My Visit to Kabaadi Basti Agra:
On December 20, 2014, I visited the Kabadi Basti, behind Vednagar colony, Agra where 60 Bengali speaking Muslim rag pickers were reported to have converted to Hinduism 12 days earlier. The TV channels and newspapers gave it an extensive coverage. There was debate in Parliament too. I wanted to see the truth of the ordeal these poor countrymen went through.
I reached Agra from Delhi by Kanyakumari Express at 11:30 AM. In 20 minutes auto rickshaw took me to Vednagar. As I walked into the hutments, the heaps of waste items were visible around every hut. Some children were sitting on a mat and reading their elementary books, some in Hindi, some in Urdu. Some children bore Islamic caps. I asked their names. They were all Muslims. Most huts were closed as men and women had gone to their (rag picking) work. Some people were there. There were dozens of policemen, large number of media persons and citizens from other parts of Agra as UP Minority Commission members were visiting the place. An elderly person with red tilak on his forehead was sitting on a cot. As I wished him, he introduced himself as Subhash, ex-Corporator of Agra. He wanted to talk, but I told that let me talk to local people first.
I went to a hut where four young age ladies, belonging to West Bengal, were sitting. They looked little fearful to talk. Language was also a barrier. I introduced myself and talked about their work. When I asked, “Have you accepted Hinduism”, they said “No. We are Muslims.” They expressed surprise over how this big propaganda has been carried out.
Middle aged Abu Talib, who hails from Kolkata, opened up more. Simplicity was there on his face and in his words. He said that no one changed religion. “We are poor people, living here for 12 years. Prior to this we lived in Delhi slums. When those slums were uprooted by the government, we had to move out. Some of us have ration cards, some do not have. Two weeks ago some people came and told us that they would get us ration cards and Aadhar cards. One day they brought material for yagna and held yagna in the common space between the huts. They asked us to attend. Some of us attended the yagna, the same way as many Hindus attend religious programs of their Muslim brethren in the country. There was no talk of changing religion.” Then I talked to other residents, some of whom were cooking daal and rice in big containers for collective eating, they said, “This is the site where Yagna was performed. We attended it in good faith with no idea of conversion. Next day we learnt from the newspapers that we had become Hindus. We were surprised. We have done no conversion. We are Muslims. We are poor working class people. We do not know why are we dragged into this controversy.“ Similar things were told by other residents. Ex-Corporator Subhash said that RSS/ BJP had played a sinister game but now it has been exposed. I talked to policemen. They said that there was no security issue. I talked to minority commission members at substantial length.
Reg pickers are rendering valuable service to the nation while themselves living in dirt, under most trying conditions. Their faith is not demonstrative, but reflects in their living, conduct and behaviour. They have the fundamental right to have ration cards, Aadhar cards, schooling, health care, gainful employment and freedom from intimidation and fear. Religious chauvinists, who humiliate native countrymen by branding them as Bangladeshis are a menace. Freedom from subjugation and exploitation is the issue. Changing the label of religion is not the issue for the masses.
Religious freedom is a right of every individual. A person can change to any religion suitable to his/ her spiritual urges. But no one should be told that if you have to live here you must convert or live the way we dictate. This is an imperialist design. The communalists create the façade of religious conversions in the past to humiliate and polarize masses now. In the medieval period people converted to Islam under the influence of Sufis. Many saw in it liberation from the caste oppression. In recent past Dr. Ambedkar and many others converted to Buddhism to stress the same point. May the state take stern steps to stop religious humiliation of people.
(Written by Professor V.K. Tripathi, a senior professor of Physics at IIT-Delhi and founder of social organization Sadbhav Mission.)