There is an eerie silence around a three-storied building in Hyderabad's Moula Ali area. Though the main gate and entrance to the building which has grills on other sides is locked, several doors can be seen ajar.
Several dried clothes still hang in the balcony.
This week, the Hyderabad police along with district child welfare officials, raided the premises of Peace Orphan Home Society and busted a major racket.
"I saw the police when they came. We did not know anything. A big team came at around 6 in the morning, and raided the place. We read about it in the news the next day," says Venkat, the watchman in an under-construction building nearby.
"We started seeing the children from the past two weeks or so. They would come to the balcony sometimes, but we never suspected anything big like this," another local remarks.
Inside the white building, the police say that 17 children between the ages of four and 15 were being systematically converted to Islam.
The police arrested Mohammed Siddique, the chief accused, along with 9 others, for luring children from poor families and converting them to Islam, without changing their Hindu names.
During the raid, the police rescued 10 boys and seven girls from the building in Moula Ali's Maruthi Nagar area.
The police said that Siddique targeted children from marginalised communities, especially STs, after convincing their parents that the child's education and accommodation would be provided for.
For this, he visited lower economic areas in parts of Bhadrachalam, Mahabubnagar, Khammam, Warangal and Suryapet in Telangana.
Speaking to TNM, ACP G Sundeep said, "The children were going to a private school, but it was stopped recently and a tutor was appointed to teach them English and religious studies. The children were made to study the Quran."
"Out of the nine accused nabbed so far, three of them were Hindus who had converted to Islam. Additionally, the foundation was completely illegal, and did not have any permissions," he added.
When asked about Siddique's source of income and motive to convert the children, the senior police official said that investigation was still underway, adding, "There are 15 to 20 religiously associated people who we are yet to identify, who were funding him locally. Those details will be revealed later on.â€ť
The police are also probing if Siddique was involved in such conversions before this.
Siddique himself was once a Hindu. A native of Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, he was born Burugupalli Satyanarayana.
"In around 2003-04, he converted to Islam near Suyapet in Telangana, with the help of a Muslim organisation. Following this he married a Muslim woman, and was doing a few petty businesses," ACP Sundeep said.
According to the police, Siddique became involved in the conversion racket around two years ago.
"He opened up the Peace Orphan Society in Warangal around two years ago, following which he shifted to Hyderabad and ran the orphanage at Errakunta in Shaheen Nagar.
It was around two weeks ago, that he shifted the kids to the present building, which was owned by another accused, Syed Abdulla. Following this, the police received a tip-off and they raided the place.
â€śWe had no idea about the raid. The police had called us and asked us to accompany them. When we went there, we found out that the home didnâ€™t have official recognition. We found copies of the Quran and other Islamic scriptures in the home. Also, we learnt that the children hadnâ€™t been attending schools for nearly two months. It wasnâ€™t a religious conversion case for us,â€ť District Child Protection Officer, Medchal, Satish told TNM.
Without disclosing the details of the rescued children, he said, â€śThe children are safe now.â€ť
District Welfare Officer Swarupa Rani said, "I spoke to some of the children, and most of them could not comprehend what was happening. They knew that they were taken away from their homes under the guise of being provided education, but that's about it."
"They also mentioned that they were constantly changing locations, which was distressing. Besides that, the children didn't understand much. We will counsel them, and ensure that they can continue their education and return to their normal lives," she added.
The police case has been registered under sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion), 342 (wrongful confinement), 363 (kidnapping) of the IPC and relevant sections of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and Juvenile Justice Act.
Telangana does not have a specific anti-conversion law, unlike some other states in India like Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh.
With inputs from Balakrishna Ganeshan.