On the evening of December 14, around 5 pm, a crowd of young men gathered outside the district court in Udaipur, Rajasthan. As the police tried to disperse them, the protestors fought back, injuring 25 policemen. In the melee, one of the protestors climbed on top of the main gateway to the court premises, waving a saffron flag.

The next morning, Dainik Bhaskar newspaper reported that the protest had been held to express support for Shambhulal Regar, who had murdered a Muslim worker on December 6 in neighbouring Rajsamand district – as his 14-year-old nephew filmed the act. Shortly after, messages praising Regar’s crime are reported to have circulated on WhatsApp. Regar’s supporters are reported to have deposited more than Rs 3 lakh in his wife’s bank account. On December 13, a Hindu activist from Uttar Pradesh, Updesh Rana, who had reportedly exhorted Hindus to gather in Udaipur in support of Regar, was arrested in Jaipur, while on way to the city. The next day’s protest, then, seemed a logical culmination of these events.

But some young men who participated in the protest gave more complicated accounts of what had motivated them. They told Scroll.in that they did not support Regar and claimed they had simply gathered in response to a rally organised by some Udaipur Muslims on December 8 during which they allegedly shouted inflammatory slogans.

“How can the Muslims call us bhagwa aatankwadi [saffron terrorists]? asked Shubham Singh, a young man who claimed to have participated in the December 14 protest. “And how can they scream it out loud that all Indians should say Allah-o-Akbar?”

But the organisers of the Muslim rally deny that they gave cause for provocation. They said their protest was “a natural reaction to a brutal crime against a Muslim in the state”. They pointed out that their rally, which was peaceful, was held under the watch of the police.

Still, on December 15, the police arrested 10 Muslim men in connection with the December 8 protest, a day after arresting 75 Hindu men. The Hindu protestors have been charged with rioting, unlawful assembly, causing damage to public property, obstructing public servants from discharging duty and assaulting them. The police did not divulge the charges against the Muslim protestors.

In view of the escalating tensions, until December 16 evening, the police had shut down the internet in Udaipur and banned any gathering of more than four people in public places.

During the December 14 protest. Photo credit: Sohail Khan

‘Crime to be born a Hindu’

Through December 16, the friends and families of the arrested Hindu men made visits to the Bhupalpura police station where they had been detained.

Shubham Singh, who said he managed to evade arrest even though he was part of crowd at the prrotest, stood outside the police station. He justified the aggression shown by the protestors. “It is high time that we, Hindus, speak up,” he said.

A final year commerce student, Singh, 21, said he was a member of the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a part of the network of organisations called Sangh Parivar to which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party belongs. He had come to the police station to get information about his friends who had been detained for taking part in the protest. He was accompanied by another friend, Tejpal Singh Rajput, 18, who also claimed to be a member of the Bajrang Dal.

Singh described the protest as “the call of the religion”. “When it comes to the Hindu identity, we can die for it,” he said. Rajput interjected: “And I am a Rajput. We are born with a religious fervour.”

Singh continued: “The Muslims have made us feel like it is a crime to be born Hindu. I always leave home with a tilak on my forehead. But today, I cannot do that because the situation is tense and probably the police would detain me too if they see a tilak on my forehead.”

Singh and Rajput said that they condemned Regar’s actions, but were sympathetic to his cause. Regar had used a pickaxe to attack Mohammad Afrazul, a 48-year-old migrant from West Bengal’s Malda, and had set his body on fire. With his teenage nephew recording a video of the murder, Regar then proceeded to deliver a hate speech against Muslims, accusing them of waging a “love jihad”, a term used by Hindutva groups for the alleged conspiracy by Muslim men to court Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam.

“Being a part of the protest did not mean that we support a murder,” said Singh. “But yes, we are against love jihad.”

But their primary grouse was the slogans chanted in the rally organised by some Muslims. “Have you seen the video [of the Muslim protests]?” asked Singh.

Shubham Singh and Tejpal Singh Rajput. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

The Muslim rally

Munawwar Ashraf Khan, a lawyer and member of a local peace committee, was one of the organisers of the Muslim rally held on December 8. He said it was organised in consultation with the Anjuman peace committee in Udaipur. Information about the event was shared in all mosques and Muslims were asked to gather to protest against Afrazul’s killing. The rally began at 3 pm, covering a distance of around 500-600 metres, starting from the district collector’s office, and winding up near the Paltan Ki Mazjid mosque in Chetak Circle. The crowd dispersed peacefully by 4.30 pm.

“No slogans which would hurt any religious sentiments were chanted in the rally in my presence,” Khan said.

A week after the rally, and a day after the counter-protest by Hindu groups, the police arrested 10 Muslim men. Asked about the time lag between the rally and the arrests, Deputy Superintendent of Police (Udaipur East) Bhagwat Singh Hingar said that in connection with the December 8 Muslim rally, the police had registered a First Information Report on December 13, a day before the protests by the Hindu groups. He said the FIR was not based on a complaint but that the police had taken suo moto action.

Khan pointed out that police officials were present in the rally to maintain law and order. He said three of the ten men arrested in connection with the Muslim rally had criminal records but had not been seen at the rally.

He added that after the rally, young Hindu men on motorbikes have been passing through Muslim localities in the city, including his locality Khanjipeer, shouting abuses at the residents. This has caused anxiety among the Muslim families living there. “The elders have asked the youngsters in the colonies to avoid responding to any sort of provocation,” he said.

The role of Hindutva groups

A tall, lean man in his late twenties stood outside the Bhupalpura police station on December 16 afternoon, speaking to almost everyone who had come there. He introduced himself as Gaurav Nagda, the media coordinator of Shiv Sena in Udaipur, and fished out a visiting card from his pocket.

“The media got it all wrong about the protest,” Nagda said. “The protest was primarily against the slogans chanted by the Muslims in their rally and not about Shambhulal and what he did.”

He claimed the Shiv Sena does not support any form of violence and so there was no question of supporting the murder. “None of our men were present in the protests and no Shiv Sena member is under police detention,” he added.

But his claim fell flat when Rajput, who was present in the protest, said that he is associated with Shiv Sena too. They both looked at each other for a few seconds and broke into guffaws.

The police maintains that the December 14 protest was not organised by any Hindutva group.

Gaurav Nagada, Shubham Singh and Tejpal Singh Rajput, poalong with a minor who had been detained. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey