BAGHPAT, Uttar Pradesh — "I am no longer Akhtar Ali. My name is Dharam Singh," said the 65-year-old man who, on 1 October, informed the government of Uttar Pradesh that he had changed his religion from Islam to Hinduism.
Surrounded by family and friends in his native village of Badrakha village in the Baghpat district of western UP, Ali, now Singh, choked up as he spoke: "I saw my son hanging. I'm a broken man. My family is broken. We have suffered for days and nights. The image of my son hanging will never leave me, but the police did not even register my FIR."
"I have become Hindu in the hope of getting justice for my son. It is the biggest sacrifice I could make, but if it means that my son will get justice, then I'm happy to do it," he said.
While Singh says he was forced to change his religion after feeling that both his community members and the police have abandoned him, Muslims in Newada village, half an hour's drive away from Badrakha, have a different story to tell. The gap in their tales and the perceived failure of the state to deliver justice have given local Hindutva forces a chance to swoop in as benevolent benefactors.
I have become Hindu in the hope of getting justice for my son.
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Even as Singh and three of his sons tried to present a single narrative of their religious conversion, an afternoon spent with them revealed that their attempts to present a united front to the world sometimes wore thin.
As Singh's sons gathered around him while he spoke to HuffPost India, Zakir Hussain, the eldest, remained silent and would not meet his eye. Neither Hussain nor his wife and their children have converted to Hinduism.
Dilshad, the second in line, who has converted along with his wife and five children, is now Daler Singh. Naushaad, who comes next, is now Narendra Singh, but his wife has refused to convert. Irshad, the fourth son, has also converted, but his wife left him as a consequence and returned to her maternal home. Singh's wife has also converted.
It was the alleged murder of Gulhasan, the youngest of the five brothers, that forced the family to convert in order to draw attention to themselves.
Dilshad says, "We did not want to change our religion quietly in our house. We wanted the country to know that these Muslims have become Hindu."
We wanted the country to know that these Muslims have become Hindu.
The family claims that on the morning of 23 July, they found Gulhasan hanging from a hook in a shop they were renting in the Muslim village of Newada. The family had moved there in February this year because of its proximity to Baghpat city.
Their relatives and neighbours in Newada, say the family of cloth sellers, were complicit in the crime and attempted to cover it up. Villagers in Newada, however, say that Gulhasan committed suicide and that it was Singh who drove him to take his life.
Last Tuesday, a havan was arranged in the Shiv Mandir in Badrakha, where the Hanuman Chalisa was recited, and the Ali family converted to Hinduism.
"We are not extreme people," said Shokendra Kochar, the Uttar Pradesh head of the Yuva Hindu Vahini—not to be confused with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's now disbanded Hindu Yuva Vahini. "We did not force anyone to convert. They came to us."
The 40-year-old property dealer, who had arranged the havan, said that a Hindu farmer was letting Singh and his family live rent-free in his house in Badrakha village. The family moved back there the same month Gulhasan died.
"They have been abandoned by Muslims. We do not see this as a religious conversion. This is ghar wapsi. They told us that they were Hindus before and they are Hindus again," said Kochar.
"Hindus are happy to welcome them back," he added.
This is ghar wapsi. They told us that they were Hindus before and they are Hindus again.
Singh has accused four people, including two of his nephews, of murdering his son following a dispute in their extended family. He has also accused the villagers of Newada of trying to cover up the crime by taking Gulhasan's body down from the hook and preparing for it to be buried before the police arrived on the scene.
"He was murdered. He was poisoned, but on the morning that we found him, 300-400 Muslims in the village got in our house and accused us of killing him," he said.
Singh also says that the FIR he had registered at the police station in Baghpat was torn up by the daroga in charge, Dharmendra Singh Sindhu, who he alleges also forced him to sign a blank piece of paper.
On the allegation of the FIR being torn, Shailesh Kumar Pandey, Superintendent of Police in Baghpat, said that Singh should file a complaint and it would be investigated.
The family accuses Rifaqat Ali, the former village pradhan, of urging them to bury the body and Sarwar, the current village pradhan, of trying to influence the result of the post-mortem report.
"When the police personnel came to the village, they did not even meet us. They only spoke with the pradhan and the former pradhan," alleged Dilshad, the son.
Gulhasan's post-mortem report suggests, but does not conclude, that he committed suicide, according to the Baghpat police. Over the past two months, Singh says that he has written to senior police officials asking them to intervene in his son's case. The family even tried to complain to Adityanath, but he did not meet them.
"Why did the police not help us?" asked Dilshad.
In Newada village, however, Singh's former neighbours accuse him and his family members of concealing what they say was a suicide. Gulhasan, they say, was unhappy about his young bride staying with her parents after they were married. Despite his father-in-law's objections, he would visit his wife at her maternal home. His father-in-law, neighbours say, complained to Singh, who beat him up the night before he was found hanging in the shed.
The villagers also accuse Singh and his family members of taking the body down and preparing for it to be buried before the police arrived on the scene. "They told me that the boy has hanged himself. They said 'please save our son from a post-mortem and bury him', but we informed the police," said Rifaqat Ali, the former village pradhan of Newada.
In August, a local court ordered the UP police to register a case against the four persons that Singh had accused. The family also wants the police to exhume Gulhasan's body and carry out a second post-mortem.
SP Pandey said that while the first post-mortem report had suggested suicide, the matter was still under investigation. The report has been sent for analysis to a medico-legal expert in Lucknow.
A second-post mortem, said Pandey, would require permission from the District Magistrate.
Baghpat district magistrate Rishirendra Kumar told HuffPost India that the "case was not very old" and the police was carrying out a "proper theoretical investigation".
"The injuries suggest that he hanged himself but the cause of death was not made clear in the post mortem report," said Pandey. "It says 'asphyxia due to anti mortem injury,' which is a very general term. It could mean that I hanged myself or someone forcefully strangulated me. It should have been made clear in the report, but it was not."
Pandey said that the "oblique ligature marks with a gap of 11 cm" on the neck suggested self-hanging as opposed to the "round-the-neck horizontal marks" that appear when some is strangulated.
"The gap is really important in deciding whether it is a suicide or murder. There won't be a gap if someone ties a rope around the neck and pulls it," he said.
"Still, we have not declared it is a suicide in our investigation despite the symptoms. If they are accusing the police of making this a suicide, it is still not a suicide in our case diary," he said.
Pandey, who took over as Baghpat SP in September, asked why neither Singh nor his sons had informed the police as soon as they found the body. The SP also said that it was troubling that the body was taken down before the police arrived.
"The general opinion was that he was about to cremate his son's body. Neither he nor his sons dialed 100. He should have first informed us," he said.
The Singh family, however, insist that it was their relatives and neighbours who had rushed to take down the body and then moved to bury it. "Thankfully, a concerned relative came and told us that we should get a postmortem done or we would end up getting blamed," said Dilshaad.
Pandey says that according to the post-mortem report, there was only one other injury on Gulhasan's body, a 2-3 cm abrasion on the right knee, but the family insists they saw multiple injuries.
Conflict in the family
When asked what he would do if converting to Hinduism also failed to deliver justice, Singh said that he would take shahada, which is incantation for converting to Islam.
Even before he could finish his sentence, his son Dilshad, now Daler Singh, cut him off. "Please don't speak what you don't know." Turning to this reporter, he said, "We are Hindus now and happy to be Hindus. The Muslims in our community have treated us badly. There is nothing to go back to."
Devendar Kumar, the soft-spoken village dentist, and a member of the Yuva Hindu Vahini, also reproached Singh. "That is wrong. You must not say such things," he said. "We have full confidence that our government, the Yogi government, will get us justice. We are Hindus."
We have full confidence that our government, the Yogi government, will get us justice. We are Hindus.
In the three-hour-long conversation with HuffPost India, Dilshad interrupted his father and brothers several times.
When his younger brother Naushaad said he believed that Hindu police personnel would take Hindus more seriously than Muslims, Dilshad asked him to keep quiet. Naushaad, however, persisted. "You walk into a police station and they say 'musalman, musalman'," he said, before he was cut off again.
Dilshad interrupted, "We have full confidence in Modi ji and Yogi ji. They will bring us justice."
When Dilshad insisted that Naushaad's wife had converted, the younger brother cried out in protest. "She has not. It is her choice."
Zakir, Dilshad's elder brother, who was quiet for most of the conversation, said that he wanted justice for his brother, but he could not bring himself to change his religion. "I could not do it," he said. "How will changing our religion get us justice?"
How will changing our religion get us justice?
Still offering namaz
At this point, Kumar, the Yuva Hindu Vahini member, insisted that the Ali family were Hindus before they were forcibly converted during the reign of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.
Zakir visibly squirmed at this remark but still kept quiet.
While Kumar continued building a case for Hinduism and against Islam, Naushad's wife was offering namaz on the floor above him. "I don't care if he is Hindu or Christian, I won't change my religion. I'm Muslim. I want to read the Koran," said Rupaiya.
I don't care if he is Hindu or Christian, I won't change my religion.
Zakir also said that he would continue offering namaz five times a day.
Dilshad, his younger brother, mockingly asked him if knew how many sajdaas were offered in a namaz. "If he is such a faithful then he should be able to tell us how many sajdaas there are in the namaz," he said.
But even as the rest of the family bickered, it is Irshad, now the youngest of the brothers, who has the most to lose.
Even as he put up a brave front in front of his friends and family, Irshad is in agony over his wife's departure. "I told her that I had to do this for my family, but she had a choice. She said that she would not change her religion," he said. "Her father has said that he cannot allow her to be married if I am Hindu."
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