Travelling through Western Uttar Pradesh for a story, these are experts from my dairy.
The sun is turning a shade of flaming orange towards the end of a cold December afternoon. There is a slight nip in the air as I sit down to interview a young man in a city in Western Uttar Pradesh.
I have walked in with trepidation for this interview but as a journalist I have decided to investigate what lies beyond the headlines. We sit down to talk about the recent conversions in Agra. He corrects me, “ghar wapsi.”
“Madam do you know our history? Muslims came into this country as invaders and forced these people to convert by the fear of sword. We haven’t re-converted them. We have brought them back to their rightful home.”
“We live in a democracy. They have nothing to fear now,” he adds.
We talked about home coming of hundreds of thousands of people. And the girls who have been rescued and brought back home too. “Girls?”
I am told how Muslim boys stand outside girls colleges and “make gullible Hindu girls fall in love with him.” Once blinded in love, the girls lose the ability to think. They become ready to convert. He tells me about the counseling session that are held with girls and their parents when they come to know of the trap these girls have fallen into.
He tells me how his heart bleeds and his eyes fill with tears during these motivational discussions. How he feels belittled that “anyone can come and take away our sisters. Is this what is left of our Hindu culture?”
Not more than 250 kilometers away, in the capital city of India the day is going to be filled with marches, discussions, protests and safety audits. It’s 16th December. Two years after the girl on the bus was brutally gang-raped and left for dead.
Her death has been a turning point for the feminist movement. For women to have control over their bodies. For consent. For being unapologetic in public spaces. For making private spaces safe for them. The battle is long and hard.
And as the sun is going down, the sky is dashed with orange, I wonder if it is a losing battle.
I travel to cities, towns and villages in Uttar Pradesh. I meet people who belong to Muslim, Christian and Hindu faiths. I meet people who converted, who-reconverted, who remain in a state of limbo.
I meet a 60 year old who hides his Bible in a locker in house. He was “brought home” by the Right wing groups earlier this year. He cries as he tells me Christ or Ram, they are all messengers of the God. “How can I choose either if I just choose God?” There is a human tragedy underneath the stories of coercion and conversion. Of people torn. Of losing faith in the garb of religion.
On a sunny morning I am meeting a few more activists from Bajrang Dal and VHP. “Madam, it’s the women. They have forgotten our culture. They are easily swayed. They are villagers and don’t know right from wrong. That’s why we hold awareness camps.” I am shown a list of villages where people have converted to Christianity. “We’ll go to all of them for awareness programs,” I am told.
I am told how women used to wake up at 4.00 AM and light a diya under the Tusli plant. Now they wake up at 10.00 AM and are busy on Facebook and Whatsapp. They need to be reminded of their cultural values.
A 22 year old young activist is dressed in a jacket, jeans and sneakers. He wants to show me a Whatsapp video of cows being slaughtered. Squeamish, I say, “No.” he turns to my colleague who also refuses to see it. Disappointed he keeps phone back in his jacket pocket.
He tells me he used to work in a Gurgaon mall as a salesman. But in a bid to impress me he tells me, he was the store manager. It was an international brand. But it’s closed now.
Another activist tells me how he’s always dreamt of travelling aborad. “I’ll start with Thailand. They have temples…you know?” I nod. “Then maybe Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.”
At the cusp of modernity and tradition, global and local, I wonder if they will start questioning their values as India progresses further?
On a grey winter evening, after the evening prayers I meet a Muslim scholar and we talk about the conversion issue. He bemoans that radicalizing the Hindu masses creates a reaction – radicalization of a segment of Muslims. The vicious cycle begins. And continues.
And of course the question veers off to “How many times do we have to prove that we are Indians?”
A few days later I am reminded of him when a Hindu activist asks me, “What do we do about the Pakistan in our very own country? You should see them cheering Pakistan in all the India Pakistan cricket matches.”
One sunny afternoon, I sit with them to learn the organizational structure of the Sangh Parivar. They have local, district, regional, state-wise and national units. They have volunteers starting from village-level going up to town, city and regional level. They are an organized bunch with a vast network to tap into. Just like political parties.
“Where do you get volunteers?” I ask.
They start with schools and local sports events and social services like health and awareness camps. Young minds are the easiest to influence or in their word, “to inculcate Hindu cultural values.” A volunteer tells me he started at 13. Now he is part of the cow protection unit in the city.
“What else do you do?”
“This and that…,” his voice falters. A moment later he is bragging to me about a legal case pending against him while he was trying to save cows from being slaughtered.
The intelligentsia, the voices from the liberal left, the centrists are no match for these organized armies of men.