Delhi Violence Unmasked | Part Two

How Modi’s speeches fomented hate, aided Hindutva mobilisation against anti-CAA protesters

On 22 December 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a rally in Delhi's Ramlila Maidan, and accused the opposition of misleading public about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and appeared to taunted the anti-CAA protesters, "If god has given you any intelligence, then use it." Modi's rhetoric played a major role in shaping the Maujpur mob's understanding of the CAA and the protests against it. Kamal Kishore / PTI
01 March, 2021

In a six-month-long investigation, Sagar, a staff-writer at The Caravan, scrutinised Facebook live broadcasts by members affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the Delhi violence of February 2020. In this series based on the investigation, The Caravan reports on the Hindutva mobilisation that preceded the violence, its political and communal nature, and the role played by the RSS, BJP and affiliated organisations such as the Bajrang Dal in fomenting hate against those protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019.

The sit-in protest at Shaheen Bagh against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act began on 15 December 2019, four days after it was passed in Parliament. That day, the prime minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Jharkhand’s Dumka district and implicitly accused Muslims of committing arson during the protests against the CAA. “The ones setting things on fire, their pictures are coming on television,” Modi said. “Who are these arsonists? They can be identified from their clothes only.” The comment was a thinly veiled reference to the Muslim community.

Exactly one week later, the prime minister Narendra Modi held a rally in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan. He accused the opposition parties of misleading the public and claimed that the law would only grant citizenship, and did not seek to take it away from anyone. The prime minister then animatedly prodded his temple and added, “Agar thodi si bhagwan ne di hai, toh jara upyog karo”—If god has given you any intelligence, then use it. He paused as the audience burst into laughter.

These speeches, and others by him and his subordinates in the party, appear to have played a major role in shaping the Maujpur mob’s understanding of the citizenship law and the protests against it. Modi, with the help of a mainstream media, had successfully projected the narrative that the anti-CAA protesters were ignorant of the law, stupid for protesting it and acting against the interest of the nation. Modi and his party’s legislators did not address the brazen religious exclusion in the law, and its persecution of one minority in the garb of protecting others.

They did not speak of how Amit Shah had laid out the proposed implementation of the National Register of Citizens, and how refugees would be given citizenship under the CAA before “infiltrators” would be thrown out using the NRC. The BJP’s narrative did not address the fear among Muslim protesters that the CAA would only protect Hindus and deny protection to them during the implementation of the NRC. As a result, many of Modi’s followers, such as those who occupied the Maujpur Chowk, had a limited and prescribed understanding of the law, and simultaneously believed that the anti-CAA protesters were ignorant of the law and acting against the country by protesting it.

Saurabh Chatak, who was then the president of the BJYM’s Maujpur mandal, was one such person among those mobilising people via Facebook on the afternoon of 23 February. “We are sitting at Maujpur red light in support of Delhi police and CAA at 3 pm today,” he posted at 12.24 pm. “Please come in large numbers.” Chatak told me he appealed to locals to clear the roads because the “other” side had closed it for their “lack of knowledge of the law.” He added, “The thing is, CAA doesn’t take away anyone’s citizenship. Incomplete knowledge about anything is always harmful. The CAA is in the interest of the country.”

A Brahmin by caste, Chatak is a member of the Yuva Hindu Sangh, which describes itself on Facebook as “a nationalist organisation whose motive is to preserve Hinduism.” Its Facebook page and the events it has organised indicates that the group primarily serve the interests of savarna communities. It also reveals that it has organised several Hanuman Chalisa events at Delhi temples—a practice routinely adopted by BJP and VHP leaders to connect local Hindu communities with their ideology and the party. Many members of the Maujpur mob had told me that they had organised Chalisa events on behalf of their caste-based organisations. In the November 2020 reshuffle of the party cadre, Chatak was not appointed to a new position. He said he had not asked for a new position, because he needed to focus on his career. He said the “party’s guidelines” demanded “certain amount of time and organisation of party activities” from its full-time leaders.

Akash Verma, a district executive in northeast Delhi’s Naveen Shahdara unit of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha—the BJP’s youth wing—similarly believed that the opposition to the law was a “sham.” Verma said the protesters’ real reason for occupying roads was a “conspiracy against Hindus.” He asked me, “Where is the need for fear from NRC, CAA, you tell me? When you go to a foreign country, you need a visa. So, if the government asks you for a proof to live in the country, then it’s good. Where is the matter of fighting in it?” His comments showed that he had not understood the Indian Muslim community’s fear of persecution and indicated that they were drawn out by Shah’s comments.

Verma, like many others, invoked Modi’s name and slogans and language used by other BJP leaders while speaking of the CAA protesters. In all livestreams, there is hardly ever a speech or slogan pertaining to the benefits of the CAA. There is always, however, a continuous flow of communal slurs and abuses, such as referring to Muslims using the words “mullah” or “katua.” They chanted the slogans calling upon Modi to beat the protesters (“Modiji, tum latth bajao”) and for traitors to be shot dead (“Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalo ko”). Verma believed the anti-CAA protesters deserved the violence they suffered. “They chose a wrong option,” he said. “None of this would have happened if they had not closed any road.” Smiling for his viewers, he declared in his livestream, “Jafrabad khali kara ke rahenge aur Shaheen Bagh bhi hoga sath sath mein khali”—We will clear out Jafrabad, and Shaheen Bhag will also be vacated at the same time. “Inhone bahut galat jagah hath daala hai”—They’ve messed with the wrong people.

The anger towards the protesters blocking the roads, and the associated fears of what that might mean for the Hindu residents, was also a result of a baseless narrative created by BJP leaders, including Modi. On 3 February 2020, during his first campaign in Delhi for the then upcoming assembly elections, Modi had said, “Friends, it has become necessary to stop this mentality,” referring to the anti-CAA protests. “If the power of conspiracy-makers increases, then tomorrow some other road, some other street, will be blocked. We can’t leave Delhi in such anarchy.” In his speech, the prime minister termed the anti-CAA protests a “conspiracy against the country,” and those who participated in them as “conspiracy makers.”

As was evident from conversations with numerous members of the Maujpur mob, Modi’s statements had emboldened them to take matters into their own hands to remove the anti-CAA protesters from the roads. Sonu Pandit, the president of the BJYM’s Sonia Vihar mandal at the time who was present in Pandey’s livestream, said he went to Maujpur because he felt that the anti-CAA protesters would otherwise confine him to his home. “The people of Shaheen Bagh who were sitting—following which in our neighbourhoods too, here in Bhajanpura, they sat and blocked the road—they had closed everything for us slowly,” Pandit said. “They were stopping us from stepping out of our homes … If they kept doing that every day, closing the roads, then what we will do? Where will we go?” 

The perception among the Maujpur mob that their action enjoyed the support of the BJP government was also evident Pandit’s Facebook page. The 27-year-old Brahmin posted on Facebook around midnight between 24 and 25 February: “Whoever is up at this hour, give me a victory cry: Jayakara Veer Bajrangi”—Hail the brave Hanuman. The violence had engulfed northeast Delhi by then. A public curfew had been imposed under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, and metro services had been suspended in the area, preventing access even for journalists. As a result, Pandit’s post received several enquiries seeking updates about the situation on the ground.

One user asker Pandit, “Brother, now give us some news that would make our hearts happy.” Pandit replied, “Which one?” The user rephrased his request. “Mota bhai has begun the yagna,” he said, referring to the home minister Shah commencing a Brahmanical sacrificial ritual. “How’s it going?” the user asked. “Yes, it will come soon,” Pandit replied, referring to the good news sought by the user. Another user then asked Pandit not to sleep that night. “Sonu, even if everyone goes to sleep, you youths must not sleep. Yeh raat fateh karne ki raat hai”—This is a night to mark victories. Pandit replied, “Absolutely, brother.”

Pandit admitted having the conversation, but insisted that it only concerned the safety of his family and community. He said he did not participate in the violence. “We had to stay up,” Pandit told me. “The rioters were making it difficult for us in our neighbourhoods in Karawal Nagar. So, for our safety, and to ensure nothing happens to us, we discussed among our friends that everyone should be alert. To ensure that there is no disturbance, no riots.” When I asked Pandit that the reference to the night of victory did not suggest fear for one’s safety, he dismissed me. “Aisa kuch nahi hai”—There’s nothing like that—he said. Pandit now serves as a vice president in the BJP’s Purvanchal Morcha.

Mani Bansal, who was then the president of the northeast district unit of BJP’s women’s wing, Mahila Morcha, agreed that the BJP’s open support to the pro-CAA gatherings had mobilised the crowd at Maujpur. Bansal was among those who went live on Facebook from the ground, though she was in Yamuna Vihar, not Maujpur. But even there, the message remained the same, of Hindu unity and the threats posed by the anti-CAA protesters. I asked her how the narrative changed from supporting the CAA to Hindu unity. Bansal, a Baniya, agreed that it may have happened due to the BJP’s messaging. “I don’t think it was something pre-planned,” she said. “BJP people came out in support. Every party worker then came out in support.”

Sachin Mishra, a BJYM spokesperson in Madhubani in Bihar, was livestreaming from Maujpur on 23 and 24 February. He echoed Pandit when asked about his presence, stating that he went to Maujpur because the anti-CAA protesters had been “creating an atmosphere of disharmony.” He told me that he had gone to the area “to try and peacefully resolve the issue,” but his broadcast belies the claim, in which he can be seen repeatedly shouting communal, abusive slogans against the anti-CAA protesters. It was viewed over four thousand times.

In a broadcast on 27 February, Mishra told his viewers, “We must do something for ourselves if we come under attack.” He then addressed the Hindu-majority areas of northeast Delhi. “All the residents of Karawal Nagar, Bhajanpura, Yamuna Vihar, Ghonda, Maujpur, stay alert and be ready for your defence … we will beat the shit out of rioters in Delhi.” He also spread misinformation by telling his viewers that Muslims were “announcing from mosques, ‘Hindus vacate your houses,’”  and that they were “breaking into Hindus’ homes and killing them.” There is not a single report to suggest that this was true.

Mishra told me that he did not believe it was wrong to unite people against the anti-CAA protesters by invoking their Hindu identity. “Hindus come out meant Hindus unite,” he said. “Everyone has right to unite. We were doing our unity. We were not trying to cause riots … I feel it’s my duty because everyone else too unites around their religion.”

Similarly, Akash Bhardwaj, a vice president of the BJYM’s Naveen Shahadara unit, had called for Hindu unity in his video from Maujpur, but told me that he did not personally believe that the anti-CAA protests were against Hindus. “Woh ek mahaul tha wahan”—That was the prevailing atmosphere over there—Bhardwaj added, referring to communal atmosphere at Maujpur. He said he went to Maujpur because people were angry at Shaheen Bagh’s anti-CAA protesters, and he wanted to express his solidarity with the local Hindus. Arun Kumar Sharma, who was also a vice president of BJYM’s Naveen Shahadara unit at the time, believed there was a need for a “positive protest” in favor of the CAA because those opposed to the law had “created an atmosphere of negativity” in the country. Sharma added that the anti-CAA protestors “didn’t know what they were protesting for.” Bhardwaj said he was not awarded a new post, but Sharma is now a spokesperson for the Naveen Shahdara unit and the BJYM’s in-charge of the Babarpur unit.

In addition to creating the narrative that the protesters did not understand the law, Modi’s speeches also offered an explanation for their opposition to it, which was again on communal, polarising lines and consumed as truth by members of the Maujpur mob. During his public rally in Dumka on 15 December, Modi said, “When the decision on Ram temple came, Pakistanis staged a protest in front of Indian embassy in London. When Article 370 was decided, Pakistanis demonstrated in front of the Indian High Commissioner in London.” The prime minister then sought to draw a parallel to the anti-CAA protests. “Whatever Pakistan would do in London, the Congress did the same here … there is a conspiracy going on to defame the country. Their actions prove that the decision to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Parliament is 1000 percent correct.” The prime minister often used terms such as “conspirators,” “Pakistanis” or “Congress supporters” to seemingly refer to the anti-CAA protesters, and my interviews with members of the Maujpur mob revealed that his words formed the template for many of them.

Upon scrutinising profiles of individuals who posted live broadcasts and messages appealing to Hindus to assemble at Maujpur on 23 February, a discernible pattern emerged, revealing direct or indirect associations between the mob and the Sangh.

Shreydeep Kaushik, who was the president of the Dilshad Garden mandal at the time, broadcast live from Maujpur on 24 February. “The Hindu brothers here have given an example of Hindu brotherhood,” he said. I asked him why he believed that the anti-CAA protestors were against Hindus. “They couldn’t do anything against the Ram temple,” Shreydeep said, referring to the Supreme Court judgment in favour of building a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid, in Ayodhya. “Everything happened smoothly. Many bills didn’t go in their favor. So, they started thinking Modi government was anti-Muslim.”

On the night of 24 February, Shreydeep captioned his livestream, “It took me little time because I was out from Delhi, but for our Hindu brothers, I reached Maujpur.” In it, he shouted the communal slogans that echoed across northeast Delhi during those days, such as “Hindustan mein rehna hoga, Vande Mataram kehna hoga”—If you want to live in India, you will have to sing Vande Mataram—and “Ek dhakka aur do, Jama Masjid tod do”—Give another push, demolish the Jama Masjid. At one point, someone in the crowd shouted out, “Katuon ki maa chod do”—Fuck the mothers of the Muslims. In response, Shreydeep laughed and leaned in towards Priyank Jain—at the time, the president of the BJYM’s Naveen Shahdara mandal, and Shreydeep’s immediate superior in the organisation—to tell him, “People swore a lot in my video.” Jain laughed. “Mine too,” he said.

According to his Facebook page, Shreydeep, a Brahmin, has been going to an RSS shakha since he was six years old. He told me that he had attended a “three-year course” organised by the RSS for its full-time volunteers. He said he held a “first-year degree” of the programme, and that his father held a “second-year degree.” The final year is taught at the Sangh’s headquarters in Nagpur.

Shreydeep told me he regretted the use of provocative slogans, but thought it was justified in that context. “In the heat of moment few things slip out. I should not have got involved, but I did. You can say that since I belong to Hindu community, I could not leave without saying something in favor of Hindu community.” In December 2020, Shreydeep graduated from the BJYM to the BJP, where he is currently a vice president of the party’s Naveen Shahadara district unit.

Rishabh Kaushik, who was a secretary in the BJYM’s Naveen Shahdara unit during the Delhi violence, appeared to have been influenced by Modi’s words. He claimed that he had gone to Maujpur on 23 February to “peacefully” tell the anti-CAA protesters to clear the roads. His Facebook livestream, however, tells a different story—one in which he can be seen with a mob that was aggressively shouting, “Jai Shree Ram!” Rishabh admitted to shouting the “shoot the traitors” slogan, but defended it. “We said that for the traitors,” he said as a justification. “The ones who talk of treachery in the country and the ones who shout Pakistan Zindabad,” Rishabh said, though there is no factually reported account of the anti-CAA protesters shouting these slogans. In over two months of reporting these protests on the ground, I never heard such slogans either. With no apparent basis in fact, he claimed to me that the anti-CAA protestors were not legal citizens of the country. Rishabh, too, is Brahmin. He is now the president of the BJYM’s Saboli mandal.

Many members of the Maujpur mob openly expressed more sinister, communal strategies, and expressed no regret about it later. Sanjeev Sharma, a state executive in the BJP’s Rohini mandal, addressed a Facebook live on 23 February in which he called for cutting off all supplies of rations to the anti-CAA protesters. In his video, Sanjeev was sitting on a sofa with a tilak on his forehead and a saffron scarf wrapped around his neck. “All you have to do is sit on all those roads in support of CAA,” he said.

Sanjeev asked his viewers to specifically block the roads used by the anti-CAA protesters to reach the protest sites. “All you have to do is to block these roads—in support of NPR, CAA, NRC—which are used by them to get their rations, their biryani and everything else. You have to stop letting those things reach their protest sites. Let’s all get out of our homes.” He continued, “We had been quiet so far. But now we will have to come out of our homes and stop them. Else, they will break into our homes. Jai Shree Ram. Bharat Mata Ki Jai!”  

Sanjeev defended his strategy and appeared to feel no remorse or regret. “If nothing would reach them, how many of their leaders would continue sitting hungry and thirsty, and for how long?” he asked. “Ek gussa bhi tha, toh bana diya video. Jissey galat lag raha hai, lagta rahe,” he told me. (There was an anger within me, so I made the video.Whoever thinks it is wrong may continue to do so.)

Hardeep Singh, the district coordinator of the Bajrang Dal in Ghaziabad, had posted on Facebook on 24 February with brazen communal language. “The graveyard belonging to jihadi pigs, which was in front of the petrol pump in Bhajanpura, is no more,” Singh wrote. The graveyard had been desecreated during the violence. I asked Singh if he was at Bhajanpura around the graveyard that day, and what had taken place. He said he was working that day, at his regular job as a water supplier with Delhi Jal Board, in Yamuna Vihar, which is near Bhajanpura.

But Singh said that he remained at his work place and did not venture out during the violence, adding that he must have posted on Facebook after copying a message he received on social media. “Social media pe chal raha hoga toh, copy paste ho gaya hoga”—It must have been circulating on social media, and I would have copy-pasted it from there—Singh said.“Baaki mera koi involvement nahi hai”—Otherwise, I was not involved at all. He added, referring to the Bajrang Dal, “There was no order or any call from my organisation to go to Bhajanpura.”

Perhaps the interview that clarified above all others the effect of Modi’s speeches was one with Ruchi Sharma, the Delhi state president of the Uthishth Bharat, a Hindutva organisation based in Madhya Pradesh. Uthishth Bharat, according to its website, runs a “common minimum programme of uniting Hindus for the establishment of the Hindu Nation,” for which “70 Hindu organisations from 21 states came together.” (Sudhakar Chaturvedi, an accused in the 2008 bomb blast in Malegaon that killed at least six people and injured over 80 others, is the national president of Uthishth Bharat. At the time of the blast, Chaturvedi was the national general secretary of the Abhinav Bharat, the extremist organisation accused of carrying out the attack.)

Ruchi was among the group of women sitting at Maujpur Chowk, along with Anjali Varma and Ragini Tiwari, with the Hanuman Chalisa playing in the background. Her understanding of the anti-CAA protests was similarly based on the misinformation spread by Modi and other BJP leaders. She told me the anti-CAA protesters were shouting “anti-national slogans,” and that “she could not tolerate any protest that sought to destroy the country.” Ruchi continued, “The Muslims, who were the protestors, had closed Jafrabad and Maujpur. I personally felt that a united Hindu strength was necessary. And if those traitors can unite, then why we won’t stand together in the interest of the country?”

Ruchi said she was motivated by her ideology and by her devotion to Modi. “We don’t support any political party,” she said. “We have an ideology that resembles with the BJP. Whoever is in the interest of the country, I’m with them. They could be anyone.” She insisted that the mob at Maujpur was not responsible for the violence, adding that it could have been far worse if they desired it. “Modiji, he is our reverend,” she said. “If he had wanted—if at his one call we can light candles—we can light many other things, we can do a lot more. But Modiji didn’t want riots to happen in the country.”

This is part two of Sagar’s investigation into the Hindutva mobilisation ahead of the Delhi violence. Read part one here and part three here.