EXCLUSIVE! Assam priest’s widow shoots down claims of “forced conversion”

Two Assam BJP leaders had alleged that the wife and son of Shiva temple priest were forcibly converted to Islam, but Parbati Das tells us that her marriage to a Muslim man happened after her first husband died, and her conversion was voluntary

Hate Speech

After two people, including a 12-year-old child, were brutally shot dead by Assam Police in Gorukhuti village of the Dholpur (Dhalpur) region of Assam’s Darrang district last week, efforts are being made by a desperate regime to deflect attention from the entire sordid state of affairs that began with the heartless eviction of as many as 800 families from their homes amidst a raging Covid-19 pandemic and heavy monsoon in a flood prone riverine region. An attempt is now being made to add a distinct communal hue to the entire exercise, perhaps also because it is election season in Assam, with five by-elections scheduled for Oct 30. This means it is also a ripe opportunity for polarisation and division, and seeking votes on the basis of hyped-up hate, instead of concrete issues. 

The top brass of the Assam Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is busy spreading the rumour that Parbati Das, the widow of Karna Das, the priest of the Shiva temple in Dhalpur, and their son, were “taken away” by Muslims. They have alleged that the widow was forced to marry a Muslim man and forcibly converted to Islam along with her son. 

But when we spoke to Parbati Das, she shot down the communal rumours and told us her story.

“I was married to the priest of this Dhalpur temple when I was around 12 or 13 years old. We both used to offer prayers there,” she says. Her family and two other Hindu families used to live in peace with their predominantly Muslim neighbours. Later the other two Hindu families moved away. Meanwhile, many Assamese Hindus who lived across the river came and offered prayers at this temple. Parbati and Karna had two sons, the elder of whom now works as a daily wage labourer in Guwahati. 

“My husband died about 20 years ago, but I continued to offer prayers,” says Parbati. But after her husband’s death, a young Parbati fell upon difficult times. “I ended up working as a help in the homes of Assamese families, and even carrying bricks at construction sites, to make ends meet,” she says. Sometimes, she also worked as a help in the homes of Muslim families. This appeared to have rubbed some communal-minded people the wrong way, and they resorted to harassing the poor widow. “Even the new priest who came after my husband died, harassed me because I used to work in the homes of Miya Muslims to feed my children… it was torture,” she says.

“Around that time, the condition of the house I used to live in, deteriorated so much that it became unlivable. I asked the Temple Committee for help, but they claimed that I had no land. But I knew we had land. So they directed me to the Circle office,” says Parbati, who ran pillar to post collecting evidence of land ownership. “I managed to get copies of revenue receipts,” but the harassment continued. She ended up living in a makeshift tent. “I built it using banana leaves and a saree,” she says, recalling her trauma. “When nobody helped me and I could not live there anymore, I decided to get married to a local man, so that my children and I would have shelter during the rainy season,” she says. Parbati married a Bengali-speaking Muslim man, their shared language playing a part in her choice. 

As far as religious conversion goes, Parbati clarifies, “As one person cannot have two religions, I accepted my husband’s religion voluntarily.” She reiterates, “Nobody forced me to change my religion.” What is also noteworthy is that her name still appears as Parbati Das in her documents. Her voter ID and other documents may be viewed here:

Parbati Das

Parbati Das

Parbati Das

Parbati Das

Parbati Das

Her sons from her first marriage have both retained their Hindu names and religion. Her son from her second marriage practices his Muslim father’s faith.

But the truth has not stopped the Assam BJP from spreading misinformation, that has the potential to spark a communal conflagration. At the forefront of this communal rumour campaign are none other than Dilip Saikia, the BJP Member of Parliament (MP) from Mangaldoi, which is the district headquarters of Darrang, the site of the violence, and Padma Hazarika, the BJP MLA from Sootea. 

Recently, Atanu Bhuyan, Editor of DY 365, a popular local news channel, tweeted that Saikia had told his channel that a Shiva temple priest’s wife had been forced to convert to Islam in Dhalpur.

The issue was also amplified by @VoiceOfAxom, an influential Twitter handle with over 36,000 followers. It claimed that the Dhalpur Shiva temple is 5,000 years old and that its patrons included both Ahom and Nepali kings. But when it comes to the temple’s modern-day management, it says that Hindu dairy farmers of Gorukhuti village contributed to its upkeep. But, in a rather viciously communal twist, it goes on to peddle the same narrative of forced conversion of the temple priest’s wife.

But that’s not all. In an interview with Anupam Chakraborty, editor of NKTV in Assam, another BJP heavyweight Padma Hazarika also promoted the same narrative saying, “Parbati Das, the wife of the temple priest and her son Ganesh Das, were taken away by a ‘particular’ community. Now, that Parbati and her son are in a Muslim house nearby the temple.” He also alleged that the two had been forcibly converted.  

But, two things are clear from Parbati’s interview to us:

–          Nobody “took Parvati and her son away” from the priest

–          There was no “forced conversion”

CJP’s sister publication SabrangIndia has been covering evictions in the region, and we have been following how the eviction drives are disproportionately targetting members of the Muslim community.

Here are a few examples of recent evictions:

May 17, 2021 – 25 families evicted from Dighali chapori, Laletup, Bharaki Chapori, Bhoirobi and Baitamari in Sonitpur District. These are flood-prone riverine areas.

June 6, 2021 – 74 families evicted from Kaki in Hojai District. Roughly 80 percent of the population here is Muslim.

June 7, 2021 – 49 families evicted from Dhalpur, Phuhurtuli in Darrang District. All, except one family, are Muslim.

August 7, 2021 – 61 families evicted from Alamganj in Dhubri District. 90 percent of the population here is Muslim. 

September 20, 2021 – Around 200 families evicted from Fuhuratoli, Dhalpur in Darrang District.

After the evictions carried out on June 7, the one in which Parbati Das was evicted from her home, our team spoke to residents. According to them, after the Assam movement, Muslims as well as three Bengali Hindu families lived together in harmony in the region. One of those three families was the family of Karna Das who founded a small Shiva temple on a hill located there. He married a woman named Parbati and gradually other people also started offering prayers at the temple including Assamese Hindu families that live across the river. But later two other Hindu families moved to Kalang in Morigaon District. However, the temple priest Karna Das and his wife Parbati Das remained in Dhalpur.

Now, the Shiva temple that is at the heart of this controversy, has two priests, one of whom joined just five months ago. But despite being formerly married to a priest of the same temple, it was Parbati who was thrown out of her house with her new family during the eviction. “This is the second time I was thrown out of my house. I am homeless now and don’t know what to do,” she said.

Therefore, the BJP’s purpose behind spreading this false story appears to be to create a communal divide in a state that has so far been proud of its plural, secular, multi-ethnic culture. Given how by polls are due in Assam in Gossaigaon, Tamulpur, Mariani, Thowra and Bhabanipur on Oct 30, could this all be a political ploy to reap a rich electoral crop by polarising the electorate?


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