Over the five years of Adityanath’s term as Uttar Pradesh chief minister, the growing Islamophobia in the state has made it to the national headlines through grotesque lynchings or claims of “love jihad” – the conspiracy theory claiming that Muslim men are marrying Hindu women merely so that they can coerce them into converting to Islam.

But in the backdrop to these incidents, a constant series of comparatively minor, often concocted, events, keeps the hostility against Muslims simmering. These have become so common that they are rarely investigated and the damage they do is most often ignored.

Four months ago, when newspapers reported that a Muslim man had harassed a Hindu woman in an upscale market of Meerut, it seemed just another such instance. But when I looked at it closely, what stood out was the position taken by the woman and her family who insisted the Muslim man was an acquaintance, and had done no such thing.

Despite pressure from Hindutva organisations, they refused to file a case against the man. In today’s political climate, it seemed like an extraordinary act of courage.

Forced punishment

On September 21, the prominent Hindi newspaper Amar Ujjala ran an article with the headline “Gol Market mein chhaatri se cherhcharh, manchale ko murga bana kar peeta” (In Gol Market, a female student molested, the “manchala”, or flirt, was punished and beaten).

Of the two images accompanying the article, one showed a picture of a young woman, in profile, wearing a pink scarf, her face not visible, hitting the alleged aggressor. The second was of a man being punished by making him do squats as he held his ears.

The article said that the woman was having a cold drink with a friend when a man molested her. On hearing of this, some men from the Hindu Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, rushed to help her. She had already caught hold of her aggressor and was beating him with her slippers when they joined in the thrashing.

The woman’s mother made a statement accusing the boy of harassing her daughter.

The Amar Ujjala report.

The report identifies the man as Salman, repeatedly referring to him as a member of the “doosra samuday” (the other community). The article also carries a sub-heading, in bold, which claims Muslim men have regularly been harassing Hindu women in the market. The evidence for this was a quote from a member of the Hindu Jagran Manch.

The article was on predictable lines for a mainstream Hindi media that thrives on demonising Muslim men but for the fact that its very basis was called in question by the woman’s testimony buried deep in the report. She categorically denied being harassed and was quoted as saying that she and her friend were having a cold drink with Salman when men from the Bajrang Dal arrived and asked them for their names. When they heard the name Salman, they forced her to hit him with her slippers.

According to the article, after the Hindutva organisations and some members of the public raised an outcry, the police took Salman and the women to the Civil Lines Police station where they recorded their testimonies. The Hindu Jagran Manch is quoted as saying the police was partial to Salman’s version and instead of charging him for sexual assault they let him off with a watered down charge of disturbing public peace.

Winning the family’s confidence

It wasn’t easy to locate the women and their families, even harder to gain their confidence.

The family’s apprehension was that I was a “secret envoy” of the Bajrang Dal or Hindu Jagran Manch (the mother of one of the women would frequently interchange the names of the two groups).

“We were suspicious of you as you are a journalist,” the woman’s mother began, venting her anger at the “presswallahs”. “For the past three months we have had endless visits from these Bajrangdalis or Hindu Jagran Manch or whoever these thekedars of religion are. They offered us money to file a case against him and then threatened us when we refused.”

Given this background, though the woman or her friend’s family have not asked for anonymity, I have not named them or their localities to ensure further publicity does not lead to more harassment.

The mother was astounded when she realised what the contents of her supposed statement were. “They used my inability to read and write, wrote up a false accusation and got my thumbprint,” she clarified. “I have no complaints against him, I clarified this at the police station.”

The Times of India report about the incident.

We sat and talked at the entrance of her small two-room quarters, sitting in an enclosed patio-like area which was both a kitchen and a workspace. Most of the others in the lane were, like them, daily wage earners, from the Prajapati community who were traditionally potters.

“One of those Hindu goons is from our biradari,” the mother said. “After this incident, he came to our house and had the audacity to tell me how the scandal has destroyed my daughter, that he is willing to save her by marrying her.”

She told him to go away, “He is not worth the dust of my daughter’s sandals.”

The daughter joined in, eager to set the record straight: “If you do write this in a newspaper, please get the sequence of events right.” She added that while she didn’t know Salman, he was in the same inter-college as her close friend who lives nearby. “Salman wasn’t loitering around the market looking for prey as the newspapers suggest. He stopped only when we spotted him,” she said. “All we were doing was having a Pepsi. Who files a case over a cold drink? It’s insane.”

Fighting the backlash

The women have also fought the backlash, at times from within their own family. The young woman’s eldest brother works in Punjab. Even before they could brief him, the Hindu Jagran Manch members called him and said his sister was bringing shame to the family.

“My son telephoned me and yelled, accusing me of giving his sister far too much freedom,” said the mother who stood her ground. The woman, who is studying computers, added, “My bhabhi taunted my mother saying this was the result of her sending me for higher studies.”

Two lanes away, at the friend’s house, similar fears were expressed by the mother. “My daughter knew Salman as they studied together,” she said. “That’s not a crime. I’m not going to be apologetic about it, though the world has tried to blame me. My own devar is a Bajrang Dali and he says he’s pretending to disown us but to hell with him.”

She said she knew some youth from her own caste, Dhimars (boatmen), an Other Backward Classes community, who have joined these “Hindu groups”.

She remained unfazed. “I had six daughters before the two boys were born, I have educated each one of them,” she said. “I would never have managed if I let fear get the better of me.” But Hindutva organisations, beyond Islamophobia, seem to be looking to stoke such fears. The incidents serve as a means to curb even limited freedom for women in their community and restrict their access to higher education.

Salman and his mother. Credit: Radhika Bordia

The politics driving such incidents is not lost on the women as they explain how these incidents are created to ramp up anti-Muslim feelings. The eldest of the six daughters, who has a double masters degree in Sociology and Hindi interrupted us, holding up two newspapers, “I don’t believe what’s published every day. In their attempts to divide Hindus and Muslims groups they will use anyone, even their own women,” she said. “It’s harder to convince father not to take these news items seriously.”

The discussion on politics drew the daughter involved in the incident into the conversation. She asked me if I planned to meet Salman. “People suspect I had a relationship with Salman,” she said. “They wonder why I am concerned about him. The truth is Salman is innocent, he would never have stopped to meet us if we hadn’t spotted him. But even my father and uncles feel I should not keep repeating this.”

Part of what enabled them to stay with the truth, the families said, was the support they received from the local police, especially the Station House Officer at the Civil Lines Police Station who ensured the testimonies of the women were recorded before a magistrate.

The Navbharat Times website ran a PTI report at the time of the incident quoting Abdur-Rehman Siddiqui, the officer in charge of the Civil Lines Police station, that a case related to assault had been registered against a man named Sachin Sirohi and other members of the Hindu Jagran Manch, based on the testimonies of the women. Siddiqui has since been transferred to Ghaziabad.

Growing insecurity

In the aftermath of the incident, Salman’s family told us, a case had also been filed against Salman but was later dropped. Despite repeated attempts to confirm this from the Civil Lines Police Station, in person and over the phone, we were not able to get any clarity on this.

In Salman’s village of about 8,000 voters, more than 4,000 are Muslim, mostly Rajput Muslim. A part of Meerut district’s Kithore assembly constituency, the Samajwadi Party’s Shahid Manzoor, who is contesting the forthcoming assembly elections, had won three consecutive terms till 2012. In 2017, after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, the sense of insecurity has grown for the Muslims here.

“What happened to Salman was grossly unjust but when you can be lynched in a train compartment just for being a Muslim, this becomes an insignificant injustice. This is our reality,” said Hasim Chauhan, a resident.

The sentiment is of little consolation to Salman’s family. “We are khandani people, well respected in this village,” Salman’s mother said. “When my elder son called me and said the police had taken Salman to the thana, I almost fainted.”

She felt the support of her friends and neighbours has helped. “We are Rajput Muslims but we have close ties with the Hindus as well,” she said. “Many of them spoke up in support of Salman.”

But she has remained anxious about her son. “I live in fear that they will come to get him or try to frame him in another case,” she said. “He is here in the village these days to help with the farming but as soon as that’s done I want him to go to the city and live with his brother. It is not safe for him here.”

Sachin Sirohi of the Hindu Jaran Manch. Credit: Sachin Sirohi via Facebook

The incident has brought a threatening visibility to Salman’s life. When he went to a Samajwadi Party public rally, a picture of him was circulated by Hindutva groups, trying to link him to the party. “He had only gone with some friends from his village, some of them were even Hindus,” his mother told us. The insistence on emphasising the contact with the Hindus was both moving and revealing.

Through the conversation, Salman sat quietly, getting up to help his mother make and get tea for us. When he spoke, it was to say how grateful he is that the girls spoke the truth. “They saved me or else I don’t know what my fate would have been,” he said. “In our classes we have Hindu boys and girls, surely it is not a crime to say hello to them. Things were never this bad.”

When I spoke to Sachin Sirohi of the Hindu Jaran Manch on the phone, he suggested that the police had tutored the girl. “The girl has never met me, she doesn’t know my name so how did my name appear in the FIR?” he asked. “How did the police manage to have my address, my designation and all the details so quickly?”

He accused the police of acting vindictively against him as in the past he has protested against the police for not taking tough action in “Hindu-Muslim cases”.

“Within an hour they secured bail for the boy and let him go,” he said. “Instead they are going against me, a man from an RSS organisation, with the BJP in power, what does this mean?” The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, is the ideological parent of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

When I asked him about the woman’s’s testimony, he replied, “I haven’t taken much interest in the manner,” Sirohi said. “She’s a girl, if she wants to fight the case, let her. For that she’ll have to come to court. Today, they have filed a case against us but tomorrow when they have to get her married, they will suffer.”

The ease with which Sirohi makes such threats is no surprise in a state where Hindutva organisations are directly linked to the ruling regime, but what the women are shocked by is the role of the media. “They are not Hindu organisations, so why are they not reporting the truth?”

Radhika Bordia is a journalist and director of the Global Programme at the Missouri School of Journalism in the United States.