On June 16, Mohammad Umar Gautam received a notice to join an interrogation the next day at Masuri police station in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. A resident of Batla House in Delhi, Gautam drove to the police station next morning and returned home later in the night.

His wife, Razia Umar, said he did not tell her much about the interrogation except that the police had asked him about his trips to Kazakhstan in 2012 and 2013, and whether he was affiliated with Canadian Islamic scholar Bilal Philips and Indian Islamic preacher Zakir Naik, who currently lives in Malaysia.

The police asked Gautam to report back to the station on June 19 with a list of documents such as his family’s bank account details and his passport. That day, he left Delhi in the morning but did not return home. His family was unaware of his whereabouts, and police officials did not give them answers except to say that Gautam had “converted 1,000 people”, said Razia Umar, 51.

“We had no clue where he was,” she said. “We had found out through a friend on Sunday [June 20] that he was being questioned by the Lucknow ATS [Anti-Terrorism Squad]. We thought they would release him.”

But Gautam, 57, did not return home on Sunday either. On Monday morning as Razia Umar switched on the television, she found photos of her husband splashed across news channels with headlines about the police busting a “conversion racket”.

Gautam and his associate Mufti Qazi Jahangir Qasmi, a cleric, had been arrested by Uttar Pradesh Police’s Anti-Terror Squad under sections of the state’s Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2020, for allegedly converting thousands by misrepresentation, force and fraud, along with other charges such as conspiracy, cheating and outraging religious feelings.

On June 22, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath directed the anti-terror squad to impose the National Security Act on the accused.

The state’s police officials told Scroll.in the investigation was ongoing and they were still collecting evidence after their initial findings. “We are still questioning the two men arrested,” said Prashant Kumar, the additional director general of law and order in Uttar Pradesh.

“It is conversion through coercion and luring through jobs and marriage,” he claimed, and further alleged that they had uncovered “a huge racket in which huge money is involved from abroad and within the country”.

A photo of Mohammad Umar Gautam, shared by his family.

What does the FIR say

According to the First Information Report filed on June 20, the squad had been receiving information for some time that “anti-national and anti-social elements” and religious organisations were using funds obtained from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, along with other foreign sources, to convert people in India from their native religion to Islam. This, the FIR claims, was being done to “change the demography” of the country and “create animosity” between religious groups.

It further alleges that these individuals and organisations particularly target vulnerable groups such as children, women, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities and those with hearing and speaking disabilities, using threats, inducements and false promises of jobs and money to convert them to Islam.

Investigations into these allegations, the FIR claims, led the police to Gautam, who allegedly admitted that he had converted thousands of people to Islam and arranged their marriages with Muslims. Gautam’s organisation Islamic Dawah Centre received a large corpus of funds from abroad, the FIR alleges. Qasmi, who is described as one of Gautam’s associates, illegally issued conversion and marriage certificates, the FIR claims.

The FIR further alleges that investigations by the Noida unit of the anti-terrorism squad revealed that vulnerable students of the Noida Deaf Society, a residential school for children with hearing disabilities, had been lured and converted to Islam, but it does not state by whom.

It claims the family of a former student, Aditya Gupta from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, registered a missing persons complaint and told the police that after religious conversion, he was taken to a state in southern India, a fact that they discovered when he made a video call to them. The family of another student, Munnu Yadav from Gurugram, Haryana, also alleged that he was converted to Islam without their knowledge or consent.

The FIR does not directly impute these two instances of alleged religious conversions to Gautam and Qasmi or explicitly elaborate on the connection between them and the former students of Noida Deaf Society.

Scroll.in contacted Noida Deaf Society’s founder Ruma Roka but she declined comment. “There has never been any religious teaching at our centre,” the society said in a statement released to the media.

In a Times of India report on June 23, Manish, an employee of the Noida Deaf Society, has been quoted as saying, “The arrested accused have never visited the society.”

The newspaper report claimed two former teachers of the institute were under the police scanner for the conversions. The family of the student from Kanpur is quoted as saying that they noticed he would only eat in the evening during Ramzan. “When questioned, the boy expressed a wish to embrace Islam,” the newspaper report said, mentioning his age as 24 years. The family reportedly told the newspaper that he left his home on March 10 and returned on June 20.

What has the police established?

At this stage, the police’s summary of the alleged crimes does not connect Gautam and Qasmi to any specific instance of wrongdoing.

“They have not directly implicated the two men for the alleged conversion of the students,” said SR Darapuri, a former Indian Police Service officer and social activist in Lucknow. The allegations against Gautam and Qasmi were “conjectures”, he said, pointing out that the police had yet to provide any evidence to establish foreign funding and links to the ISI.

“The testimony of the police does not have any authenticity,” he said. “If anyone confesses in front of the police, it is inadmissible as evidence in court. They have just made a script and are filling in the blanks.”

Prashant Kumar however added the police had “primary evidence”.

Lawyers said that sections of the anti-conversion law invoked in the FIR were problematic. “The sections invoked have been widely critiqued for their potential for misuse and their unconstitutional incursions on the freedom of expression,” said Nitika Khaitan, a lawyer based in New Delhi.

The law was introduced as an ordinance last year and converted into an Act in February. Under the law, a person who wishes to convert as well as the religious converter have to seek permission from the district magistrate.

The law specifically targets inter-faith marriages and states that it can declare a marriage illegal if it were done for the sole purpose of conversion, or if a person converts to marry. It makes religious conversion punishable if it has been done by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement

It defines allurement as “offer of any temptation” in the form of gift, gratification, “easy money”, employment, free education in reputed schools run by any religious body, better lifestyle and “divine displeasure”.

It allows for a person’s family members or any aggrieved person to file an FIR against the conversion. The punishment for such offences is up to five years, and extends to ten years if the person is found guilty of converting a minor, a woman or those from SC/ST groups. It adds the burden on the person converted or the convertor to prove they have not done so under allurement or coercion. The law however, has a caveat that if a person immediately recoverts to their previous religion then it would not be considered a conversion under the Act.

Critics and legal experts have called the law a violation of fundamental rights. “The law has been deliberately kept broad and its provisions attempt to crush those accused of a crime,” said lawyer Talha Abdul Rahman, who represented a petitioner challenging the ordinance before it became an Act.

Rahman added that the legislation was invasive because of the additional powers it gives to district magistrates. “It attempts to maintain and enforce social status quo and does not allow those who want to get out of caste hierarchies,” he said.

The legal validity of the anti-conversion law has been challenged but the matter still remains pending in the Allahabad High Court.

It was no coincidence that Gautam and Qasmi’s arrests under the anti-conversion law had sprung up months before the state’s Assembly elections, said Darapuri. “This is a sideshow to divert attention from the main issues,” he said.

The office of the Islamic Dawah Centre was shut in Jamia Nagar. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

How the investigation began

The FIR states that Gautam’s name emerged while Masuri police officials were interrogating persons in another case numbered 473/2021.

This case was filed on June 3 by a complainant named Anil Yadav. It pertains to two men – Vipul Vijay Vargiya and Kashi Gupta or Kashif – who were arrested and charged with committing an offence in a place of worship, impersonation, cheating and outraging religious feelings.

The FIR states that the men faked their identities to enter the Dasna Devi Temple in Ghaziabad on the night of June 2. They were allegedly caught with surgical blades, glass containers of medicine that appeared to be poisonous, an accupressure pump and some religious books.

The report claims that this led the complainant to believe that the men were there to assassinate the temple’s head priest Yati Narasinghanand Saraswati.

Saraswati, a rabble-rousing priest, is known for his anti-Muslim bigotry. He had allegedly made inflammatory remarks against Islam and Prophet Muhammad at an event at the Press Club of India on April 1. The Delhi Police had filed an FIR against him on April 3 but only managed to interrogate him on June 20.

However, the FIR in the case of the alleged conversions, does not specify how Gautam is linked with Vargiya and Gupta.

Gautam’s family said he did not know Kashi Gupta, but had once met Vargiya. “My husband did not know Vipul directly, he had met him once through someone else,” said Razia Umar.

Alleged conversions

Razia Umar denied the allegations that her husband was involved in converting others to Islam using force and allurements. She said Gautam started the Islamic Dawah Centre in 2010. Apart from charitable work like distributing rations and blankets to the poor, “the organisation helped those who wanted to make affidavits and get their conversions gazetted,” she said.

She denied that the centre received funds from abroad, claiming it was running into losses. Qasmi was a registered cleric who worked with the centre, she said. Scroll.in contacted Qasmi’s wife but she did not pick up calls or respond to text messages.

Before starting the centre, Gautam had worked as the project director for 15 years for Markazul Maarif, a non-profit organisation based in Assam started by Badruddin Ajmal, a member of Parliament from Dhubri. He studied at GB Pant University of Agriculture in Uttarakhand and completed his masters in Islamic Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi in 1999, she said.

The case has received prime time coverage on news channels with anchors amplifying the police’s version, and replaying videos of Gautam and Qasmi’s arrest. Zee News anchor Sudhir Chaudhary even displayed details such as names and addresses of those who had converted from their leaked conversion certificates, and alleged that a “legal shield” had been used to forcibly convert them.

A few news reports, however, have pointed out the holes in the police’s case.

Tracking a list of ‘converts’

According to some reports, the anti-terror squad tried to track some of those who had allegedly been converted by Gautam and Qasmi. These names emerged from a list compiled by police through their investigation, Prashant Kumar, the additional director general, told Times of India in a report on June 25.

From this, the search for one Abdul Samad led the police to find him as Praveen Kumar in Shitla Kheda village in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur, according to Times of India on June 25.

Kumar denied that he had been converted and showed the police two books he had authored on the achievements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the report states.

“I told them [police] no one ever tried to convert me,” Kumar was quoted saying in the report. “I am a Hindu and have always been one,” he said, adding that he was a PhD scholar and a cane development officer at a sugar mill. “Then they said my name must have been included to seek funds from outside the country.”

The state’s police officials were unable to explain why they faltered. “We will examine these things that emerge on social media, but we have primary evidence,” claimed Prashant Kumar.

Others on the list tracked down said that they had converted to Islam several years ago and denied having done so under duress, according to the Times of India. One such person named Ibrahim Khan from Khargone in Madhya Pradesh said he converted to Islam in 1998. He works as an insurance official and had approached Islamic Dawah Centre last year to procure a certificate to go for Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, according to the report.

Among those in the list was a 42-year-old woman named Ghazala from Patna, Bihar, who had converted to Islam in 1999. She dismissed the newly surfaced allegations. “Why am I being dragged into this now?” she was quoted saying in the report.

Another person on the list in Munger said he had approached the centre to change his name in February. “I had converted to Islam in 2016, adopting legal procedure, going before a magistrate,” Abdullah Ahmad, 35, was quoted in the report. “There was no pressure,” he said.

A family in distress

Meanwhile, Gautam’s family has been unable to speak to him since his arrest. At his residence in Batla House, his children were rummaging through old files and documents, bringing out photos of Gautam from his trips to Kazakhstan. He had gone to Astana, the country’s capital city, to attend the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, an interfaith forum, said his daughter, 29, who did not wish to be identified.

His wife, on the other hand, went through news articles that reported on Gautam’s conversion to Islam. “We are completely disturbed, we never thought something like this could happen,” she said.

Both Gautam and his wife were born in Hindu upper-caste Thakur families in Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh. Gautam converted to Islam in 1984 when he was 20 years old. Razia Umar, who was already engaged with him, decided to follow in his footsteps after she married him in 1985. “The law gives us the right to go into any religion,” she said.

“We were married with Hindu rituals and it did not matter to me which religion he belonged to,” she said. “My in-laws made a temple for me when we were married, but later I converted but on my own. My family never had a problem.”

But Gautam’s arrest had created suspicion among relatives. “Religion had never caused any problems [in the family] before but it has now,” she said. “Some barriers have come.”