In the dimly-lit drawing room of the house in a middle-class colony in Saharanpur, there is little that is not saffron. From the pictures to the curtain prints to the tablecloth. In the spotlight is a 46-year-old man. He is wearing a saffron shirt, a saffron shawl and tight, neatly pressed, white cotton trousers.
He is Nagendra Singh Tomar, the chief of the western Uttar Pradesh branch of the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), and this is his home-cum-headquarters. The occasion is one of the first meetings of the outfit after Yogi Adityanath’s promotion to Chief Minister. Tomar is expected to spell out the HYV strategy, but a surprise awaits the cadres when he starts speaking. The Hindutva evangelist sounds different.
“ Pehle hum vipaksh me the ” (earlier we were in Opposition), he says, “The governments of the past used to harass us. Now the situation is in our favour. Our role is thus changed. We won’t indulge in confrontation. Everything will happen within the ambit of the Constitution.” The bunch of Hindutva foot soldiers in the room look more confused than convinced.
Founded by Yogi Adityanath in Gorakhpur in April 2002 as a cultural organisation that would work for intense Hindu nationalism, HYV was largely seen as a collection of ragtag, lumpen elements, but it is now slowly adapting to the fact of its founder becoming the chief minister of one of India’s most populous states with a substantial Muslim population.
“Hinduism teaches us to respect all faiths. We should respect the religious symbols, sacred books and cultures of each other.” Tomar rattles off the lines with the felicity of a peacenik. This is a new language for an outfit that has not been famous so far for advocating restraint to its impatient young followers.
Compared to the election speeches of a month ago, the toned-down rhetoric indicates that HYV is trying to morph into a more tolerant avatar as it goes mainstream.
The membership profile is also changing gradually, from the rowdy youngsters of its origins to slightly older (25 to 30 years) middle-class businessmen, shopkeepers, contractors and teachers. I notice there are no women. “We have discussed this with Yogi maharaj, but he said that we must first consolidate the force we already have,” says Tomar, who is also a lecturer in Commerce at the local Inter College.
The Yuva Vahini does not a fixed routine; members keep an eye open for any perceived anti-Hindu activity and spring into action.
Members meet roughly twice a week, but remain constantly connected through a robust and extraordinarily active Whatsapp group. Anoop Rastogi shows me the group’s display picture of a saffron flag on his phone.
A fair man with a red tilak, Rastogi is a garment shop owner in his late 30s. He says, “We have members on the ground. Anything happens and we are there in no more than five minutes.” On April 12, for instance, residents of a Meerut locality called Vahini members to complain that a man had brought his girlfriend home. Activists barged in and marched the couple to the cops.
The big league
In the breaks between Tomar’s speeches, his cadre fiddles with their smart phones. The unprecedented public interest in their organisation is keeping them busy. “We have had thousands of calls and messages from people wanting to join us,” says their Meerut city chief, Sachin Mittal, sitting next to Tomar. The group, however, plans to screen the 10,000-odd application forms.
Mittal is a wheatish complexioned man of average height. On the wall behind him is a larger-than-life poster of Yogi Adityanath.
Mittal’s face lights up when he talks about HYV’s expansion and how it has aroused the envy of even RSS affiliates such as Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
The spurt has indeed been remarkable. Till last month, HYV had barely hundred members, mostly in western UP. Now, it has several thousands. Mittal says online applications have been closed. “Mahant ji,” he says earnestly, “has asked us to be strictly vigilant about new members, as there might be people who join only to embarrass and defame him.”
Gone are the days when the force used to prepare for ‘dharm yudh’. Now, they say, they are going to keep the order. The workers have strict instructions not to take the law into their hands. “Earlier, the government did nothing. Now we have a sincere chief minister. There is no need for us to interfere with the administration’s work,” says Mittal.
Tomar interjects, “Our job will be to become watchdogs. We have to ensure Ram Rajya comes into full force.” His phone rings. His Noida team is on the other end, to say that the Ghaziabad police has booked members for launching a bike rally without permission.
Tomar looks displeased. “We had declared on posters that we would take out a bike rally. We organised a press conference. Is that not enough for the administration to find out,” he asks angrily.
He turns back to me. “Ram Rajya is our priority,” he says. But why does he call it Ram Rajya and not Hindu Rashtra? “You see, the term ‘Hindu’ was given to us by foreigners and Muslims. Ram Rajya, which is anyway a synonym of Hindu Rashtra, has a much wider connotation and implication,” he explains.
Tomar gets up and walks to the adjacent room that doubles up as his office. Standing below the framed pictures of Bal Thackeray and Shivaji, he explains how unifying Hindu society and removing caste is one of the crucial challenges before the Vahini.
I ask about his surname ‘Tomar’. He explains that he is a Thakur, a member of the warrior caste, and a Chandravanshi or descendant of the moon dynasty. He carefully takes out a book from the dusty cupboard behind him to prove his descent from Arjun, also a Chandravanshi.
Tomar has now spent 12 years with the Vahini and is making extensive plans for the outfit’s 15th foundation day celebrations. The Vahini wants to realise its potential now, he says.
Later that day, I join him as he walks the streets of Meerut as part of his outreach programme. The real challenges facing Hindus, he says, are love jihad, the radicalisation of Muslims, and the need for patriotism among Muslims. He suggests that extremism among Hindus is essentially a reaction to Muslim extremism. It is in this context that the alleged hate speeches of his chief must be seen, he explains.
“A large number of Muslims are becoming extremists and that is something that worries Mahantji. He must have spoken against terrorists and those who don’t love Bharat Mata. Otherwise, he loves Muslims as he does Hindus. He will treat them equally.”
HYV’s task now is to disburse new members across the region on marches where they will talk of how Hindus and Muslims are both sons of Ram and Krishna, and persuade Muslims to accept that they are part of Hindutva. This features in all of Tomar’s speeches.
Rastogi sounds agitated as he asks, “Why don’t Muslims associate themselves with Ram and instead keep talking about Babur and Taimur? Why do they talk about Babri if they don’t feel close to Babur? Muslims should acknowledge their lineage with Ram.”
Vahini members constantly invoke the idea of the “good Muslims”—those who acknowledge their Hindu ancestry, who don’t have the appearance of Muslims, who are not very religious, who love Bharat Mata and Gau Mata.
Meanwhile, several cases for rioting and hate speech have been filed against HYV. Also, All India Muslim Majlise-Mushawarat, an umbrella body of over 30 Muslim groups in India, has filed a fact-finding report about the atrocities the outfit committed on Muslims in eastern UP such as abducting Muslim girls and forcibly converting them to oppose ‘love jihad’. When asked about these cases, Tomar calls them “one-sided and biased” actions by the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party governments.
HYV itself has repeatedly laid claim to “ghar vapsi” or reconversion programmes, a goal that also features on its website. “You won’t believe how these missionaries use duplicity to convert people, especially in the poor areas,” Tomar says. I tell him the Constitution guarantees all believers the right to practice and propagate their faith. He responds quickly that these are “forced” conversions.
Cow protection is also high on the Vahini’s agenda. Earlier, says Rastogi, cows were killed frequently in the inner ghettos of Quraishi dominated areas, but the police didn’t prosecute or arrest anyone. “Sometimes they filed a complaint, but later they released the culprits. They used to treat us as nuisances. Not any more. They know that it is Yogi-ji’s government. Now the police takes our activism very seriously.”
It shows. The Vahini is now more assertive and vocal. The new body language is visible in the celebration rallies in Saharanpur where members walk with drawn swords and clarion calls for Ram Rajya. One of their slogans is particularly rousing: Yogi ji ke cheete hain, apne bal pe jeete hain (We are Yogi’s cheetahs, we live off our strength.)