A Conversation with Vikram Chauhan, the face of the ‘nationalist’ movement against JNU

Chauhan, a lawyer who has been practicing since 2002, was identified leading the attack in several video recordings and photographs. NDTV
19 February, 2016

Vikram Singh Chauhan was inconvenienced. Driving towards Bengali Market in Delhi to meet me yesterday, his white sedan had to halt due to a protest march against the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU). Kumar was arrested on 12 February 2016, for allegedly leading an “anti-national” protest in the university. On Monday, 15 February, journalists and students were assaulted for “promoting anti-national interests” at the Patiala House Court a little before Kumar’s remand hearing was scheduled to take place there. The perpetrators of this violence were a group of men in lawyer’s robes along with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) OP Sharma. Chauhan, a lawyer who has been practicing in Delhi since 2002, was identified as the person leading the attack in several video recordings and photographs. This sequence of events repeated itself at the rescheduled hearing on Wednesday. Despite heavy police presence, a similarly violent group of men assaulted Kumar this time. Chauhan was present then as well.

He was late. “Those JNU people have blocked the road,” he said even before I sat down in the front seat. “Where are they going?” I asked. “Pakistan,” came the reply, with a laugh. He began driving, with his seat-belt unhooked, and music booming out of the car.

Chauhan told me that he did not care about the articles written about him. He saw himself redressing the slights done to the country. Dressed in a suit, smoking a chain of cigarettes, he answered most of my questions through a cloud of smoke. “What actually happened on Monday?” I asked. “There were about a hundred students from the JNU shouting slogans.” He replied. “Calling Afzal Guru a martyr, saying Kashmir is not a part of India and so on. Then they started beating us. Fir hamne bhi kiya jo uchit laga. Aapka khoon nahi khaulega ye sab sun ke?”—And then we did what we deemed appropriate. Wouldn’t your blood boil listening to such things? What, I asked, of the provocative Facebook posts in which he called on his friends for a “face to face fight [that will] teach the traitors? “All that I had planned for was a peaceful protest,” he said.

But how does a lawyer, one who claims to specialise in criminal and civil law, resort so easily to an unlawful retaliation, and that too in a courthouse? “What would you do if your bar licence were to be cancelled?” I asked. “There are MLAs in this city who have been elected despite having a fake degree, and there are lawyers who practice law without a licence, what about all that?” he replied. “But doesn’t the law bar you from taking matters in your own hands?” I insisted. “Lawyer hone ka ye matlab nahi hai ki deshbhakti ghar pe rakh ke aayenge,—Being a lawyer does not mean one has to leave their patriotism at home—he said.

Chauhan was born in Revari, a district on the southern border of Haryana. His father, he told me, was in the army and fought the 1971 war. “Haryana produces the most number of soldiers for the country, and I come from that tradition. I had a friend, Kuldip Rathi. He was a soldier and he was killed in the Kargil war. So many friends are still in the army, fighting for this country. And look at these people. The kind of things they say now about people who attacked the parliament.”

Chauhan’s was a middle class family of Rajputs in a predominantly Rajput village. “I wouldn’t say that we were rich, but we were comfortable,” he said. He was raised on a diet of stories about Maharana Pratap, Chandrashekhar Azad, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bhagat Singh. “There were many pictures of these leaders at home,” he said. Chauhan attended school at the Kendriya Vidyalaya of Revari. “Most of my friends were also from a family with an army background,” he told me. He went on to study law, he said, at the Maharshi Dayanand University in Rohtak.

After finishing his post graduation in law, Chauhan came to Delhi. He lived, like most people at the start of their career, in shared, rented apartments. Though he shifted flats several times, he constantly surrounded himself with people he knew from his childhood or the college in Rohtak. The ideas of the city and its people were kept at bay: “I had many friends, and they were the ones I spent most of my time with.” But this insularity from conflicting opinions did not become confrontational, not until this week.

“I know these kind of protests about Afzal Guru have been going on for some time now, but this time it felt like it was about enough,” he explained. “Ever since this government has come into power, these anti-national people have been congregating. They are trying to ruin the nation. I saw those kids on news shows (Times Now’s The Newshour debate on 12 February featuring JNU students Umar Khalid and Lenin Kumar)—they were laughing! Smiling!—with no realisation of what they had done” About twenty minutes into the conversation, when I brought up the assault on students and journalists on Monday, Chauhan let slip that when he went to the court this Monday with premeditated intent. “Thaan ke gaye the bas … Farz banta hai hamara —Our intent was set when we went… It was our duty,” he said.

Chauhan’s Facebook profile is embellished with several pictures of him with prominent political figures and on his Facebook page, he referred to himself a worker of the BJP. Yesterday, much before I met him, TheIndian Express had published on its front page, a report about these pictures taken with the Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Union Minister JP Nadda and Senior BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya. When I questioned him about these, he said that he had pictures with the former Congress chief minister of Delhi Sheila Dixit and the Pakistani singer Atif Aslam as well. “That doesn’t make me a worker of the Congress or a Pakistani.” “So you just go around events and get your pictures clicked with politicians and celebrities?” I asked. “Exactly,” he said. I returned, several times, to the subject of his political ambitions. He responded with a convenient dismissal, each time.

Since Monday, pictures of Chauhan's belligerence have made the front page of national newspapers more than once. During the 20 minutes that I spent with him, his phone, connected to the car’s speakers through Bluetooth, kept ringing. Most of them were congratulatory calls. A friend told him about how he and a bunch of others had burned an effigy of Kanhaiya Kumar in Mewat. “Lage raho bas—keep at it, ” his friend said before cutting the call. Chauhan showed me the stream of messages he had been receiving on the instant messaging platform WhatsApp, saluting him, urging him further, and telling him how proud everyone was of him.

The last call Chauhan received before I got out of the car at Karkardooma, was particularly graphic. The person who had called, congratulated Chauhan on what he was doing, encouraged him to continue, and then added what a local person of prominence had asked to him to convey: “Poora samarthan hai unka. Bola hai ki inko karne do saare naatak … Mombattiya jala ke bas apni gaand me daal lenge … Kuch nahi hone denge aapko.”—He [Chauhan] has our whole-hearted endorsement. Let them [the students] carry on their drama…they can light candles in their asses…nothing will happen to you.