THEY ARE young, between 19 and 24 years. They travel across Bihar’s Sheikhpura district on their motorcycles, carrying the message of “Hindu unification”. They aren’t just members of the district’s new Bajrang Dal unit, they virtually set it up on their own last year. And on March 28, it was they who took the lead in organising the first ever Ram Navami procession here with over 4,000 people.
Today, this group of youngsters, many from well-off families, stands accused of rioting, breach of peace, and causing grievous injuries in a clash between participants of the procession on one side, and local residents and the district administration on the other — one of the many communal incidents that rattled Bihar last month-end.
The Sunday Express spoke to a cross-section of those who were part of the procession, from traders to students and even a coaching centre owner, to map the fault lines that led to the clashes.
One of them, Vivek Kumar Singh, 22 years old and ward 8 in-charge, finds mention in the police FIR as one of those who approached the administration for permission to stage the procession. “I always wanted to protect the Hindu faith. At that time there was no Bajrang Dal in Sheikhpura. But I have a friend in Giridih who is part of the Dal. He sent me videos of gau hatya that was carried out in the country, and how the Dal stops it. I told him that I wished there was a similar organisation in Sheikhpura, and he put me in touch with seniors in the organisation. I met them, they gave us instructions, and we joined the Dal,” says Singh.
Then there’s Lalit Vijay, who is “proud” of what they have achieved. “When we began in 2017, we only had 50-60 members. Now we have grown to at least 1,800 registered members in the district,” he says. Vijay is one of the 43 named as accused in the FIR on the Sheikhpura violence. He runs a coaching centre, where he also tells students about the Dal. At 23, he is also a “nagar adhyaksh” for the BJP. “I have worked a lot. I have the strength, too. Now, if I get one call, I can mobilise 500 men,” he says.
Also named in the FIR is Nitish Rana, 19, a second-year BA student and one of those at Vijay’s coaching centre and, of course, a Dal member. “How we recruit people is that we carry a form. All of our members in their areas go to the villages and talk to people about the threat to Hindu faith. We tell everyone to keep an hour aside every day for this,” says Rana.
But the spread of these ideas that include “the ever increasing Muslim population”, “attacks on Hindus and their faith” are not just through conversations, but also through activities that show their presence. “We take mandirs under our wing, and work for their upkeep. We even keep a watch on vehicles that carry cattle to ensure that they don’t do gau hatya, and often we try and stop them on the roads,” says Vivek Singh.
For the Ram Navami procession, Vijay says, members collected donations, totalling Rs 2 lakh over two months. “We used Rs 1.5 lakh for the procession,” he says. According to police and local residents, Dal members went across Sheikhpura in the nights leading up to March 28, putting up saffron flags and posters. On March 25, they approached the district administration for permission, where much like in other places in Bihar, there was a disagreement about the route.
“We wanted to hold the procession through a lane that cuts through the town from Mauritola, Budhauli, Llabagh and Ayyapur, coming out at Gudawali bazaar. There are two wards on this street which have a Muslim population. But we said this should not matter. They hold their Muharram processions there, and even idol immersion processions go through that street. So why shouldn’t we? When the permission came on March 27, this route wasn’t approved. But one police officer told us to accept whatever permission we had obtained so that no one can stop us the next day,” says Vivek Singh, who describes himself as a businessman.
At 11 am on March 28, the procession began at Hanuman Mandir. According to Raja Kumar, 24, who is also on that FIR, when they reached the contested gali, they found their path blocked by police. “There were lots of people from the villages as well. They were adamant about not letting us through. Some of us sat down on dharna chanting Jai Shri Ram. We were doing everything peacefully. We are all from here, and know the Muslims as well. Even they called us to say they had made arrangements of water and food for us,” he says.
A Muslim resident of the narrow lanes of Lalbaugh, who did not want to be identified, said that they reached out to the Dal after they came to know that the rally would be carried through the area despite the administration’s refusal. “We wanted to reach out so they weren’t hostile. But on the day, when the DJ was playing slogans like ‘Hindustan mein rehna hoga to Vande Mataram kehna hoga’ and everybody seemed to be carrying a sword, we were afraid of what might happen and stayed inside our homes,” he says.
According to the FIR, the crowd made repeated attempts to enter the lane beginning 3 pm, and pelted stones at the administration which resulted in a police launching a lathicharge and firing tear gas shells. Raja Kumar, however, claims that once they realised the administration would not allow them to go through the street, the members of the Dal moved on. “We did not want violence. So we moved on. Some anti-social elements had come from outside who we don’t know. They created all the trouble,” he says.
Most of those named in the FIR are members of the Dal but Vijay claims the participants cut across parties. “Some are like me, from the BJP. Others are from the JD(U). When we recruited them, we didn’t see party differences,” he says. Rajendra Kumar Bheel, SP Sheikhpura, says two people have been arrested. “We are looking at the video evidence, and will take appropriate action in the time to come based solely on the evidence,” he says.
They may be under investigation, but there is no fear of arrest. Vijay says, “No one will arrest us. We have a lot of support now. Sheikhpura will shut down if anyone even lifts a finger against us.”