Barely 400 kilometres from Delhi, the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindutva groups have been conducting training camps that put schoolchildren through the paces of using firearms and swords. After Firstpost received information about these camps, we decided to investigate the activities of these organisations and their structure.
We left for Rajasthan's Hanumangarh — one of the many places running such camps in the name of instilling patriotism into young hearts and minds. It was important to make a visit, because in recent times the meaning of patriotism has turned a bit cloudy, and in some circles, it seems to have been forgotten that patriotism and love for one's country does not mean hating another community and lynching people under the pretext of protecting cows.
Upon arriving at this city — that borders Sri Ganganagar, people dressed in saffron and gamchhas were visible all over the place. We were later informed by one of the Bajrang Dal members that this was a new trend in this part of Rajasthan, indicative of the growing influence of such groups in the area.
Upon checking into our hotel room, it was a matter of minutes before three people came knocking at the door. Upon asking them to identify themselves, pat came the answer: "Bajrang Dal members". They came in, did not speak a word and sat on the sofas inside the room. This created a bit of an awkward atmosphere, complete with hints-a-plenty that we were no longer in a 'safe zone' and would be subject to constant surveillance from this point on. Efforts on our part to strike up conversations fell on deaf ears. After a brief look around the room and a glance at our belongings, they left and told us that their leader would meet us in some time.
We waited for their leader Ashish — who heads up Bajrang Dal and VHP in the Jodhpur region — for a while, but there was no sign of him. We were losing hope and began to think they had grown suspicious of us, when a few minutes later my phone rang. The call was from Ashish. We were asked to meet him and his team in the basement of the hotel in which we were staying. There was a palpable sense of excitement and nervousness as we went downstairs to meet that dozens of young men waiting for us. Initially, reluctant to speak, they slowly opened up and went on to speak about their activities at length. But this was only after we had built a good rapport with them and they were confident that we were sympathetic to their cause.
They confessed on the camera that they ran this camp in which they taught school children the art of handling sophisticated weapons. All this was devised to counter the threat of the Islamic State in India and the internal enemies within the country. They also confessed their role in attacks on people in the name of protecting cows and dealing with 'love-jihadis', clearly indicating that these men had taken the law in their own hands and were not letting the police do its duty and fulfil its responsibilities.
The men also confessed that they were helped by the administration to carry out all of this and with the BJP coming to power in the state, they were filled with confidence, particularly with there being some among mainstream political parties and government helping them. They also claimed that it was due to their work on the ground that the BJP won the election, but the party hardly acknowledges it.
Ashish went on to add that his men do everything they can to preserve Hindu culture, stop cow-smuggling and prevent love jihad. They, according to him, are also preparing themselves against the ever-present threat of the Islamic State. "It wouldn't be right to say that the administration completely cooperates with us, but there is always some help from them as they know what we have been doing is right," he added.
On being asked about the killing of Pehlu Khan, Ashish, confessed that it was his men who killed him, but the intention was not to kill. He was killed by mistake.
When interrogated about the training camp, he firmly said, "There is nothing new about the camps as we teach people the art of self-defence; we can see terror activities are gaining ground and it is important to keep ourselves prepared for that challenges. The organisation is also running a training camp in Pali — on the border with Pakistan — right now for young girls, in which they are trained in the art of self-defence."
"We have a good number of people associated with us, we are successful in mobilising people, mostly on the issue of love jihad," said Ashish, adding, "The issue of love jihad is very rampant and Muslim organisations are giving money to Muslim men to trap Hindu girls and convert them."
Commenting on the role of governments and how their work is affected, Ashish said, "Since the BJP came to power, our workers have some confidence, considering the fact that there are people in the BJP who have been associated with the RSS, and have come to the rescue. However, when the BJP comes to power, it forgets that it is because of us that it has come to power. Look what has happened in Assam — the RSS worked on the ground for decades on end, but all the credit for winning the election goes to some prominent face in the party."
On the topic of the training camp, Ashish said that all legal formalities are completed in order to organise these camps, and he shared details of the events. However, when contacted, police officials including Superintendent of Police Yadram Phansal denied having any knowledge about the camp and said the police couldn’t act as there wasn't any complaint against the Bajrang Dal. However, in the pictures (see above), one can clearly see the police escorting a bunch of youths parading on the street.
Since the inception of this investigation, I knew that I was taking a great risk, going into unknown territory to meet people I had never met. This was definitely not a simple thought to stomach when considering that the people I was going to meet were from the Bajrang Dal and VHP, who have had a history of violence. To get over this fear, I decided to identify myself as Anupam Kumar — clearly Pehlu Khan was on my mind and the fear of revealing my real identity was lurking inside me. However, I decide not to back out and go ahead with this story and capture these people on camera.
We were done with our job, had investigated details the story, and were ready to return from Hanumangarh to Delhi when a local informer acting as a journalist stepped in and informed these people of my real identity as a Muslim. Shortly after, the police was there asking us to get out of our vehicle. Vijay Pandey, Anupam Pandey and I were in the vehicle at the time. Vijay, a photo journalist and Anupam, a journalist based in Delhi and I were taken to the police station in different cars and threatened with false cases and arrests until our friends from Delhi began calling in, demanding our immediate release.
The policemen were harsher to us than the Bajrang Dal activists. One of them told the leader of the Bajrang Dal, “If you don’t file a case against him, I will.” One of the policemen also threatened to beat me with his shoes, regardless of whether or not he was suspended afterwards. All this clearly made us believe that they didn’t want us to do our work freely. Even after we had identified ourselves and shown them our identity cards and other documents of identification, they were not willing to let us go.
By Asad Ashraf