Someone in the crowd shot the video: Arms tied behind his back, Mohammed Riyaz sways before Vivek Premi, a muscular bearded young man with a leather belt wrapped around his fist. It is an overcast afternoon in June 2015 in Shamli, a provincial town in western Uttar Pradesh. Down by Shiv Chowk, the white metal grillwork of wrought iron Oms and swastikas around the Shiv-ling on the street corner offers a striking backdrop for the action to follow.
For a moment, Premi appears lost, a hunter confounded by his prey. Then his arm coils, the belt swings through the air and strikes Riyaz across his chest, across his legs, about his head; all that can be heard is the sound of leather hitting flesh and Premi’s hoarse shouting, “This is cow slaughter, cow slaughter, cow slaughter, cow slaughter. This is cow slaughter.”
Within hours, the footage was everywhere: local newsrooms put it on their front pages; Gau Raksha (cow-protection) WhatsApp groups across the country circulated it amongst their friends, it racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.
In the year that followed, the video of a Hindu flogging a Muslim in a town square would imbue Premi’s young life with power, diminish Riyaz to helplessness, and put a riot-prone, communally-sensitive region on edge. It would reveal the newest route to Rajneeti or politics – that time honoured destination for the young and ambitious in small-town India.
But at that moment, Premi recalled as we drove through his hometown last week, he was consumed by the desire to make an example of Riyaz.
“He was stealing a cow for slaughter,” Premi said, “We wanted to show this town that this is what we do to cow killers, and if needed, we will do this again.”
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Friends in High Places
There is enough footage of Gau Rakshaks attacking suspected cattle-rustlers to constitute its own genre on YouTube. Those curious can spend hours watching gangs of men assaulting their captives with steel rods, motorcycle chains, hockey sticks, leather belts, and – on one occasion – pausing to urinate over their prostrate victims.
Over the weekend, a clip of Gau Rakshaks beating up 7 young Dalit men in poll-bound Gujarat prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to draw distinction between “true” Gau Rakshaks who cared for both the cow and the law, and “fake” Gau Rakshaks who “run shops in the name of cow protection”.
He praised the former but distanced himself from the latter, urging state governments to take strict action against those who used cow-worship as a pretext for vigilante violence.
Yet, the cow-protection shops disdained by the Prime Minister are manned by young men created in his own image: Ambitious media-savvy youth like Vivek Premi, who have chosen the exhilaration and vitalising violence of communal politics over a lifetime of drudgery and under-paid wage labour.
How to Become a Gau Rakshak Celebrity
Shamli is only a few hundred kilometers away from the seat of the BJP-led Central government. (Photo: Hardeep Singh/The Quint)
As the Shamli District Convener of the Bajrang Dal, the youth-wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Premi represents the new centre of gravity of the Hindutva movement rather than its lunatic fringe, and draws his strength from the political patronage provided by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s many fronts, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party.
That fateful day in July 2015, Premi said he received a distress call from a cow-shelter and arrived to find three men trying to make off with a calf. Two men flashed a pistol and escaped; Riyaz was caught, flogged and taken to the police station. There is no evidence to support this story, all we have is Premi’s word.
After the incident, the Shamli administration labeled Premi a threat to public peace, booked him under the National Security Act 1980 and sent him to jail for a year. A promising career in Hindutva politics, it seemed, had meandered down the dead-end of incarceration.
But the Bajrang Dal and Hindu society stood by me. They sent petitions, they held agitations. The state government had freed a Muslim cattle thief to protect their vote bank, but the Hindu who caught the thief was jailed.
Sanjeev Baliyan, the BJP MP and Union Agriculture Minister accused of orchestrating the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, met with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and urged him to free Premi.
Local media reports of Vivek Premi’s release. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Vivek Premi Fans)
Their prayers were answered: On 31 December, Union Home Ministry directed the state government to revoke NSA charges on Premi. On 15 January 2016, seven months into his sentence, Premi returned home a celebrity: Hindu organisations anointed him a protector of the faith, and Shamli’s temples invited him to preside over important rituals. The Punjab Kesari, one of India’s largest selling dailies, gave him an award for social service, and Baliyan, the BJP MP, gave him an award for his “Special Contribution to Social Media”.
His cousin made him a framed collage of photographs from his childhood interspersed with pictures of Bhagat Singh; it sits on a shelf in the family living room alongside the awards from the Punjab Kesari and Baliyan.
As winter turned to summer, Premi inserted himself into the nebulous web of khas-aadmis, chamchas, and personal secretaries that periodically summons promising young men from the provinces to spend panch minute with a prominent mantri from their ilaka. A Vivek Premi Fans page sprung up on Facebook; a fan announced he was directing, acting in and producing a video homage to Premi’s life.
The young man from the video traded his fitted jeans and checked shirts for a white kurta pajama and his Honda CBZ for an Enfield Bullet 350. He wore his hair long, his moustache as an upturned handlebar, and now when the local papers wrote about him, they described him as “Prominent Hindutva leader Vivek Premi”.
A journey had begun.
The Making of a Gau Rakshak
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“Who can tell where a revolutionary will be born? What was special about Bhagat Singh’s house?” asked Vivek’s father, Manoj, as he looked about his modest two storey home of rooms arranged around a central open courtyard.
It was a little past dawn, Vivek exercised in the living room, his mother was in the kitchen, his uncle prayed in a bedroom. A washing machine gurgled in a corner.
Manoj sat in his courtyard in loose pajamas and a saffron round-neck t-shirt with the words “Wise Man” printed in small typeface across the front.
“Vivek’s great grandfather taught in a government college,” Manoj continued, “He earned a lot of respect, but wasn’t interested in money. His grandfather set up our small jewellery business to feed the family, but withdrew from the world and became a wandering ascetic.
“I was 17, wanted to go to college, to study, to learn, but I had to take over the business to stabilise the family.”
Vivek was in his second year of law school when his studies were interrupted by what his father calls “the unfortunate accident”.
“Now Vivek says, why work now, when you can feed me?” Manoj said, “Right now, he wants to focus on his religious duty. We support him.”
When Vivek was in prison, Hindutva outfits urged Manoj to a lead protest march through the city but he says he declined, worried that a demonstration might trigger fresh violence.
“The Premi jewellery shop is one of our neighbourhood’s oldest,” said a Muslim neighbour when I explored the by lanes outside Premi’s house, “Half their clientele is Muslim, but some have stopped visiting after Vivek whipped Riyaz.”
Many Muslim families still order wedding jewellery and drop off cards for the celebrations. Manoj accepts the invitations, he visits their homes with boxes of mithai; the conversation – the neighbour said – is brief and limited to generalities.
“We grew up with Vivek, we went to the same school. We played in the same neighbourhood,” another Muslim neighbour said, “But when this video went viral, something in him just changed.”
Where Manoj is short, careful and measured, Vivek’s mother Poonam Arya is a tall, charismatic office-bearer for Shamli’s Rashtra Sevika Samiti, a “ladies’ version of the RSS,” as she described it.
Vivek, she said, was the perfect child – he disdained pastries and colas, he loved milk. His favourite game was freedom fighters – Bhagat Singh, Chandra Shekhar Azad –versus Europeans. Polite to his elders, well versed in ritual practice, a regular at the Arya Samaj.
So why was he at a street corner with a leather belt in hand and a baying mob by his side?
It was a mistake, both parents conceded, but what did Vivek do? He caught a thief, he hit him, and then he took him to the police station. For this, he was victimised by a state government kowtowing to its Muslim vote bank. The thief happened to be Muslim, like the young men whipped in Gujarat happened to be Dalit.
In UP’s villages, the Premis claim, thieves were lynched as a matter of routine as villagers were convinced the police was ineffective at stopping crime.
“Anyway, how is this a Hindu-Muslim thing?” Arya asked, “Don’t Muslims drink milk?”
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“You must know Vivek Premi? He went to jail for beating that Muslim who tried to kill a cow,” said the portly man in the striped t-shirt to the young men fidgeting with their cellphones by the open sewer.
Late evening at the Mohalla Ram Sagar, Vivek has arrived to set up a Tuesday evening Hanuman Chaleesa prayer group to instil proper values in Hindu boys.
“The idea is to build Hindu unity,” he says, “I start it, but the boys need to take it forward. Our target is to have 30 such groups in Shamli city this year.”
“Absolutely correct Vivekji,” the portly man continues, “The Muslims meet every Friday at their mosques, we should also meet once a week – that is how a society is united.”
An uncomfortable silence fills the air, broken by Vivek’s cellphone – it’s a call from another Hanuman Chaleesa group elsewhere in the city.
They have only 10 people, can they call off the Chaleesa for today?
“Yaar, how many times do I have to tell you – the purpose of a prayer meeting is to recite the Hanuman Chaleesa, not to gather a crowd and make a video. I don’t care if you are only 10, just sit down and pray!”
As a celebrity Gau Rakshak, Vivek’s day is spent building his network – an activity that chiefly involves visiting villages and appointing people to posts. Everyone we meet is an office bearer of some form: this is our block level coordinator, this is our village head, this is our city in-charge, this is our ward coordinator.
But what is the network for?
“For information – suppose a truck rustling cattle is spotted on the highway heading towards X village. In Y village, a Hindu girl has run away with a Muslim. Some boy wants to convert to Islam in Z place. We need to stop all this, but how can we without office bearers? You need a network na?”
His other task is to obsessively scan his Facebook and troll anti-nationals. The Gau Rakshak’s day at the office seems much like everyone else’s: Endless meetings, a spot of Facebook, occasional periods of frenetic activity.
Last week, the Imam of Shamli’s Shahi masjid sent Premi a death threat. On Facebook messenger.
Or that was the headline of the story. The Imam denied sending Premi a Facebook message and filed a police complaint against an unknown person for impersonation.
Premi, as always, was quick to spot an opportunity. “Two police gunmen. That’s what I’ve asked for. I need protection. The Home Ministry in Delhi is looking into the matter.”
What will they do?
“Nothing, they’ll just accompany me at all times,” he smiled, and for a moment the artifice of the Hindutva Neta collapsed to reveal a 22-year-old who couldn’t quite believe the surreal turn his life had taken – death threats, police protection, awards from union ministers, where else could you live a life like this?
“This is our new generation,” said the senior BJP leader in Muzaffarnagar as he handed me a laddoo, “They tweet before they talk, they think all politics is Facebook. But what can we do? They have Delhi’s ear. This is their time.”
A Broken Man
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Each night, a crowd of men gather around Mohammed Riyaz’s bed. They shout, they scream, but as they reach for him, Riyaz’s eyes snap open and the dream ends.
It is the same dream every night.
25 July 2016 was a rainy day; Mohammed Riyaz got done early at the construction site where he earned 300 rupees a day as a labourer.
“I was walking through Naveen Mandi when I saw a calf escape a crowd. Suddenly, a group of men grabbed me, pulled me into a cow shelter, bound my hands and beat me till I lost all sense of time.”
When he finally came to his senses at the hospital, the police carted him off to jail for theft and cruelty to animals. He spent a month and a half nursing his wounds before he got bail.
“When I came out, I had lost faith in my body. I used to be a man who was never afraid of hard work. Give me a job and I’ll do it – however long it takes.”
Now, sometimes his arms don’t move when he tells them to. Some days he can’t bear the sight of the sun; other days he forgets things, misses things, tires easily. He worries a lot.
There are seven children he needs to feed. The house – a hut on the outskirts of town – needs a roof, a proper stove. His children need clothes; he needs to put them in school. He needs medicines. His wife’s recovering from a heart attack.
He still needs to go to court every month to prove his innocence.
A few months ago, his lawyer died in a road accident.
Does he need a new lawyer?
Don’t know, he’ll find out at the next hearing about the next hearing, because there will always be a next hearing to decide if Riyaz really did try to steal a calf in a crowded bazaar one afternoon in Shamli.
A few days after Riyaz was imprisoned, the jail authorities pushed another under trial into the overcrowded cell. “It was Vivek Premi. I saw him, he saw me and for the rest of my time there, we stayed out of each other’s way.”
(Videos conceptualised by Adi Prakash and edited by Hitesh Singh)