This Article is From Dec 11, 2014

In Agra's Rag Pickers' Colony, Conversion Just Means a New Name

Fifty-odd couples were converted in Agra on Monday.

Agra: Religious conversion was far from the minds of Agra's 50-odd couples when they turned up for a small ceremony conducted by the Bajrang Dal on Monday. And now that they have been declared Hindus, not much has changed. Except maybe a name. (Read: Conversions row in Parliament)

For as long as she remembers, 38-year-old Shariffa has been collecting, separating and selling garbage. Now she is called Sanjeeta. Her husband Mohammed doesn't even remember his new name. "They named me Rajkumar or Ranjeet, I don't remember," he said with an embarrassed smile.

The rag pickers' shanties at Ved Nagar - where 250-odd people live and recycle almost anything that Agra throws away - stands out like sore among tastefully done-up bungalows.

"They promised us BPL (Below Poverty Line) ration cards, money to build a house and our children's schooling, even free medical facilities," said Ismail, the "headman" of the colony, where, on a good day, a ragpicker earns Rs 200.

The Bajrang Dal men told them there will be a small ceremony where politicians, officials and media would come. "On Monday, they came with an idol and asked the women to come in burkhas and men in skull caps," Ismail said.

"They requested us to participate in the puja. We didn't make too much of it. But after the puja was over, they said we had become Hindus," said 22-year-old Mohammad Rafique.

Now, while a political battle rages over the conversions, the "converted" men and women can't quite understand why they were tricked.

"We are poor, so perhaps greedy. We agreed to join the ceremony thinking that each will get a concrete house. Why would we change our religion?" Sharifa said.

Behind the exercise is a shadowy figure -- Nand Kishore Valmiki.  According to Ismail, the man had approached him a month ago, promising help. Now he is wanted by the police for "spreading enmity".

At Valmiki's house, NDTV found his father Vijay Kumar, who works at the local Air Force station. "My son didn't trick anyone," he said. "He is member of the BJP and contested the municipal elections," he added.

Valmiki's party, though, has distanced itself from the conversions.  "We are committed to secularism," Union minister Muktar Abbas Naqvi has said.

But a bigger conversion ceremony is being planned on December 25 at Aligarh - which will be led by another BJP man, parliamentarian Yogi Adityanath.