How militant faith trumped fraternity

The communal clashes in Haryana’s Nuh and the openly militant Hindu mobilisation are a sign of things to come before the Lok Sabha elections in 2024

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad protest in Haryana after the Nuh violence extended to the entire Delhi NCR, involving burning effigies of 'Islam' (photo: Getty Images)
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad protest in Haryana after the Nuh violence extended to the entire Delhi NCR, involving burning effigies of 'Islam' (photo: Getty Images)

Satyendra Tripathi

The tension in the air had been palpable, with militant calls to action being issued from both sides. It might have taken much less for the communal tinderbox in Haryana’s Nuh to explode, but the Brij Mandal rally by Bajrang Dal ‘activists’ on 31 July made sure the fire caught.

Bajrang Dal men, armed with lathis, swords, trishuls and firearms, went right up to the doorsteps of Muslim homes to incite them; with their backs to the wall, the Muslim youth retaliated with stone pelting. Before long, the violence had escalated to the use of gunfire—and not from the police, who just stood by, as a viral video showed. The same video showed Bajrang Dal leader Ashok Baba firing at Muslims from his temple hideout.

The locals had the advantage of knowing their home ground better than the outsiders who had rolled in from the other cow-belt states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, better even than the ‘regulars’ from Haryana and Rajasthan, who come in with the annual shobhayatra (procession) for the jalabhishek of the Hindu god Shiva in the month of Sawan in the Hindu calendar.

Many vehicles had been burnt by the rioters in Nuh (photo: Altaf Qadri/AP/picture alliance via DW)
Many vehicles had been burnt by the rioters in Nuh (photo: Altaf Qadri/AP/picture alliance via DW)
VHP protest against the violence in Nuh, held in Badarpur in New Delhi on August 2 (photo: Vipin/National Herald)
VHP protest against the violence in Nuh, held in Badarpur in New Delhi on August 2 (photo: Vipin/National Herald)

The Muslim youth thus took up positions on hillocks and rooftops, ambushing Dal cadres, who ran helter-skelter for cover—until they turned around and hunted down the more vulnerable prey on the ground, for they had more people and greater firepower. If scores of Bajrang Dal cars and buses were torched, the police and cadre retaliated by ransacking and torching the small businesses and temporary shelters of poorer Muslims, many of them migrant workers.

The ensuing riots spread, leaving six dead, including a young deputy imam, barely out of his teens, in Gurugram. But their ‘job’ was not yet done.

The BJP state government in Haryana then rolled out bulldozer justice—doubtless inspired by the example of Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh—to demolish commercial establishments and residences of Muslim citizens on the pretext that they were involved in the riots. Hindu youth ‘helped’ identify Muslim-owned and Muslim-run shops, warehouses and factories to be set on fire, ‘clearing’ them of merchandise in advance.

Thousands are now homeless, hundreds in police custody. Worst affected, as always, are the economically backward, mostly Muslims, whose homes and sources of livelihood have been razed. Migrant workers have fled, leaving those in upscale Gurugram high-rises lamenting the lack of maids and janitorial staff. Justice has been served, BJP-style.

A week later, Mewat—which the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has in recent years claimed as a historic grazing ground frequented by Krishna in the Mahabharata era—has become a war zone. Timely coincidence surely, for this communal schism might well impact next year’s Lok Sabha elections as well as the Assembly elections in Haryana, cementing the 80:20 divide UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath likes to underline.

Why Mewat?

Nuh district (formerly known as Mewat) has traditionally been home to the Muslim clan who self-identify as Meo Rajputs. Making up 79 per cent of the population in Haryana’s only Muslim-majority district, some of them have Hindu names with a Khan surname. They regard themselves as a warrior clan, once part of the retinue of Rajput kings such as Maharana Pratap and Rana Sanga, much eulogised by the RSS.

Nuh was arguably the poorest, most backward district in the country, according to a Niti Aayog report in 2018. But now, the newly built Delhi–Mumbai expressway passes through Mewat, and the area boasts a government medical college, an engineering college and scores of private institutes.

The annual jalabhishek of Lord Shiva has been an annual feature of Mewat’s social calendar for as long as people can remember. Hindu devotees traditionally first visit the ancient Shiva temple in Nalhar village, nestled into the picturesque Aravalli hills, and anoint the shivling with water from the Ganga, before proceeding on a yatra to the Radha–Krishna temple in Singar village, around 50 kilometres away. There has never been any trouble over it.

Indeed, the Muslims of Mewat have been warm hosts, offering travelling devotees shelter, food and water. Of course, Mewat used to be part of the Alwar–Bharatpur princely state, so temples and mosques have co-existed in the region for a long time.

But this year, tension was thick in the air.

It was three years ago that the VHP signalled their intent to scale up the yatra into a grander, more ‘popular’ event. For according to their new ‘folklore’, promoted by the VHP, the temples date back to the Mahabharata era.

Indeed, activist Yogendra Yadav points out that the VHP and other affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have been hard at work in the area over the past few years, and not just to promote the jalabhishek. Several mob lynchings by cow vigilantes targeted the Meos, mostly dairy farmers who treat cattle as their revered source of livelihood. Even so, Mewat had not witnessed any large-scale communal trouble till last month, not even during the Partition in 1947.

Still, the Shobha yatra had progressed peacefully enough the last two years. But this year, devotees from not just Rajasthan and adjoining cities in Haryana (Faridabad, Palwal, Sohna), but even from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar began to flock to the yatra—in jeeps, cars, buses… The VHP claimed to have attracted 15,000 ‘devotees’ this time.

Ethnic cleansing?

So where did the tension come from? It had been carefully nurtured over weeks by Bajrang Dal workers, spearheaded by Baba and his ‘colleague’ Monu Yadav, alias Monu ‘Manesar’. Manesar is the prime accused in the murder of two Muslim youth—Javed and Nasir, lynched as ‘cattle smugglers’. Manesar had supposedly been absconding for two years, yet here he was, readily visible in WhatsApp groups, Twitter threads and YouTube shorts, brandishing automatic rifles like Baba, the both issuing warnings to local Muslims: Prepare a welcome for your ‘brothers-in-law’! Bittu Bajrangi, a rotund greengrocer from Faridabad who had formed his own vigilante group, amplified the message of Monu’s Mewat yatra with his baraat (groom’s procession).

Provoked beyond patience, youthful groups of Muslims too, disregarding their community elders’ call for restraint, responded with threats of retaliation if they tried to enter “our localities”, and circulated their own videos and voice messages.

An audio clip shared by the Nuh Cyber Cell includes an authoritative voice calling for Muslims to attack the Nalhar temple. “Meos are not a community of cowards and it is time to prove it. They are 200 here right now. At least kill 20 to teach (them) a lesson… Get out of attachments… as one day everybody has to die, so die for your community,” it exhorts.

Intelligence personnel had warned government officials of the build-up. In a meeting on 27 July, both sets of audio and video messages were shared with police by Muslim community leaders, who urged security measures to avert trouble. Yet the top brass chose to look the other way. They even allowed the Nuh superintendent of police to proceed on leave, giving temporary charge to the SP of a neighbouring Gurugram district.

Worse, the procession was allowed to be infiltrated by armed goons, prompting even a BJP member of Parliament, Rao Inderjit Singh, to ask sarcastically which religious procession needs swords and firearms.

‘We didn’t start the fire’

Now, long before violence actually erupted in Nuh, videos of Bajrang Dal workers making announcements on vehicle-mounted sound amplifiers were going viral on social media. In the videos, the ‘activists’ in Haryana’s Hansi town (Hisar district) could be heard threatening Muslims to leave town immediately. “Whoever is found staying in Hansi shall not be spared,” they warned.

Tellingly, neither police nor state government reacted to these videos. Chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar talked of teaching the rioters a lesson in the aftermath. Though he did not specify, the message was loud and clear: almost all those arrested for the Nuh violence are Muslims—even as the VHP took out ‘demonstrations’ in ‘protest’ all over the NCR and promised more across the country, calling Hindus to ‘rouse themselves’ right outside police stations and claiming peaceful demonstrations could turn violent if the administration did not pay heed.

The government suspended internet services only after the violence took six lives, including two members of the Home Guard. Before the blackout, WhatsApp groups were already rife with videos of carloads of armed Bajrang Dal men converging on Nuh. State home minister Anil Vij denied all intelligence until confronted with a sting video in which a CID inspector claims his department had alerted the government.

Most of the distressed people of Mewat still argue that the violence was the result of a clash between hot-headed miscreants from two communities, all of them young. Look at the videos, the senior citizens say—where are the middle-aged men?

Mohammad Saad, the Muslim cleric who was killed before his mosque was set ablaze, had come to Gurugram from Bihar’s Sitamarhi only seven months ago with his brother Shadab Anwar. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Anwar, a private tutor, recalled speaking to his brother just before the attack: “He called me at 11:30 pm saying the police were at the mosque and there was nothing to be worried about.”

Oh Allah, please make Hindustan a place where Hindus and Muslims eat from the same plate
Mohammad Saad, naib imam of Anjuman Jama Masjid, Gurugram, a month before his death

The VHP and Bajrang Dal have since been holding ‘token demonstrations’ and protest marches that ‘suggest’ Muslims leave the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi. Posters appeared in Ghaziabad exhorting people to buy their provisions from ‘Bhai’ and not ‘Bhai Jaan’. Muslim-owned or Muslim-helmed shops, warehouses, workshops and the residences of Muslim citizens were marked with a black cross in several parts of the NCT, according to media reports.

Fake videos and those featuring ‘paid actors’ have flooded social media, meanwhile, defying a selective internet ban. One of the more incendiary ones shows torn clothes and undergarments, claiming a large group of women and girls were kidnapped from the temple and molested or assaulted. Haryana ADGP Mamta Singh refuted the rumours, saying not a single incident had been reported from the temple; she herself had been present there. But no action was taken against the YouTubers.

Empty streets, closed and trashed shops during the curfew in the aftermath of violence in Nuh (photo: Altaf Qadri/AP/picture alliance via DW)
Empty streets, closed and trashed shops during the curfew in the aftermath of violence in Nuh (photo: Altaf Qadri/AP/picture alliance via DW)

Even as the Punjab and Haryana High Court ordered a stay on the aggressive bulldozer justice and called the state government to account, a DGP of Haryana has ominously warned that it is but a ‘temporary’ stay.

Some people say the modus operandi in Nuh bears an eerie resemblance to Godhra in 2002, a juggernaut set in motion when a train carrying kar sevaks from Ayodhya was set ablaze, killing 58 of those on board. The ensuing riots changed Gujarat’s social and political landscape for ever. The police was as complicit in the riots or as indifferent as in Nuh 21 years later. Gujarat’s chief minister at the time, Narendra Modi, has since emerged victorious in every election, all the way to becoming Prime Minister in 2014. Perhaps there lies the BJP’s strategy for the 2024 polls.

In a chilling but unrelated incident on the same day the communal clashes began in Nuh, an RPF constable identified as Chetan Singh shot down his Adivasi superior in a Mumbai-bound train following an altercation. He then walked through four adjacent coaches and, with great deliberation, shot dead three passengers, all Muslims, with his AK-47 rifle. He then directed other passengers to record his incoherent rant against Muslims and Pakistan, that ended with upholding the guardianship of Modi and Yogi, the Hindutva poster boys, to Muslims who wish to live in India.

A clear message was sent out by the Yogi Adityanath government meanwhile to security personnel, when it shunted out a police officer who thwarted an attempt to foment trouble in Bareilly in July. SSP Prabhakar Chaudhury had stood his ground, refusing to allow a procession of kanwariyas to take the route past a mosque and through Muslim-dominated areas, as he apprehended it might lead to communal unrest. When they insisted, he ordered a lathi charge and registered an FIR. A few hours later, he had been moved to another district, in a ‘routine’ transfer. The point seems to have been well taken by security personnel in Nuh and Manipur.

When sleeping Hindus awaken

The VHP was formed by the RSS in 1964, but shot into prominence only after the locks of Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid were opened in February 1986. Soon the RSS set up another, more militant organisation, the Bajrang Dal, to boost the Ayodhya Ram Temple movement. Leaders of both are among the accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case. However, they lost their relevance in 1998, once the BJP decided to await the court verdict and ratcheted down the agitation agenda.

Now that the Ram Temple only remains to be inaugurated, their relevance should logically have declined further. But both organisations have been reactivated during the past year or so. As the Nuh incidents show, radical and criminal elements like Ashok Baba and Monu Manesar have been enrolled into their ranks.

As communal and sectoral schisms grow in society, it appears such organisations have gained ascendance alongside. Surely not a coincidence?

The Modi government, it seems, needs to fan communal strife in different parts of the country again, now that its much-vaunted achievements on the social and economic fronts have failed to convince the masses. Issues like unemployment and inflation have started to pinch the middle and lower classes, over 80 per cent of the country’s electorate. Once more, fanning Hindu insecurities over a Muslim ‘threat’ is being seen as a useful diversionary tactic.

That over two dozen Opposition parties forged an Indian Nationalist Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, seems to have further rattled the BJP, which had become complacent about a scattered Opposition. The Supreme Court stay on the defamation case against Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has deepened its discomfort.

Meanwhile, RSS sources claim to have suggested the government do to a currently messy Pakistan what China did to India in Ladakh—a limited intrusion beyond the PoK border. This could recreate the Balakot-type euphoria that resulted in the Modi government’s return in 2019. The cries of "Only Modi can get us PoK" might do the trick for 2024, the RSS feels. Desperate times, they say, call for desperate measures.

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