India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has a hostile history of communal violence. Bordering New Delhi, the western region of Uttar Pradesh has a significant Muslim and Jat population and, thus, is particularly vulnerable. This region is witnessing a growing number of self-appointed Hindu vigilante groups. Driven by a deep sense of Islamophobia, these groups believe it is their moral responsibility to protect the Hindu religion from the ‘onslaught of militant Islam’. The recent threat by the Islamic State (ISIS) to take over India by 2020 has provoked these fringe groups to intensify recruitment and military training.
The Quint travels into the interiors of the region to meet members of these groups, their sympathisers and young Hindu recruits who are being trained and indoctrinated in this emerging brand of religious extremism. We sought to understand their psyche, question their inspiration and document their modus operandi.
Chetna Sharma, a lawyer by profession is also the zonal commissioner for the Akhand Hindustan Morcha. Sharma accompanies us to Rori, an obscure village off the main road from Modinagar in Western Uttar Pradesh. Parminder Arya, Sharma’s close aid and a member of the Hindu Swabhiman Sangh lives here. Arya served in the Indian Army for fifteen years and is now giving military training to young Hindus in his courtyard.
Hrithik is nine, Shubhi is eleven and there are twenty-five to thirty others like them from the age group of nine to thirty who attend a two-hour training every evening. Arya not only trains them in traditional warfare techniques, using knives, swords and sticks but also ‘educates’ them about the Hindu religion and the threat of the Islamic State.
The image of Sharma tutoring young Shubhi and Hrithik for The Quint’s cameras is particularly compelling. Young Hindu recruits are tutored about Love Jihad, an alleged conspiracy to increase the Muslim population – the allegation being that Muslim men lure young Hindu girls into marriage, only to abandon them or force them into prostitution after they bear children to add to the Muslim population.
Proliferating with proficiency, the fringe is becoming increasingly sophisticated in using the Internet to learn more about the threat of the Islamic State and using Facebook and WhatsApp to recruit and broadcast their agenda. Chetna Sharma claims she has over a hundred WhatsApp groups and one message reaches 2.5 lakh people.
Swami Narsimhanand Saraswati is a popular face on the videos that several of these groups circulate on WhatsApp. Swami is the head priest of a temple in Ghaziabad, where the entry of Muslims is prohibited. He is also the ideological guru of several Hindu vigilante groups in the region. Swami carries a tablet, has an MTech degree and believes the Internet is emerging as a powerful tool in his religious crusade.
At an ‘Akkhada’ in the Bimbetta Village in Ghaziabad, The Quint meets young wrestlers who aspire to compete at the Olympics. While they are trained for that distant dream, they are taught about the threat of the Islamic State and are encouraged to keep weapons. Anil Yadav, the national head of the Hindu Swabhiman Sangh runs this training camp. In conversation, Yadav casually shows us the gun he carries at all times. He claims he has a license but adds that a firearm license is a ‘non-issue’. The weapons used in training are not licensed.
While the groups in the interiors are driven by Swami’s hostility towards Islam and its followers, in Meerut, Sandeep Pahal founded Sach to unite Hindus and Muslims to fight the cow slaughter nexus. In September, Western Uttar Pradesh was at the brink of a communal riot when a Muslim man was lynched to death over the suspicion that he possessed beef.
The insecurities of these groups have deep roots in the history of communal violence that this region has witnessed. Official statistics provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs show that communal violence in India has increased by 30 percent in the last decade, and western Uttar Pradesh continues to record the maximum instances of such violence.