A glance at the Facebook friend list of Lalit Jha, who has been accused in the security breach at Parliament on December 13, shows a recurring interest: Bhagat Singh. Many of his friends either have, like Jha, the image of the left-leaning Indian revolutionary as their profile picture or have added “Bhagat Singh” to their Facebook profile names.

On December 13, in an echo of events from April 1929, when Bhagat Singh and his comrade Batukeshwar Dutt hurled two bombs in the Central Assembly to protest against the British imperial government, a group of five protesters set off smoke canisters inside and outside the Indian Parliament. They also raised slogans against unemployment, authoritarianism and the violence in Manipur. According to the police, Jha was the “mastermind” of the protest.

Two of the protestors, Sagar Sharma and Manoranjan Devarajegowda, disrupted Lok Sabha proceedings by climbing over seats and desks of the lower house. Two others, Neelam Azad and Amol Shinde, raised slogans outside the building as Jha shot a video.

Common to the friends’ list of both Sharma and Jha are at least two Facebook profiles – Bhagat Singh Andolan Samit and the Rashtriya Nagrik March – owned by a 56-year-old activist from Bundelkhand, who seems to have brought some of the members of the motley crew together. Mahesh Kumawat, another accused in the case, was also connected on Facebook to both the profiles.

A community of a few thousand friends and followers cropped up around the Facebook profiles, which switched to “locked” mode on December 17. They have corresponding WhatsApp groups with more than 200 members, despite a slew of exits after December 13.

A 27-year-old sociology graduate who was a member of these groups told Scroll that a plan to protest at the Parliament was discussed over a WhatsApp video call in March. He was not only a part of the call, but has also known the members of the small group behind it for more than a year. “We are all from the middle class, with no jobs fit for our qualifications,” he said. “That was our common background.”

Conversations with the graduate and the Bundelkhand activist reveal that the Parliament protesters shared a deep dissatisfaction about rising authoritarianism, unemployment and communalism in India along with an admiration for Bhagat Singh, who was executed by the British government in 1931.

(Left) An image from the Rashtriya Nagrik Manch. A post from the Bhagat Singh Andolan Samit, which says in Hindi that "caste and religious thought have become the opioid intoxicants of India’s growth and are making the youth frustrated".

The man who brought them together

The Bundelkhand activist first connected with Lalit Jha on Facebook in early 2022. It was Jha, a tuition teacher in Kolkata, who took the initiative. “He saw my posts on Bhagat Singh and probably thought I was some learned man who had studied his ideas,” the activist told Scroll in a phone interview.

His online activism began after his sons bought him a smartphone in 2018. A part of Bundelkhand’s political circle since the late 1980s, the activist could never have bought one himself. Activism did not bring a stable income, nor did he ever have a job.

One of the first things he did was install Facebook. “Everyone else around me was doing it,” he said. “I began posting about political and social issues from the get-go.”

The 56-year-old’s career began in youth politics in 1988, the year he joined the Indian People’s Front. Two years later, the organisation merged with the Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of the Communist Party of India, prompting the activist to quit.

“I hated politics,” he said. “I still hate politics. It is run by corporations.”

In 1991, he founded the Bundelkhand Youth Front. Every year, on the anniversary of Bhagat’s Singh execution on March 23, the front would organise late-night seminars on his life and ideas. “We would invite intellectuals, professors and youth leaders and talk about Bhagat Singh till 5 in the morning. He became my idol because he preached socialism and equality.”

Nearly three decades later, with Facebook on his smartphone, the activist continued to propagate those ideas. In 2019, he started the “Bhagat Singh Andolan Samit”, which shared stinging critiques of mainstream party politics often served up through posters with pithy one-liners. “Most of these posters are made by my sons,” he said.

“Faith, caste and religious thought have become the opioid intoxicants of India’s growth and are making the youth frustrated,” said one of the earliest posts in the group in 2019.

A poster shared in July said that when the king starts “defrauding” the people, the people should become “watchful”. Another shared a picture of Vallabhbhai Patel with a quote that “the idea of a Hindu Rashtra is a mad idea”.

Another poster shows the Indian Parliament with the following note: “The government is like an ox. The people should know how to make it work like a ploughman.”

A picture of Vallabhbhai Patel with a quote that “the idea of a Hindu Rashtra is a mad idea”. Another poster shows the Indian Parliament with the following note: “The government is like an ox. The people should know how to make it work like a ploughman.”

The Bundelkhand activist is not just critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party. He is an equal opportunity offender. “Don’t get me wrong, [Prime Minister] Modi is doing what other governments did before him,” he said. “They are all driven by capitalist interests.”

In April 2022, he announced the creation of an online platform, “Rashtriya Nagarik Manch”. Lalit Jha was declared one of its six “regional presidents”. “We wanted to tackle issues like unemployment, communal politics and the poor state of public education,” said the activist.

Over three WhatsApp video calls with members of the Manch, the activist laid out the agenda: all members would contribute Rs 500 which will go towards printing pamphlets and posters to raise awareness on the chosen issues. “I suggested we go to Delhi and meet all Members of Parliament and share a letter with them listing our demands,” he recalled. “We should then go back to our regions and tell people about this.”

The platform fizzled out very soon. Sharafat Sheikh, 31, a youth politician based out of Kolhapur, who was the group’s Maharashtra president, said he lost interest after six months. “They wanted to carry on the ideas of Bhagat Singh, but I had no time for it,” he told Scroll. “I have to work with different groups of people in Kolhapur. This online initiative needed time, energy and money and I didn’t have either.”

Jandel Yadav, 47, the Madhya Pradesh president, also joined the group with the belief that social media was a powerful tool to mobilise unemployed farm workers. “But it had no results on the ground,” he said.

The Bundelkhand activist himself realised that none of the younger members were keen on his methods. By this summer, the “Rashtriya Nagrik Manch” became just another Facebook profile sharing Bhagat Singh posters.

‘Wise, well-read’

One of the followers of his Facebook profiles was the 27-year-old sociology graduate. “When I was in Class 5, we were taught a poem about Bhagat Singh in school,” he told Scroll over a video call. “That’s where my fascination with him began. In local fairs, I would seek out books on him.”

That common interest drew him to the Bundelkhand activist’s Facebook circle.

The 27-year-old said that he had read Singh’s essays on caste and atheism. “He was absolutely right when he said that without social change, white masters in India would be replaced by brown masters,” he said.

Two years ago, Singh’s writings led him to the works of Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin and the Cuban communist revolutionary Che Guevara.

In the weeks leading to the launch of the “Rashtriya Nagrik Manch” last year, the Bundelkhand activist introduced him to Jha over a phone call. “We tried to gauge each others’ views on Marxism and socialism,” he said. Soon, over WhatsApp video calls and Instagram texts, their conversation expanded to other topics. “We talked about the growth of fascism in India, the use of bulldozers to destroy houses and the sexual harassment of women wrestlers.”

Jha, the 27-year-old recalled, was not just influenced by Bhagat Singh but also Swami Vivekananda. He was “wise”, “well-read”, and someone who could “read people well”. (Jha has a picture of Vivekananda as his WhatsApp profile picture, with the status: “Jai Hind”.)

The National Martyrs Memorial at Hussainiwala village in Firozpur district of Punjab where Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were cremated after their execution at the Lahore Jail in 1931. Credit: Giridhar Appaji Nag Y, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In March 2022, the sociology graduate connected with Neelam Azad on Facebook and exchanged numbers. Azad, a resident of Jind district in Haryana, wanted help in mobilising people for a protest. “She was an Ambedkarite, organising a gathering against the murder of a farm worker by a landowner in Hisar,” he said. “I helped with the contacts of a few Bhim Army members.”

As a rule, he said, the group did not discuss their personal lives because it would “weaken their ideological commitment”. But the 27-year-old said he did form impressions. Azad’s Instagram stories, he said, showed that beneath the exterior of revolutionary struggle, she was a “childlike” individual who loved music and the company of children.

In mid-2022, he introduced Azad to Jha and added her to the “Rashtriya Nagrik Manch” WhatsApp group, which had approximately 30-40 members. Two other WhatsApp groups titled “Bhagat Singh Andolan Samiti” had nearly 200 members combined. Their purpose, according to the graduate and the Bundelkhand activist, was to discuss the pressing issues of the day and how to tackle them.

In March 2023, Jha discussed the idea of organising a protest at Parliament over a WhatsApp video call with Azad, Sharma, the Bundelkhand activist and the graduate. “The idea was to go to slums and collect 100 litres of blood – a few millilitres from hundreds of people,” the 27-year-old said. “We would spill the blood before PM Modi’s cavalcade. It was a symbol of how the capitalists sucked the blood of the marginalised people.”

The plan then did not include setting off smoke canisters in Parliament. “We discussed how, like Bhagat Singh, we would throw pamphlets inside and outside the Parliament, with our demands written on them in red ink.” Yet, everyone on the call was on board with it, he said, except the Bundelkhand activist, who kept quiet.

Jha also told the group that the plan came with serious risks. “He said we could lose our lives because of it. We knew that the government could crush us.” The teacher also asked the 27-year-old to procure a pass for the Parliament session from his constituency’s MP. “He said two new members have joined us, Mahesh and Manoranjan, and he had also asked Manoranjan to procure the pass.”

The protest was not only about unemployment, said the graduate. “It was meant to highlight the rise in communalism and authoritarianism in India.”

In the end, however, he claims he could not be a part of the plan and nor did the Bundelkhand activist. “I underwent operations to remove kidney stones twice in the last year. My father also passed away in June. I was not keeping well and was left out by the rest of the group,” he said. “As for [the Bundelkhand activist], we all thought he was not as extreme as one should be.”

‘I disagree with their method’

The Bundelkhand activist is livid with Jha and his cohort for the events of December 13. “I’ve raised dozens of issues over the years but never even blocked a road in my life,” said the 56-year-old. “I disagree with their method. Bhagat Singh threw a bomb in Parliament at a different time. But today we live in a country that has elected its own government.”

The 27-year-old, too, is not sure if the dramatic Parliament protest was the right thing to do. But he is sure that Jha and others had no foreign funding or an intention to time the protest with the 22nd anniversary of the 2001 Parliament attacks by Jaish-e-Mohammed militants. “There was no foreign funding. This is a lie by the godi media,” he said, a reference to television channels that amplify, often without any critical checks, the state’s version of events. “The date of the protest was a coincidence and I’m sure they were ignorant about the anniversary.”

The Delhi police investigation has found that the group had planned the protest for December 14, but got passes for December 13.

For all his disappointment at Jha and his fellow protesters, the Bundelkhand activist does not believe that they have committed a crime amounting to a terror act. “Their ideas, after all, are right. Choosing the wrong way to express them does not make them criminals.”

The 27-year-old, almost half his age, takes a romantic view. “Ours is a struggle of ideas and it will not end,” he said. “Many more Lalit Jhas will come.”