The Uttar Pradesh Anti-Terrorist Squad arrested Islamic scholar Maulana Kaleem Siddiqui in Meerut on Tuesday night on charges of alleged illegal religious conversions, reported PTI. Siddiqui is one of the prominent clerics from western Uttar Pradesh and the president of Global Peace Center as well as Jamia Imam Waliullah Trust.

The Anti-Terrorist Squad claimed that Siddiqui was running India’s “biggest [religious] conversion syndicate”. Uttar Pradesh Additional Director General (Law and Order) Prashant Kumar said the Anti Terrorist Squad found that Siddiqui’s Jamia Imam Waliullah Trust was conducting illegal religious conversions in the name of running “communal harmony” programmes.

According to Siddique’s YouTube channel, he established the Jamiyat Imam Waliullah Trust for charity work.

Kumar said that the investigation by the Anti-Terrorist Squad revealed Siddiqui’s role in the racket. He alleged that Siddiqui used to threaten and mislead people for conversion and prepared them for dawah, the act of inviting or calling people to embrace Islam.

Kumar alleged that Siddiqui’s trust received huge amounts of foreign funds. “Investigation shows Maulana Kaleem Siddiqui’s trust received Rs 3 crore in foreign funding including Rs 1.5 crore from Bahrain,” Kumar claimed, according to ANI.

He claimed that Siddiqui used to fund madrasas and received money through illegal means for this. The police officer further claimed that Siddiqui distributed his self-written literature for free for the purpose of conversion.

“He was trying to ensure that people believe that only shariyat arrangement could give justice to them,” the police officer alleged. “He used to emphasise that issues like Triple Talaq should be dealt under the light of shariyat.”

Meanwhile, Aam Aadmi Party MLA Amanatullah Khan called Siddique’s arrest a political move.

“Famous Islamic scholar Maulana Kalim Siddiqui Sahab has been arrested ahead of the elections in Uttar Pradesh,” he said on Twitter. “The atrocities on Muslims are increasing. The silence of secular parties on these issues is giving more strength to the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. How much more will BJP fall to win the UP elections?”

Previous arrests in the case

With Siddique’s arrest, 11 people have been arrested in the case so far.

In June, the Anti-Terrorist Squad had arrested two other clerics for allegedly converting 1,000 people to Islam. The police had said that the two accused Mufti Kazi Jahageer Alam and Mohammad Umar Gautam ran an organisation named Islamic Dawah Centre with their associates. They had claimed that the organisation was involved in large-scale religious conversions for the past 18 months.

On Wednesday, Kumar claimed the investigation showed that Gautam and Alam received Rs 57 crore from the Al-Falaa Trust in the United Kingdom but they did not give details of its expenditure.

“Foreign funding was done for this [conversion] in a big way and the illegal conversion was being carried out in a planned and organised way and many well-known institutions are involved in it,” the police officer claimed.

After the arrest of the two clerics, the Anti-Terrorist Squad had arrested eight more people, who they claimed had carried out religious conversions under the banner of Islamic Dawah Centre.

The police had claimed that the accused persons were luring women, children, the unemployed and the poor for conversion by offering education, marriage, jobs and money.

The accused persons have been booked under the anti-conversion law, the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2020, and provisions of the Indian Penal Code.

Earlier this month, a court of the Anti Terrorist Squad in Lucknow had also invoked charges under sections 121-A (conspiracy to commit offences punishable by section 121) and 123 (concealing with intent to facilitate design to wage war) against the eight accused persons.

The police have also arrested a sign language expert working in the Union Ministry of Child and Family Welfare, identified as Irfan Khwaja Khan, in connection with the case.

UP’s anti-conversion law

Uttar Pradesh’s anti-conversion law, enacted in February, is aimed at penalising “love jihad” – a pejorative term coined by right-wing groups to push the conspiracy theory that Muslim men charm Hindu women into marrying them with the sole purpose of converting their brides to Islam.

Under the law, a person who wants to convert and the individual who is performing the conversion have to seek permission from a 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 also makes religious conversion punishable if it has been done by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion or allurement.

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.