As a child, Arif Ali dreaded the sight of children doing tricks at traffic signals or walking on ropes on fields for money. This resident of Dabli village in Agra, didn’t want to end up like them. But being born into the ‘Nat’ community, he was supposed to do exactly that. To escape that fate, he became a barber.

But poverty didn’t leave him and his father Rahmat Ali, who spent all his life performing circus tricks in western Uttar Pradesh.

So when the offer of land, job and money came from Love Pandit — a Hindutva leader he had befriended at his barber shop — 35-year-old Arif couldn’t resist it. All he had to do was to convert to Hinduism.

Despite severe resistance from his community, Arif convinced his family of the “generous offer.”

Nat community traditionally did folk circus and tricks, a source of entertainment for rural people. But increasing urbanisation ensured other ways of entertainment which brought the community to the roads and traffic signals of metros. Hailing from an extremely backward caste like Nat, he and his ilk were born with “limited possibilities.”

“So, the idea of owning a house and a piece of land felt like heaven for us,” he says. His dilapidated house sits on land belonging to the village panchayat, which has allowed the Nats to use it.

Ali became a Hindu along with his wife, his two younger brothers and their wives last Christmas provoking a strong reaction from his fellow community members. “It became major news,” Arif tells this correspondent.

With their ghar wapsi started the wait for the promised land, money and job. They never came. Arif says Pandit sought time and asked him to be patient. Their wait began — so did their social boycott. “We got alienated among Muslims. At the same time, we did not gain acceptance among the Hindus,” says 75-year-old Rahmat Ali. “Our identity was that of a Nat. We were never Hindu or Muslim. We remained Nat even after our conversion.”

“Over all, we continued to be marginalised. My daughter had to be married. Though we converted, we were not getting any good match from Hindus,” he adds. “So we decided it was not worth it — the entire exercise of converting or reconverting,” he says. They became Muslims again last Saturday.

Key player absconding

Pandit, the key player in the entire episode, remains inaccessible. He has reportedly gone underground. Like their conversion to Hinduism, their reconversion to Islam also made national and international headlines. But what remained unknown was their struggle to escape poverty.