source.
He further said that quite often some Trusts bring in money from foreign countries in name of ‘funding madarsas and uplifting of poor people of community’ but then they get diverted to terror funding. Recently, one such Trust based in Surat was in news for their ‘good work’ carried out during the coronavirus pandemic. However, sources in the know of the things say that the Trust has dubious links and charity is a facade.
Other such shady trusts are in Bharuch which run hospitals. Quite prominent hospitals in Bharuch are also centres for religious conversion. “Women are brought from the tribal belt and are trained to be nurses. Eventually, they are promised better life, money and job and converted to Islam,” said a source in Bharuch who helped the tribal families of Kankariya village to file police complaints and revert to Hinduism.
A source in Surat said that some prominent lawyers, businessmen of the Muslim community are also involved in such money laundering but escape the law because of the lackadaisical attitude of the administration.