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India – Welcome To Saffron Corridor, do watch the video

Not far from New Delhi, an army of Hindu extremists is taking shape on the ashes of Muzaffarnagar to take on ‘Islamic terror’ and ‘Muslim terrorists’. Ankush Vats and Amit Bhardwaj report from Ground Zero. Photographs by Vijay Pandey


“Musalmanon ka pravesh varjit hai (Muslims not allowed)” reads a banner at the gate of the famous Devi temple at Dasna village in Ghaziabad district, 2 km down a dusty road from NH-24 and not far from the national capital. Inside, a teenager is thrashing a 10-year-old boy as the priest looks on, a smirk on his face. As the bully moves aside to get hold of a bamboo stick, the child runs and is chased until he is out of the gate.

The 10-year-old is Muslim. The priest says he had come to collect water from the temple pond. “That water is sacred,” he explains while the correspondents are being taken to meet Swami Narsinghanand Maraharaj, the mahant (head priest). “It has the power to cure diseases. I don’t understand why they [Muslims] come here when their entry is banned. They just don’t get it.”

The boy bows down to touch Swamiji’s feet, who pats his back and says triumphantly, “Aa mere sher (Come, my brave boy)”. Pramod, the ‘devotee’, cannot hear or speak and has been a regular at the temple since his childhood and is currently entrusted with keeping a watch over “intruders”. ‘Swamiji’ is no less than god to Pramod, who is also a national-level judo player and recently won a gold medal in Goa. Swamiji bears all his expenses, and had got him admitted in a school for specially abled children.

Pramod could have a promising career, perhaps, if the likes of Swamiji had not been training them in extreme Hindu fundamentalism. But that is exactly what is being done to thousands of people in western . The result: Pramod freaks out at the sight of Muslims, no matter how poor and how familiar. He is immediately reminded of his judo lessons, imbibed with the idea that he has to fight jihadis. “If I see Muslims again, I’ll shoot them,” he explains in sign language. It seems meaningless to point out to him that the child he thrashed and drove away from the temple was 10 years old — not a ‘jihadi’ by any stretch of the imagination.

Pramod learned judo as part of the military-style training of children — the youngest participants are around eight years of age — being carried out by  outfits in western . Swamiji and his associates have set up several training centres across the region. This is the same region where the  campaign against the “Love Jihad” trope snowballed into an anti-Muslim pogrom in the winter of 2013. That was during the run-up to the General Election that brought the  to power in New  and was the first time since Partition that  hit rural  on such a scale that thousands of Muslims, driven out of their homes, are still living in exile, so scary is the prospect of returning to their villages.

“Western UP will be the battlefield in the war between Hindus and Muslims,” Swamiji says loudly to someone over phone. An MTech from Russia and formerly known as Deepak Tyagi, Swamiji was once a prominent member of the ’s youth organisation and had many Muslim friends. He left the party and joined a far-Right Hindu group due to “some personal loss” that he wants to avenge by fighting jihadis.

Swamiji believes that the Islamic State (IS) will attack  by 2020 and that Hindus must be trained to fight the jihadis. “Every Muslim in the country will side with the IS and that is why Hindus need to unite,” he thunders, while hurling abuses at Muslims, none of whom can be seen in the vicinity. “We have to save our country, our mothers, our sisters and our daughters from those devils. If we don’t unite now, it will be too late.”

The war on Muslims is not just about training Hindu boys to fight ‘jihadis’; it also involves allied tasks such as organising media briefings and campaigns to mobilise public opinion against the law taking its course, when the target is a kindred Hindu-extremist soul. So, for instance, Swamiji’s recent activities have included holding a press conference to express outrage over an FIR filed against Kamlesh Tiwari, one of his disciples, for making a snide remark on Prophet Mohammad, which led to violence in faraway West Bengal’s Malda district. Lakhs of Muslims gathered to protest against Tiwari’s statement and went on to torch Kaliachak police station and several vehicles.

With the tension in Malda yet to ease and the Centre ordering a probe, Swamiji threatens that if anything happens to Tiwari, “All hell will break loose. We will show them what we can do if they touch Tiwari.”

Hindu line don’t cross! A banner at the entrance of Dasna temple prohibits Muslims from entering the ‘sacred’ space

So what is this organisation that counts people like Swamiji among its leaders? Going by the name of ‘Hindu Swabhiman’ and active across western , the outfit claims to stand up for the “Hindu cause” by “fighting the jihadi like a jihadi”. The stretch from Ghaziabad on ’s outskirts to Saharanpur on the Uttarakhand border is fast turning into what can be aptly called the “Saffron Corridor”. Hindu Swabhiman hopes to spread their wings across the country before “Islamic jihad takes over”.

Anil Yadav, the outfit’s general secretary and a resident of the neighbouring Bamheta village, helps Swamiji in recruiting Hindu youth to organise a private militia on the lines of the Ranveer Sena of Bihar or the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh. Yadav is a former state-level wrestler and currently teaches the sport to hundreds of young men in his akhada (wrestling ground). Once known for producing international wrestlers such as Jagdish Pehelwan, Vijaypal Pehelwan and Sattan Pehelwan, Bamheta has become a breeding ground for extremists. The wrestlers, who nurture the dream of participating in the Olympics, are also taught “how to drive Muslims out of the country”.

Domination by Hindus runs so deep in the village society that Muslims who want to join the akhara have to use Hindu surnames. “They do so either due to fear or out of respect for our religion,” says Yadav.

Youth who join the outfit are trained in traditional combat skills such as sword-fighting and archery, besides unarmed combat (martial arts) and use of firearms. “They are training for the Olympics,” says Swamiji, when asked whether it is ethical to teach kids how to fight. “Can’t we teach sports inside our temple premises? What’s wrong in that?”

Combat training apart, the kids are taught that Islam is the root cause of all evil in the world and Muslims are “devils”. The lessons seem to have driven home; even eight-year-olds say they hate Muslims. A boy training at Rori village in Ghaziabad district says, “I will fight Muslims because they are a threat to the nation.” So, who is a Muslim? A brief pause and pat comes the answer: “Those who eat meat.”

Hindu Swabhiman is headed by Parminder Arya, a former soldier in the Indian Army who has a two-storey house with a sprawling compound in the village. Adjacent to this compound is another walled ground where he now runs the training centre. Most of the trainers come from Meerut, but sometimes there are a few from other parts of the country. The 70-odd “trainees” are between eight and 30 years of age.

“I don’t go door-to-door and ask parents to send their children for training,” says Arya, who claims to have fought in Kargil. “They come on their own. Anyone who is not a Muslim is welcome.”

Arya, who retired from the army in September 2011, had put in a few years of combat duty in Kashmir. “I have always worked for the Hindu cause,” he says. “The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley convinced me that Hindus must unite to save themselves from Muslims. That is why I opened this training centre four years ago. The biggest threat now is the IS. I knew that jihad would only grow more intense, so I started preparing the kids to save the country when the time comes.”

To prove his loyalty to , Arya claims that he sent some of his boys to “protect the Hindus” during the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.

Rori is a Hindu-majority village dominated by Jats. In one corner of the village live the 250-odd Muslim families. Barring minor skirmishes, there have been no major incidents of a communal nature here so far. But the Muslims today are a scared lot. They see the training of Hindu boys as a sign of worse to come.

“We feel like outsiders in the village now,” says an elderly Muslim man sitting on a string-cot outside his home. “When I was young, Hindu and Muslim children used to hang out together. Now, there is a rift between the two communities.”

Indeed, the training imparted by Hindu Swabhiman may be aimed at “saving Hindus from jihadis”, but it has certainly pushed the two communities further apart and made Rori a village divided. At a mahapanchayat in Rori two months ago, where Hindus from a large number of villages congregated, the speakers hurled abuses at Muslims and the call went out that Hindus must “reunite”.

The more they sweat... Recruits, many of whom aspire to compete at the Olympics, train at an akahara in Bamheta

It is five in the evening and Arya’s training centre is buzzing with activity. A steady stream of boys is arriving for the day’s session. Each one walks straight up to Arya, greet hims with “Jai Shri Ram” and touches his feet.

Meet Nikhil Arya (17) and Kuldip Sharma (19) who have been attending for two years now. What brings them there? “To protect ourselves,” says Nikhil. “Self-defence,” his companion nudges him. Protection from whom? “Saare antakwadi Muslim hain, isliye unse khatra hai (Every terrorist turns out to be Muslim. That’s why they are a threat),” says Kuldip.

Arya, though, claims they are only training the boys to protect their families and save the country when the IS invades  (which, he believes, one should remember, will happen by 2020). “Why would the authorities have a problem with us?” he asks. “They, too, know that the madarsas are breeding grounds of terror.”

In Arya and Hindu Swabhiman’s “war on terror”, what about the logistics? Who bears the costs of running the training centres and how are firearms procured? Arya sounds evasive. “Hindus donate only to dhongi babas (fake godmen) so we don’t bother asking for donations,” he says. “Those who believe in our ideology and are devoted to Swamiji contribute what they can.”

The weapons, he claims, are provided by his friends. “We use licensed firearms only,” he announces with pride.

Going by Arya’s account, the “saffron corridor” extends up to Haridwar. Some training centres are run clandestinely and some openly, like the one in Rori. There are at least eight such training centres in Meerut city alone, which has a history of  and simmering tension.

The Meerut centres are run under the supervision of Chetna Sharma, who is a lawyer at the Meerut District Court. But, more significantly in this context, she has been a regional convenor of Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the , and is the zonal in-charge of Akhand Hindustan Morcha (AHM).

AHM was founded by Hindu hardliner and former parliamentarian BL Sharma, who quit the  to work full-time with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad () and Bajrang Dal. Chetna is the ideological heir apparent and almost like an adopted daughter to the veteran. She has spearheaded campaigns against “love jihad” across western UP.

In Saharanpur city, meet Dinesh Verma turned Dinesh ‘Hindu’. He runs a clothing store and looks after Hindu Swabhiman’s activities. The work involves mobilising Hindus for campaigns against pet  peeves such as “love jihad” and .

‘Hindu’ came in contact with the Dasna Swamiji on WhatsApp, and then his life changed. “If the right people don’t do the right things, if we don’t hurry up, if we don’t take matters in our own hands, the day is not far when not a single Hindu would be found not just in , but nowhere in . They did that in Pakistan. And in Bangladesh. If we lose  to them, they will do it here as well. There will be no country for Hindus. Where will we go? Tell me, where will you go?”

That is as far as  extremism has gone into the heads of people like Dinesh ‘Hindu’. Clearly, with no stone left unturned by Swamiji, Arya and their ilk, saffron haze is spreading across the villages and small towns of western . The army of people who believe that Muslims pose a threat to Hindus and the only way out is Hindu Swabhiman is growing. And they have no qualms allowing their children to join train for “self defence”.

While the foundation is being laid for communal havoc, the  Police seems to be taking a nap. Despite videos of Hindu Swabhiman training centres going viral on social media, the police, at least on record, deny their existence. “I am not aware of these developments regarding Hindu radicalisation and training centres,” Rajesh Kumar Singh, district superintendent of police in Modinagar, tells Tehelka. “But I will look into the matter and do what the law says.”

Roadmap for terror Hindu boys are trained at several centres along the stretch from Bamheta to Saharanpur

Meanwhile, in Rori, there are whispers that the Bahujan Samaj Party is gaining ground. “Mayawati’s party may sweep the Assembly polls next year,” speculates Pritam, who works at the block office. But what if there is a repeat of Muzaffarnagar? That would make the election all about Hindu versus Muslim, with obvious results in a Hindu-majority region where the religion card is played by the  ruling at the Centre and the  that rules from Lucknow.

After all, in the words of the boy at Arya’s training centre, “Those who eat meat are Muslims.”

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