A colourfully designed poster quoting Bob Marley is what could have triggered a massive protest against Agnipath recruitment scheme at Visakhapatnam railway station on Saturday, 18 June.
This protest plan was, however, foiled by Andhra Pradesh Police as widespread violence had marred a similar protest at Secunderabad railway station in Telangana on Friday.
The poster quoting 'Get Up Stand Up' read, "It's high time... Stand up for your rights... Don't give up the fight." The demand was, "Conduct old recruitments."
The message, which was forwarded many times on WhatsApp, however, revealed how Agnipath protests are being planned: Massive mobilisation through chats. In fact, the Hyderabad Police has apprehended the owner of an Army recruitment coaching institute for spearheading the protest in Telangana.
At Secunderabad railway station, one person was killed on Friday in railway police firing and 13 protesters were injured. Also, seven police personnel were injured and eight trains were vandalised and some were torched.
Premeditated: ‘Bring Petrol, Otherwise Protest Won’t Be Noticed’
In most WhatsApp messages accessed by The Quint, protesters stressed on the need to get noticed, at least by the media. In one of the messages, a protester who was allegedly part of the Secunderabad protest said, "How long will we remain silent? If you get petrol and torch the place, then the news will go out."
In most such messages the protesters sounded worried about being easily dismissed by the police. "Even if you shout slogans and show banners for long, nothing will happen. We will all be dismissed within one to two hours by the (police) squad," a message said.
He further said, "That is why I am asking you to get petrol from the petrol pump and torch the place. It will be done in two minutes."
In a similar message, another protester said, "Everyone in the battalion has come here. Come to [place name withheld] we will burn a bus." Meaning, the protesters who organised the gathering in Hyderabad had premeditated violence.
A police official from Hyderabad's North Zone said, "We have record of these WhatsApp messages which were circulated. Around 2,000 people descended at Secunderabad Railway Station based on prompts given by these WhatsApp forwards." Meanwhile, a senior police official from Andhra Pradesh said, "We tightened security at Vizag Railway Station based on information that a protest similar to what happened in Hyderabad was being planned here too. No untoward incident has happened so far."
However, the messages which are still circulating in WhatsApp groups indicate that young defence service aspirants are still agitated: "This is about our exam. We should highlight this, brother," another message read.
There were three WhatsApp groups in which Secunderabad protests were planned, a police official said. The Quint has accessed messages in one of these WhatsApp groups named 'Hakimpet Army Soldiers.'
Explaining the danger the mob had unleashed in the Telangana protest, M Srinu, inspector of railway police at Secunderabad station wrote in the FIR registered on 17 June, "The mob tried setting fire to engines and the police warned them not to set fire because the engines would have exploded causing damage to human beings nearby... The police fired in the air, but the mob continued to advance towards the loco engines by pelting stones."
Currently, Telangana Police is probing the involvement of an Army recruitment coaching institute in the protests.
Defence Coaching Institute Involved in Mobilising Youth?
While all the 13 persons injured in the police firing at Secunderabad were youngsters aged between 19 and 21 years, a large majority of defence service aspirants who reached the railway station were those from districts in Telangana. D Rakesh, 24, who died in the police firing hailed from Warangal district in Telangana.
How did the protesters reach the station? Did anyone help them with resources?
Though the police have not found proof of anti-Agnipath protesters being given financial support from external sources, Andhra Pradesh Police has apprehended a 50-year-old A Subba Rao who runs Sai Defence Academy in Guntur district for allegedly gathering the youth.
According to Telangana Police, the coaching academy had wide contact list of defence service aspirants and this list was used to create WhatsApp groups. According to a Telangana police officer, Subba Rao was in Hyderabad on 16 June, a day before the Secunderabad protests were held.
As Rao's coaching academy has eight branches in Telangana and AP, it was easy for him to connect to youth from both the states to organise protests, an AP police officer said.
However, the youth did reach Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam "on their own" because it was widely perceived that the Agnipath recruitment scheme could affect their prospects. "No one asked us to come to the railway station, we came because the Railways are managed by the Centre. Our protest is against the Centre," said a protester at Secunderabad railway station who identified himself as Venu.
At Visakhapatnam railway station, police presence was beefed up on Saturday. "We appeal to the youth to not indulge in violence," said Visakhapatnam Commissioner of Police Ch Srikanth. However, a WhatsApp message that is still circulating said, "Whoever goes to the petrol bunk or are near a petrol bunk get petrol."