India, the world’s largest democracy, has also become the world’s largest experiment in social-media-fueled terror.
By Mohammad Ali
Published on Wired, Apr 14, 2020
On rare occasions, the Indian government—which prides itself on visions of universal digital literacy, online services, and biometrical identity schemes—still conducts certain official communications by radiogram. An operator sitting at a radio transmitter taps out a message, and then a receiver spits out the transmission in another part of the country, generating an instant legal document. And so it was that on December 31, 2015, the superintendent of the jail in Muzaffarnagar District, Uttar Pradesh, received a copy of a radiogram from India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, marked “urgent.”
The message concerned a particular inmate named Vivek Premi, a local jeweler’s son who had recently spent his 22nd birthday behind bars. In the summer of 2015, Premi had accosted a 42-year-old Muslim laborer named Mohammed Reyaz in the nearby town of Shamli. Because Reyaz was handling a calf, Premi accused him of plotting to deliver the animal to local butchers. This counted as a grave allegation: Killing cows is sacrilege to many Hindus and is illegal in Uttar Pradesh. To make matters even worse for Reyaz, Premi was a local leader in the Bajrang Dal, a radical Hindu youth militia that has long waged a vigilante crusade against cow slaughter.
Together with a crew of his fellow militants, Premi bound Reyaz’s hands behind his back and paraded him through the most crowded market street in Shamli. A large mob formed, smartphones at the ready, as Premi beat the man into semiconsciousness and flogged him with a belt for more than an hour. “Cow killer! Cow killer! Cow killer!” Premi shouted like a man possessed. Before long, the mob overflowed the banks of the physical marketplace, as videos of Premi’s public torture of Reyaz went viral on WhatsApp and YouTube.
Shamli and Muzaffarnagar, which sit in a sugarcane-growing and light industrial region about two and a half hours north of New Delhi, rarely command national attention in India. But when they do, it is often for their communal violence. In 2013 the two districts erupted in sectarian riots between Hindus and Muslims that killed around 50 people and displaced 50,000.
Fearing that Premi was about to rekindle more of the same, the government of Uttar Pradesh—which was then controlled by a democratic socialist party—moved to act. District authorities arrested Premi and invoked a law called the National Security Act, which allows state governments to preemptively detain people who pose a threat to the public order. (Premi was also charged with rioting, intentionally causing harm, and making insults with an intention to breach peace; Reyaz, who was arrested far more swiftly, was charged with cattle smuggling and animal cruelty.) For months, Premi sat in jail.
But now, with a radiogram from Delhi, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s central government was stepping in. As it happens, the street fighters of the Bajrang Dal share a parent organization with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. Both militia and political front were spawned by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing paramilitary volunteer organization that advances the cause of Hindutva—an ideology that aims to refashion India into a state for Hindus.
The radiogram declared that the Home Ministry was “pleased to revoke” the state government’s decision to detain Premi, and that the young vigilante “may be released forthwith from the jail unless he is required to be kept in jail for any other case.”
And so, on the evening of January 15, 2016, a second spectacle played out with Premi at its center, when a crowd began gathering outside the jail in Muzaffarnagar. More than a hundred men milled around in the dusk, hunching into heavy sweaters to ward off the chill. A sickly-sweet odor from the local sugar refineries hung in the air. The men clutched plastic bags of marigold garlands and chatted excitedly amongst themselves. Others fiddled with smartphones. Their ranks included an ultra-right-wing official from the BJP, along with officers from several radical Hindu groups. Despite the cold, their quiet conversations crackled with energy. At 6:15, when the steel gates slid open, they burst into cheers.
A young man in a crumpled white tunic strode out. During his six and a half months in jail, Premi’s beard had filled out, and now his mustache curled up at the tips, making his round, boyish face appear older.
Barely able to suppress their joy, his acolytes rushed to greet him. One of them draped a saffron shawl around Premi’s shoulders and anointed his forehead with a tilak, the red mark that devout Hindus wear. “Dekho, dekho koun aayaa! Hinduon ka sher aaya!” the men chanted. “Look, look who is here! It is the lion of the Hindus!” They hoisted him up on their shoulders, showering him with flower petals as they bore him off into the night.
Premi was equal parts bewildered and excited; at first he thought the crowd was someone’s wedding procession. That night, when he had settled in at home, he asked his family for a phone so he could check who had messaged him while he was in jail. Sitting in his bedroom in Shamli, Premi pushed his SIM card into the small socket of a Lenovo A6000+. When the phone screen came alive, he tapped the Facebook button to log in.
The young vigilante was not particularly fond of social media. He used Facebook only occasionally, to chat with his cousins on Messenger, and otherwise preferred action in the street. But as soon as Premi accessed his account, thousands of messages started downloading, along with thousands of notifications and requests. He wanted to read the messages, but there were too many. Before he could do anything, the phone froze. He had to switch it off completely.
Later, he found the same crush of mentions and messages on WhatsApp and Twitter, a platform he had barely ever touched. It took him a few days to scroll through it all and to process the scope and character of his new fame. His thrashing of Reyaz had been national news in India, and on social media, Premi found, most people seemed to have defended him. And now the Modi government’s decision to free him had brought him back to the national spotlight. Overnight, Premi realized, he had become a household name among the Hindu middle classes of Uttar Pradesh, and many of them shared his convictions: that Hindus were under threat, that Muslims were unrelenting in their conspiracies to turn India into an Islamic state. His new fans seemed hungry for more.
“That was my introduction to the power of social media,” Premi says. Despite his initial skepticism toward a medium that was less physical than he preferred, he resolved to seize the momentum. Shortly after his release, Premi took to Twitter. “I am back again,” he wrote. “Let me see whose mother’s son dares to slaughter cows.” By the next year, he had been elevated to the state-level leadership of the Bajrang Dal.
For six years, from 2012 until 2018, I worked as a staff writer for The Hindu, India’s second largest English-language newspaper. At first I was based in New Delhi, the city where I had spent half of my life. But shortly after Narendra Modi was elected prime minister in May 2014, I decided to take a transfer to western Uttar Pradesh—because I wanted to understand what was really happening beyond the capital’s borders.
Polls had favored Modi’s chances in the election for some time. But for many Indians—and perhaps especially those in the liberal, anglophone press—his victory was shocking nonetheless. For one thing, there was the sheer, unexpected scale of the rout: Modi’s coalition won such a commanding majority that the Congress Party, which had ruled India with few interruptions since independence, was driven into near insignificance. But more than that, it was the underlying truth that was so difficult to absorb. For years, Modi’s reputation had been defined by his history as a far-right Hindu nationalist. His career had exhibited a striking coherence, from his childhood wearing the khaki uniform of the RSS youth corps to his years as a full-time organizer for the paramilitary and his work helping to launch the BJP on a tide of communal resentment. Most of all, Modi had been defined by his early tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, when, under his administration, at least 790 Muslims were massacred by Hindu vigilantes in a three-day killing spree, followed by months of unrest. About 250 Hindus also died in the bloodshed.
But somehow, during his more recent years in Gujarat, Modi had managed to rebrand himself as a sunny, pro-business techno-utopian, an abstemious leader with an intuitive grasp of 21st-century infrastructure and social media. An unnerving segment of the Indian and international elite seemed to buy this image. But the even more disturbing implication of Modi’s election was that tens of millions of Indians had voted enthusiastically for his original brand: for the virulently Islamophobic, authoritarian rhetoric that his party spewed through lesser officials and, sub rosa, on vast WhatsApp lists. In Delhi, it was hard to come face to face with this vast swath of India. But to do so, I didn’t have to go particularly far.
With a population of some 220 million people, Uttar Pradesh, which borders Delhi, is India’s most populous state. Beyond its sheer size, it is an important bellwether in the country’s fractious democracy. The state is both the core of India’s “Hindu heartland” and also home to an estimated 43 million Muslims, the largest such total in the country. And the northwestern corner of the state, where I was headed, was a particularly active fault line of sectarian violence and paranoia.
In the summer of Modi’s election, for instance, one particular story from the region had become a blockbuster in the Hindi-language press: In the town of Meerut, a group of Muslim men had allegedly kidnapped a young Hindu woman, brought her to a madrassa, gang-raped her, and forced her to convert to Islam. It was all, the analysis went, an audacious act of “love jihad”—a supposedly widespread conspiracy among Muslims to Islamize India through sex and dating. In the wake of the story, one of the BJP’s most incendiary lawmakers in Uttar Pradesh, a Hindu priest named Yogi Adityanath, made the threat of “love jihad” a centerpiece of his messaging.
Meerut happened to be the town where I was moving, so when I arrived, I went looking for the young woman. I found her and learned that she had retracted her report to the police about the gang rape, explaining that her family had pressured her to concoct the account. In fact, she was a teacher at the madrassa and had fallen in love with a young Muslim man who had never pressured her to convert to Islam, she said. In a touching conclusion to the story, they ended up getting married, and I reported on the ceremony. But much of the Hindi-language press showed little interest in correcting the record.
Instead the media was caught up in a febrile narrative about Muslims that was just beginning to build momentum. Premi’s attack on Reyaz that June was an early indicator of its inevitably violent conclusions.
On the world stage, meanwhile, Modi continued to levitate above a set of increasingly macabre contradictions. In late September 2015 the prime minister embarked on a round of mutually adulatory meetings with Silicon Valley CEOs to promote his Digital India campaign, a plan to bring high-speed internet and digital services to all Indians. Shortly after he landed in the US, Modi’s government quietly shut down the internet across Jammu and Kashmir, the only state in India with a majority-Muslim population, for three days (a test run, perhaps, for longer shutdowns to come).
Then, on September 27, in an open-air town hall meeting with Modi in Palo Alto, Mark Zuckerberg praised the prime minister for his savvy use of platforms like Facebook. “It’s fitting that the leader of the world’s largest democracy is also setting the example for all world leaders for how they should connect with their citizens,” Zuckerberg said. Modi, whose party’s social media apparatus had been pioneering the use of incendiary fake news, smiled back.
The first widely reported lynching in Modi’s India happened the very next day. Just after nightfall in the northwestern Uttar Pradesh village of Bishahra, a small crowd descended on the home of a 52-year-old iron worker named Mohammad Akhlaq, whose neighbor had accused him of stealing and butchering a calf. Someone used the public address system of a Hindu temple to summon an even larger mob from the countryside. By the time police arrived, Akhlaq was dead, having been beaten, bludgeoned with bricks, and stabbed, and his son was critically wounded. When I arrived in Bishahra soon afterward, several of the villagers I met wondered why Akhlaq’s death was causing such a stir; after all, a calf had allegedly died too.
Akhlaq’s was the first of eight lynchings that I would cover over the next three years, as my job increasingly came to involve tracking an epidemic of communal violence in full bloom. According to a database of hate crimes compiled by the Indian organization FactChecker, there were 254 reported attacks against 1 minorities between 2009 and 2018; 90 percent of them occurred after Modi came to power in 2014. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 44 people were killed in “cow-related violence” across 12 Indian states between May 2015 and December 2018. Thirty-six of them were Muslims. Since 2015, the term lynching, a word with 18th-century American roots, has become part of the Indian vernacular.
The Bajrang Dal was involved in a large number of these attacks—either administering the blows directly, coordinating them through its private social media channels, or simply inspiring them by example and propaganda. Following Premi’s brutal assault on Reyaz, dozens of the group’s young extremists had been filmed attacking Muslims, enacting the same kinds of scenes that made Premi a viral sensation. Premi’s subsequent release from jail helped set the template for Hindu vigilantism in another way as well: It reinforced the expectation that violence in the service of Hindutva would not be punished.
In an analysis of 14 vigilante killings by “cow protection” groups like the Bajrang Dal between 2015 and 2018, Human Rights Watch found that police “initially stalled investigations, ignored procedures, or even played a complicit role in the killings and cover-up of crimes.” In April 2017, I crossed into the neighboring state of Rajasthan after a Muslim dairy farmer named Pehlu Khan was attacked and killed there, allegedly by a group of Bajrang Dal vigilantes; the suspects were acquitted, despite the existence of videos showing the attack itself, a dying declaration by the victim naming his attackers, and a confession by one of the accused. (The videos were deemed inadmissible in court on a technicality.)
The flip side of that impunity is that those who bring facts to light often suffer greater consequences. In early September 2017, a journalist named Gauri Lankesh, who had reported critically on Hindu nationalists for years, was shot and killed just outside her house. Over the next couple of weeks, a wave of journalists received death threats, myself included. So I decided to take a break from reporting in India and eventually moved to the United States.
When I settled in New York, though, I kept thinking about Premi. During my time in Uttar Pradesh, I had spoken with him over the phone once or twice for stories. And I was aware that his upward trajectory in the Bajrang Dal had become extraordinary. In 2017 he became chief of the militia’s student wing in western Uttar Pradesh. And in Shamli, his unit of cadres was seen as state-of-the-art, patrolling both the streets and the internet, doling out beatings in one sphere while conducing surveillance and spreading Islamophobic propaganda in the other. According to the fairly regimented schedule of advancement in the militant group, Premi was in line to become either the head or deputy head of the Bajrang Dal in the state. It seemed that many of the most powerful forces in today’s India—the adulation of the Hindu middle classes, the broad scope of social media, and the tacit support of the BJP—were at his back. I wanted to understand how he had been so successful and how the Bajrang Dal really worked.
When I decided to request a face-to-face interview, I wasn’t sure how he would respond, since my name reveals unambiguously that I am a Muslim. But he agreed to speak with me, so I traveled back to India in January of 2019.
Just before the third anniversary of his release from jail, I met Premi on a street corner in Shamli. “How have you been?” I asked, trying to pretend there was no cause for awkwardness. He was an imposing figure. A dark tilak shone prominently on his forehead, and his right earlobe flaunted a small silver ring. He wore an ironed white kurta with a sleeveless red jacket and black shoes with white soles; in keeping with conservative Hindu tradition, a tuft of long, knotted hair dangled from the back of his head. And hovering around him was a clutch of fawning young men.
Premi had called a meeting at a local Bajrang Dal office a short distance away, and he invited me to come along. One of the hovering young men started Premi’s motorcycle for him—a 2008 Royal Enfield Bullet Classic, with the word Hinduraj, meaning “Hindu rule,” etched above the license plate. Another follower looked on adoringly: “Every time he roams across town on the Bullet with the sunglasses on and a tilak on his forehead,” the youth said, “cow slaughterers run away.”
The Bajrang Dal office sat, like a permanent threat, in the middle of a dense Muslim neighborhood. After dismounting his bike, Premi paused to look up and down each side of the street the way a prison guard might scan a cellblock. The owner of a nearby candy store saluted him with a face that seemed to betray awful fear; other shopkeepers and patrons stared back blankly. “There is nothing they can do,” he said as we went up the stairs to his office. “I have fixed many of them.” By “fixed,” he meant “beaten.”
Many Bajrang Dal offices occupy former dharamshalas, or Hindu guesthouses for religious pilgrims. Leaders of the militia have taken them over, arguing that the buildings must remain in service of Hinduism. This one was about 80 years old, with patchy cement betraying its age. Inside the office, six members of the Shamli unit of Bajrang Dal sat on floral-print sheets spread out on the ground, glued to their phones. As Premi walked in, his aides looked up to greet him with invocations of “Jai Shri Ram,” or “Hail Lord Rama”—the war cry of Hindutva activists.
Settling down on a cushion in the center of the room, Premi briefly addressed the public thrashing that had made him famous, saying that he had no regrets. (“I had to show that if a butcher slaughters a cow, we will deal with him,” he later explained.) But cow slaughter, Premi went on, was no longer a high priority for the Bajrang Dal in Uttar Pradesh—because the new BJP government was taking care of it.
In 2017, Modi’s party had gained control of Uttar Pradesh and appointed Yogi Adityanath—the radical Hindu priest who had campaigned on the threat of “love jihad”—as the state’s new chief minister. Adityanath had declared war on the buffalo meat export industry, which is largely run by Muslims and often accused of being involved in cow slaughter. Many slaughterhouses had since been shut down.
So instead, Premi’s cadres in the Shamli unit of the Bajrang Dal were now focused mainly on the fight against love jihad. In practice, this amounted to a bizarre, Stasi-like effort to micromanage the dating scene in a town of 100,000—and to stamp out religious miscegenation at first flush. They ran an extensive surveillance operation, they said, using Facebook and a network of on-the-ground informants.
The social media arm of the dragnet was run by a lanky, bearded teenager named Himanshu Sharma, who sat cross-legged, a cushion resting between his back and the wall. On Facebook, Sharma said, he and his team had infiltrated hundreds of groups and friended thousands of people, trawling for Muslim men who flirted with Hindu women in Shamli. “We monitor everything, including which user ID is making what kind of comments on Facebook,” Sharma said. “They are not subtle in expressing their emotions, and that makes our job easier.” Sometimes, he said, he and his team use fake accounts with female names to draw men out. While he spoke, his smartphone buzzed constantly with notifications.
As Sharma was talking, Premi too was preoccupied with his phone, which serves as his main conduit to the group’s local network of spies. These informants, Premi said, alert the Bajrang Dal whenever they suspect that a Hindu woman is in the company of a Muslim man. Security guards, gatekeepers, waiters, café owners, housekeepers at hotels: “All of them are part of our team,” Premi said. “The effectiveness of this system is that they remain anonymous among the common people, but they are our eyes.”
Sitting next to Sharma was the oldest member of the group, Jitendar Rana, 42, a trader who considered himself Premi’s mentor. Rana granted that, now that the BJP ran Uttar Pradesh, there were fewer interreligious displays of affection in public. But the Bajrang Dal’s message to informants was that vigilance was key. “You show them to us if you see them,” he said. “We will take care of them.”
When I asked them for an example, the men told me the following story. Early one October morning in 2018, Sharma got a call from an informant reporting a love jihad emergency. The tip concerned a couple who had booked a room in a local hotel. The informant, a waiter, believed that the man was a Muslim and that he and his girlfriend visited regularly to have sex.
Within 20 minutes, according to Premi, Sharma, and Rana, a mob of Bajrang Dal workers had assembled outside the hotel. The couple had been required to hand over ID to book the room, and the mob demanded to see it. The militants gathered outside the couple’s room and started banging on the door. When the couple refused to open it, the mob made a unanimous decision to break it down.
The couple were in their mid-twenties. The guy was tall, well built, with a few days of stubble. Before he could do anything, the Bajrang Dal workers overpowered him. “We did physiotherapy on the guy,” said Rana, smiling at his use of coded language for violence. They pushed him against a closet and told him to strip so they could see whether he was circumcised, a sure sign that he wasn’t Hindu. After that, the group handed the man over to police.
To the cadres’ surprise, the woman claimed that the man was her husband, and she produced an identification card to prove it. Members of the mob argued that the document was counterfeit. The woman stood her ground, so Premi called her family, who hadn’t known about her relationship with the Muslim man. Later, Sharma said, the woman’s family forced her to leave her job and stay at home.
I later sought to verify this account with the hotel. The man who ran the reception desk declined to confirm any specific details. But on the condition that I avoid using the hotel’s name, he said, “There was some issue about a love jihad case. It is our business to host people. But we have to be vigilant about not promoting love jihad.”
One sunny Saturday, I met up with Premi’s deputy, Sharma, to visit the court in Shamli. Premi had been apprehensive about introducing me to one of his informers, but he had finally agreed to let me speak to a lawyer who he said was an integral part of his network, since all interreligious marriages are registered at the court. On the way over, Sharma praised the attorney effusively.
Past the pink walls of the entrance, we entered a narrow concrete labyrinth of lawyers’ chambers. It was loud, with court clerks, police, and hundreds of clients competing for attention from the attorneys. Finally we found our man. He was tall, bearded, and dressed in a white formal shirt, black pants, a black sweater, and black formal shoes. His name was Sachin Pal. He smiled and politely asked us to wait while he finished some paperwork, then led us out to a tea shop in the far corner of the compound.
I asked him how many interreligious couples register their weddings in Shamli. “Sir, we try to ensure that no couples manage to register their weddings,” he replied. “We don’t let it happen at all.”
He claimed that he was part of a larger network of lawyers. If any Muslim man approaches the courts to register his marriage to a Hindu woman, he said, other workers in his office tell him when the couple has arranged to visit the court. Then all he has to do is call or send a quick WhatsApp text to Premi’s entourage. “On the day the couple comes to the court, the workers of Bajrang Dal take care of them at the gate,” the lawyer went on. When I asked what he meant, Sharma chimed in to clarify: “We treat them the way we treated the guy we caught at the hotel.”
Even lawyers who weren’t part of the network now avoided working on interreligious marriages. “Everyone is scared of taking up these cases,” the attorney said. “Because a huge mob of Bajrang Dal workers shows up.”
While I was spending all this time in Shamli alongside Premi and his accomplices, I also wanted to meet with someone else—someone I had only seen in videos that replayed often in my mind.
Shirt torn, bare-chested, his face swollen from beating, Mohammed Reyaz stands listlessly in the crowded marketplace as blood flows from his right eye and trickles down through his beard. One man from the Bajrang Dal holds him by the collar of his torn gray shirt while Premi flogs him with a belt, displaying no hesitation. Premi pauses when he grows tired, and rolls his sleeves up to his elbows to do his job more efficiently.
Because Reyaz’s hands are tied behind his back, he can only hunch down to deflect the flogging. Aware of the many smartphones pointed at him, Premi glances up to meet the cameras. When he stops to interrogate Reyaz, the laborer seems to be semiconscious and can barely talk. Reyaz tries to explain that he is not interested in slaughtering cows. Young men in the mob next to Premi smile and wait for their turn to flog Reyaz. One of them, impatient, rolls up his sleeves and starts in. The video ends.
On January 4, 2019, I met Reyaz in the dilapidated one-room house he rents several miles from Shamli. The room was spartan, with bare brick walls. A woman in her late thirties tended a woodstove. The only furniture was a pair of rough wooden cots. Piled together on one of them, three of their young children slept soundly.
Reyaz sat on the dirt floor in a brown sweater, with a woolen muffler hanging from his neck. He had a pensive expression under his short, unkempt beard. To revisit the day of his beating—the hellish pain, the fear, the shame—was excruciating.
“I assumed it was the last few moments of my life,” Reyaz explained. “I begged him to stop and let the police punish me if I did something wrong. But he wouldn’t stop flogging me. I went unconscious after some time.” Reyaz lit a bidi, a poor man’s cigarette of unprocessed tobacco wrapped in a coarse leaf. After taking several drags, he continued: “I was not doing anything illegal.” Then his voice took on a pleading tone.
“Please do not tell anyone where I live. They will hunt me down if they know I spoke against them,” he said. “They did this to me when they were not in power. Imagine what they will do now that they have the protection of the ruling party.”
Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead. Reyaz said he no longer showed his face in Shamli, where Hindu militants roam the streets with impunity. He said his entire family avoids the town.
Hindus make up about 80 percent of India’s population, and Muslims—at about 14 percent—are a disadvantaged minority by almost every measure: They are poorer, less educated, more likely to be imprisoned, and far less socially mobile than Hindus. Decades of housing discrimination and successive rounds of communal violence have also pushed them into Muslim ghettos, which only reinforce their socioeconomic inertia and stereotypes of Muslim backwardness.
So why is it that so many Hindus are convinced that Muslims have a diabolical upper hand and are on the verge of eliminating India’s dominant religious group? This worldview has become disturbingly prevalent over the course of my lifetime. I wanted to know how Premi, in particular, had come to believe it so deeply.
One day, Premi invited me to meet him at another Bajrang Dal office, in yet another dharamshala in the heart of a Muslim neighborhood, this time on the outskirts of Delhi. It was to be our first long, one-on-one chat, and I had a few minutes to wait before he was ready for me. Hanging on the wall opposite me was a life-size portrait of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the second supreme leader of the RSS.
Established in 1925, the RSS grew up in parallel with the European fascist movements of the 1930s, and Golwalkar was one of its chief intellectual architects. A lawyer, ascetic, and sometime zoology lecturer, he argued that India was synonymous with Hinduism, and that Hinduism was a kind of race—not in the biological sense, but in the sense that its cultural and religious essence grew from Indian soil.
In Golwalkar’s mind, anyone who chose to practice another religion that was not native to the soil of India—whether it was Islam, Christianity, or a secular faith like communism—was an alien who had forfeited any standing in the race and the nation. “The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion,” Golwalkar wrote, “or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizen’s rights.”
Inspired by the example of Nazi Germany, Golwalkar knew it was unlikely that “foreigners” would peacefully accept terms like these; he regarded Muslims, Christians, and communists as “hostile elements within the country” who posed “a far greater menace to national security than aggressors from outside.” If they refused to convert or submit, he intimated, they would have to be purged—forced to “quit the country at the sweet will of the national race.”
The RSS was profoundly out of step with the Indian independence movement, which ultimately enshrined the ideas of secularism and religious freedom in the country’s constitution. The new government banned the RSS altogether in 1948, after one of its former members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mohandas Gandhi for his “constant and consistent pandering to Muslims.”
Still, the Hindu nationalist volunteer corps kept expanding. It had absorbed a million members by the 1970s and spawned dozens of front groups. Modi joined the RSS as an 8-year-old boy and went on to carry out its business in secret when it had to go underground again in the late ’70s. Amit Shah, Modi’s immensely powerful and outspoken home minister, likewise became involved with the RSS as a youth.
In 1980 the RSS spawned a new political arm called the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP spent its first 10 years on the margins of Indian politics, with barely any seats in Parliament. But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the party and its RSS allies found a way to captivate Hindus across India: They focused their activism on a single 16th-century mosque called the Babri Masjid, in the Uttar Pradesh city of Ayodhya.
According to long-standing legend, this particular mosque had been built atop the spot where the Hindu god Ram was born, so the RSS launched a movement to build a temple in the mosque’s place. In 1990 one of the cofounders of the BJP, L. K. Advani, embarked on a months-long pilgrimage from the coast of Gujarat to Ayodhya, a journey that doubled as a roving political rally—organized in large part by the 40-year-old Narendra Modi. Traveling in a car that had been decked out to look like a chariot, Advani criss-crossed a huge swath of India, inciting frequent Hindu-Muslim riots in his wake. To provide muscle and protection when violence inevitably broke out around its Ayodhya activism, the RSS had also recently spun off a youth militia called the Bajrang Dal.
Finally, on December 6, 1992, the Ayodhya movement reached its climax: That day, a rally of some 150,000 Hindus overwhelmed police and stormed the Babri Masjid, razing it with hand tools in a matter of hours. Mass Hindu-Muslim violence broke out across the country. But by then—largely on the strength of Hindu identification with the Ayodhya movement—the BJP was the second-largest party in Parliament and controlled several state legislatures.
While the BJP had suddenly become a mainstream political party, no one seemed to know how seriously to take the Bajrang Dal. In 1997 the political scientist Paul Richard Brass called the group “a somewhat pathetic, but nevertheless dangerous version” of the Nazi Sturmabteilung, or SA, the militia group that protected Hitler’s first rallies. The same horrified but dismissive tone followed the Bajrang Dal for years. In January 1999, in the state of Odisha, a mob chanting the words “Jai Bajrang Dal” set fire to a station wagon where an Australian Christian missionary named Graham Stuart Staines was sleeping with his sons, Philip, 10, and Timothy, 6. All three Australians died in the blaze. Under the headline “Loonies at Large,” an article in India Today described the perpetrators as “ruffians with Hindutva leanings” who constituted a “lunatic fringe.” The idea that the Bajrang Dal, too, might one day become mainstream was unthinkable.
When Premi was ready to meet, he called me up to the roof. He was dressed in a crisp pair of military green trousers, a navy blue jacket zippered up to his neck, and black leather sandals. He sat and beckoned me to join him.
From the earliest moments of his childhood, I learned, Premi had been defined and surrounded by Hindu nationalism. He was strongly influenced by his grandparents, both of whom were Hindutva activists. His grandfather ran a Hindu martial arts training center, called an akhara, while his grandmother was the local head of the women’s wing of Arya Samaj, a Hindu revivalist movement that started in 1875 and has converted thousands of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.
Premi grew up attending schools run by the educational arm of the RSS—one of the largest chains of private schools in India—which instill Hindutva ideology and present Muslims and Christians as alien to Indian culture. Beginning in 2006, when he was 12 years old, Premi also began receiving formal weapons and self-defense training in the local Bajrang Dal akhara. He developed a lifelong fascination with firearms. “Since childhood I was fond of having pistols in my hand,” he told me. He eventually became accomplished enough to train instructors who run camps that prepare Hindu youth for self-defense with rifles, swords, and sticks. Though the camps that teach such skills are illegal, the Bajrang Dal trains thousands of youngsters in them each year across India.
In school and at the akhara, Premi was taught that India started out as a strictly Hindu nation, one that was victimized and terrorized during centuries of Muslim rule, when Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam. And he learned that the Muslim oppression of Hindus continues to this day. “We may have gotten freedom from the British, but we did not get freedom from the ideology of secularism, the ideology of communists. What is secularism? It is only about hurting the Hindu religion,” he said. And he came to believe that Indian Muslims are animated by “jihad ideology.”
Premi became a Bajrang Dal district leader when he was 18, which gave him numerous responsibilities: “Going to election booths to ensure that Muslims do not dominate any area in casting votes, and mobilizing youths if that was happening. Checking if police were not listening to Hindus, and if Hindus were being oppressed by the police. Taking action when someone abused or insulted Hindu symbols and culture. Keeping an eye out to make sure that no one outraged the honor of any Hindu girl.” But his purview was entirely local—until everything changed in 2015.
Looking back, Premi still regarded his beating of Reyaz, and the attention and status it brought him, as something of a fluke. After all, he said, it was not the first time he had thrashed a Muslim over cow slaughter.
Now, as a state-level leader, Premi claimed to be a member of over 500 WhatsApp groups. They included numerous district-level groups that he ran and monitored, as well as national and international groups run by other radical Hindutva leaders. From his phone, he was constantly surveying the battle against Islam on all its active fronts. The fight against love jihad was only one of them. The Bajrang Dal and its allies were also fighting against “land jihad,” a supposed conspiracy among Muslims to take over land and property in Hindu areas, make Hindus leave, and gradually take over whole neighborhoods. In practice, this amounted to a campaign to keep Muslims in their ghettos, at times by forcibly revoking undesirable real estate sales through intimidation.
The high fertility rate of India’s Muslim population was an even more towering obsession: Hindutva activists called it “population jihad.” In the memes and fantasies of the Hindu right, Indian Muslims are doing their utmost to outnumber Hindus, and they have already succeeded in many parts of India. “In West Bengal, the population of Hindus is less than Muslims,” Premi told me. “Every day, Muslim youths gather in some part of the state and attack Hindus. I get information about that on social media.”
But that information was more a collective hallucination than a set of facts. According to the most recent census figures, Muslims constitute 27 percent of the population of West Bengal; Hindus, about 71 percent. And across India, the Muslim birth rate—while indeed higher than Hindus’—has fallen faster than that of any other group in India over the past three decades. It is now the lowest it has ever been. Demographers predict that India’s Muslim population will stabilize at about 19 percent of the population by around 2100.
As the sun set, Premi had his assistant bring us balushahi, a local sweet. After I had my fill, I offered some of my portion to the assistant, who hesitated. “Have the sweet,” Premi told the man. “Don’t worry. He is not the kind of Muslim who will kill you.”
Throughout my reporting, my own status as a Muslim was the elephant in whatever Bajrang Dal office I happened to be in. I often felt provoked, needled, and scrutinized in my reactions, and occasionally vaguely threatened. At one point, one of Premi’s deputies leaned over to whisper to another—loud enough for me to hear—to ask if my ghar vapasi might be possible.
Ghar vapasi, which means “homecoming,” is the name of the RSS’s initiative to convert all Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. One Hindutva intellectual has called this kind of mass conversion “the Final Solution for the Muslim problem.”
On the evening when we sat on the roof together, Premi tried to explain the concept as if it were entirely reasonable. “See, everyone accepts that they used to be Hindus at some point in time. It was under duress that they were converted by Muslim kings, forcibly,” he said. “What is the problem now? There is no one to force them now. They should come back to the fold of Hinduism.”
Not knowing how else to reply, I responded with: “Hmmm.” There was a long and awkward silence between us, but I kept my head down, glued to my notepad, pretending to write something very important. Eventually, Premi shifted to talk about a ghar vapasi he had personally carried out.
In April 2018, a dalit Hindu welder named Pawan Kumar chose to convert to Islam. Word of his new faith got back to the Bajrang Dal, and 20 days later, Premi’s deputies appeared at Kumar’s door. Surrounding him in his room, they flicked the skullcap off Kumar’s head and began slapping and punching him, asking him if he had really converted to Islam and if he wanted to remain a Muslim. Cowed, Kumar said no. So they called in a barber to shave his beard, and someone in the crowd applied a red tilak to his forehead.
A couple of Bajrang Dal activists recorded what happened next, raising their smartphones high overhead for the best view, and the video went viral. It shows Premi performing an elaborate purification ceremony on the man. “Now say, ‘I have no relation with any Muslim, nor will I ever go to a mosque,’ ” Premi tells him. Visibly fear-struck, Kumar’s voice is barely audible as he repeats the words.
“The moment he said he had converted to Islam, we pushed him right then and demolished him. How dare he become a Muslim! I turned him a Hindu again,” Premi told me, breaking into a laugh. There is a very small triangular gap between his two front teeth, which I noticed every time he smiled.
Then Premi turned serious. “Our purpose is to convert everyone living here to Hinduism. It will happen,” he said. “You may not see this today, but it is bound to happen one day.” The awkward silence between us grew longer. Once again I tried to pretend that I did not hear anything. “Look,” he said, “I may not be alive, but this will happen.” Later that January, I left India again, feeling more like a stranger in my own country than ever before.
Things only got worse from there. In May 2019, Narendra Modi was elected to a second term as prime minister, in one of the most overwhelming landslides in Indian history. Three months later, his government withdrew statehood from Jammu and Kashmir, essentially removing any capacity for self-governance from the state’s Muslim majority. As he brought the territory under federal control, he sent in troops, locked up the state’s elected leaders, and shut down internet and cell service, this time for nearly six months.
When Modi’s government released the country’s annual crime report in October 2019, it simply did not release the number of hate crimes committed against religious minorities or journalists. By then, two private databases that tracked hate crimes against Muslims had also disappeared from the internet.
In all sorts of ways, the pace of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist endgame was picking up. But in Uttar Pradesh, Premi was brooding and cooling his heels. In August 2019 his superiors in the Bajrang Dal had assigned him to the small town of Bulandshahr, about three hours southeast of Shamli—not to raise hell but to do damage control.
The previous winter, a mob led by the local Bajrang Dal district chief—a young Premi-in-training named Yogesh Raj—seemed to have finally crossed a line that caused public uproar: They allegedly attacked and killed a police inspector. The victim, Subodh Kumar Singh, had led the investigation into the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq back in 2015. Singh had arrested several of the people allegedly involved, including the son of a local BJP politician. And now the inspector’s family believed that he had been targeted in reprisal.
Police in Bulandshahr locked up two of the young leaders of the mob, including the district Bajrang Dal chief, and bad press about the militia flooded in. Premi’s mission was to stabilize the situation, impose some discipline, and keep the local Bajrang Dal youth from doing anything to compound the damage. As he put it to me, “I was asked to come here to make sure that our cadres don’t exhibit unnecessary displays of enthusiasm.” Within three weeks of his arrival in town, the two young suspects had been released on bail.
I had come back to India for a few weeks and decided to pay a visit to Premi in Bulandshahr. He seemed bored and talked about how he missed beating up cow slaughterers.
While we were talking, sitting on plastic chairs in a small and dingy room in the local Bajrang Dal office, a man in his early sixties came in asking for Premi. He was a retired clerk, and he wanted to report that a few Christian missionaries had been visiting his settlement once a month. Some of the man’s relatives had left Hinduism, and he was visibly upset about it. He asked Premi to take care of the missionaries. The moment he left the room, Premi took out his phone to get the word out. “Complaint of conversion by Christians in dalit area,” he blasted out to the district Bajrang Dal cadres on WhatsApp. “Need to be alert.”
Sensing an opportunity, I made a request that I’d been anxiously contemplating for some time: I asked Premi if I could look at his phone.
In recent months, the BJP had become more brazen in talking about its own vast apparatus for generating memes. In September 2018, Amit Shah had given a speech to the party’s social media volunteers and talked about a WhatsApp group that the BJP ran for 3.2 million supporters in Uttar Pradesh. “We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public,” he said, “whether sweet or sour, truth or a lie.”
I had been watching Premi busy himself with his device for months, and for years I had been hearing about how central WhatsApp has become to the rise of the Hindu right. But WhatsApp is a black box: an end-to-end encrypted, private service. The closest I could come to experiencing how Premi and his allies saw the world, I realized, would be to see what was coursing through his account, if just for a few minutes.
Premi seemed deeply uncomfortable with the idea, but he eventually handed his phone to me, on condition that I only forward to myself messages that he approved. I looked at only a couple of the several hundred groups he belongs to: One was the local Bulandshahr Bajrang Dal list, where I could see Premi coordinating with all of his cadres and informants, trading tips and alerts. Another was a national list full of memes and propaganda, and I scrolled through dozens of items. One long message in Hindi went like this:
Hindus formed half of the population in the Kashmir Valley just 20 years ago. Today not even a single Hindu is left in Kashmir. Ten years ago, Hindus constituted 60% of the total population of Kerala, but today they form only 10% of the State’s population. In northeastern states of India like Sikkim, Nagaland, Assam, etc., Hindus are being killed or thrown out every day or religiously converted … There are no more Hindus in Afghanistan, Hindus are on the verge of becoming a rare species in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and even in India, the number of Hindus is continuously reducing. What are the reasons for this???? If you don’t reply to this question right now? In the future you won’t be in a position to respond.
Data of childbirth at a government hospital at Kasaragod in Kerala. Hindus-37, Christians-12, and Muslims-138. Muslims make babies and Hindus create wealth. But the same wealth comes in handy for the use of these Mullas. This is the black history of Hindus in this country … Jai Hindutva.
Yet another post presented a kind of infographic: a family tree of all the many supposed varieties of jihad. It broke them down into two main branches: hard jihad and soft jihad. Hard jihad encompassed several terms that were now familiar to me—population jihad, love jihad, and land jihad—but also several varieties that Premi hadn’t told me about. I marveled at how systematic it was.
Of course, the posts were a fever dream. The figures about births in Kasaragod had no source that I could trace. And the idea that the Kashmir Valley was recently majority Hindu, or that it is now completely empty of Hindus, is preposterous. In 1901, according to a census conducted by the British Empire, Hindus constituted 5.2 percent of the valley’s population. In 2011 they made up 1.8 percent.
But what seemed very real was that even if social media platforms hadn’t created the mass delusions of Hindu extremism, they had provided a shockingly efficient infrastructure for their spread. India has 400 million WhatsApp users and 260 million users of Facebook, and it is the largest global market for both platforms. Facebook has come under heavy fire in India for uneven enforcement of its community standards against hate speech and misinformation. A 2019 report by the NGO Equality Labs found that Islamophobic posts often stayed up on the platform. In a particularly chilling example, Equality Labs found a huge number of Indian Facebook posts targeting Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, who had already been the victims of one social-media-fueled ethnic cleansing in their home country. The Indian pages called the Rohingya “cockroaches” and posted fake videos that purported to show them cannibalizing Hindus—clear violations of Facebook’s standards.
Facebook, which owns both platforms, tells WIRED that it has expanded its content review team in India, and has made progress in pulling down content that violates its standards on its eponymous blue app. But WhatsApp, the far more popular platform, essentially has no community standards. Because all of its communication is encrypted, the content that flows through it is entirely in the hands of its users.
After about 10 minutes, I handed Premi’s phone back to him. His mood seemed worse.
I asked what he and the Bajrang Dal were focusing on these days. “Illegal immigrants,” he said. Millions of Bangladeshis, he told me, had infiltrated India and spread out across the country, and the Bajrang Dal was on high alert about it. “Have you noticed the illegal settlements of Muslims on the outskirts of every city in the last five to 10 years? This is new. They didn’t live here before,” he said. “We have to beware of such people who don’t look Indian.” It sounded like he might just be describing poor settlements of Indian Muslims.
“We have to keep vigil, identify these intruders,” he said. “They are the termites of this country, surviving on our resources. They need to be thrown out like termites.” His language closely mirrored a speech that Amit Shah had given during a BJP election rally in April in West Bengal. “Infiltrators are like termites in the soil,” the home minister had said. “A BJP government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them in the Bay of Bengal.”
To identify all of these Bangladeshi infiltrators across the country, Premi told me, the government should roll out a nationwide register of citizens: a program to suss out who really belonged in India.
A version of what Premi was suggesting was already underway in Assam, a far northeastern Indian state that borders Bangladesh. Over the previous few years, all 33 million people in the state had been required to supply evidence that they or their ancestors were Indian citizens before 1971, the year Bangladesh was established. But it proved hard for many Indians to dig up the right moldering documents. Ultimately, in August 2019, some 1.9 million people were essentially deemed foreigners and were given 120 days to appeal their status, as the government raced to build mass detention centers. Even from the BJP’s perspective, the program was a fiasco: The 1.9 million people in limbo included a huge number of Hindus, which led the state-level party leadership to disavow the whole effort.
But Premi, who told me he was contemplating a future in politics, still wanted to see a national version of the program—because he understood that a fix for its biggest flaw was already in the works.
Just a few weeks later, in late November, Amit Shah announced that a National Citizens Register would indeed be rolled out across all of India in 2020. Then, on December 9, Shah introduced a bill before India’s Parliament called the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which would establish a fast track to citizenship for anyone found to be an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Afghanistan—provided they were Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian. In other words: Only Muslims needed to worry. The bill passed in a mere two days.
It didn’t take long for people to realize that the new law, combined with a national citizens register, could easily provide a mechanism for stripping Indian Muslims of their citizenship. Protests erupted across the country. In the first mass demonstrations under Modi’s rule, liberal Hindus and secular Indians finally woke up to the scope of the danger posed by the BJP government. One headline called the citizenship law “Golwalkar’s Dream Come True.” Shashi Tharoor, a prominent Congress Party leader, called it “an all-out assault on the very idea of India for which our forefathers gave their lives” and a violation of India’s constitution. Momentarily fazed, the BJP denied that there was any connection between the new citizenship law and the National Register of Citizens—an argument strained by Shah’s numerous public statements making clear that they were tailored for each other, a matching set. Meanwhile, the government’s effort to build mass detention centers spread to other parts of the country.
This February, as peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act continued, Donald Trump paid a visit to the Indian capital. As Trump was about to arrive, a local BJP leader demanded that a Muslim sit-in be removed from northeast Delhi. Hindu nationalists promptly staged a pogrom in the city—one that was nauseatingly reminiscent of the violence that wracked Gujarat in 2002, during Modi’s first term as chief minister there. Roving Hindu mobs attacked Muslim homes, firebombed their shops, and assaulted Muslims on the street. Videos surfaced of Delhi police—who serve under Amit Shah’s Home Ministry—destroying CCTV cameras and standing over a heap of badly injured Muslim men, forcing them to sing India’s national anthem. Fifty-three people were killed, most of them Muslims; hundreds were injured. Meanwhile, at a state banquet less than a dozen miles away, Trump was heaping praise on Modi and listening to the Indian Navy Band play Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
As I watched events unfold from New York, something shifted inside me. I had spent much of my career reporting on sectarian violence in India, yet I had always thought of communal bloodshed as something that happened outside of Delhi—at least an hour or two away, in a dusty place like Muzaffarnagar or Shamli or Bishahra. Now the feeling of safety I had always identified with the capital was gone. As I watched a video of a Hindu mob dragging a young man by his legs while chanting “Jai Shri Ram,” it was like seeing Mohammad Akhlaq’s lynching transposed to my own familiar neighborhoods.
Since then, I have become terrified for my family, and haunted by the image of my parents in a detention camp. I worry that they won’t be able to find the documents to prove that their parents were born in India. I feel a sense of betrayal more strange and personal than anything I’ve felt before toward my country: India is breaking its constitutional promise to protect everyone irrespective of religion, and we Muslims are coming to terms with the likelihood that nothing will save us. Even liberal Hindus, who cherish the idea of a secular India, have been far too slow to realize how extreme the Hindu mainstream has become, and how close a “ruffian with Hindutva leanings” like Vivek Premi can now stand at the center of Indian political life. Earlier this year, Premi quit his full-time work for the Bajrang Dal and became a district secretary for the BJP.
A few days after the violence in Delhi, the anchor of a national, prime-time Hindi-language news show devoted an hour to discussing the dangers of all the various kinds of jihad. He flashed onscreen the very same infographic that I’d seen on Premi’s WhatsApp network, the one that showed the family tree of hard and soft jihad. The anchor invited readers to post their own photos of buildings taken over by Muslims under the hashtag #LandJihad.
On April 1 this year, India was scheduled to begin carrying out a national population registry—a first step toward completing its National Citizens Register. But as it happened, one nightmare has postponed another. On March 25, the entire country went into lockdown to hold back the spread of Covid-19. Later that month, dozens of people reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus after attending an international event organized by a Muslim missionary group in Delhi. In no time, the Hindi-language airwaves were dominated by coverage that compared the group’s followers to terrorists bent on spreading the virus throughout India. And a new hashtag was trending wildly on Twitter: #coronajihad.
Mohammad Ali (@hindureporter) is a writer based in New York and New Delhi who is working on a book about India under Narendra Modi.