The Delhi police on Monday began investigating a motorbike rally organised by a Hindutva group called Akhand Bharat Morcha on April 1, ostensibly to mark Hanuman Jayanti. Several hundred of the group’s supporters had stopped by four mosques in East Delhi and, with the police watching, brandished swords and clubs, burst firecrackers, threw colour and raised saffron flags on the mosques, and shouted allegedly “threatening slogans” against the Muslim community.

The police said the group had held such rallies in previous years as well but there had never been such a “law and order situation”. Pankaj Singh, deputy commissioner of police in East District said they have launched a suo motu inquiry and are hoping to identify the perpetrators soon.

Asked why it took the police nearly two weeks to act despite acknowledging that there was evidence of hooliganism, police officials said the complainants had not insisted on registering a First Information Report.

Akhand Bharat Morcha’s rally received wide attention after videos of the participants apparently indulging in hooliganism near the four mosques, located in and around Mandawali, appeared on social media.

Over the past two years, the group has occasionally been in the news, reported largely by Delhi’s local Hindi newspapers, for varied reasons: agitating against “love jihad”, a term coined by Hindutva groups accusing Muslim men of wooing Hindu women with the sole purpose of converting them to Islam; demonstrating in support of Kulbhushan Jadhav, an alleged Indian spy jailed by Pakistan; and protesting against Rohingya refugees in India.

Akhand Bharat Morcha was formed in 1998 by Baikunth Lal Sharma, a former Bharatiya Janata Party lawmaker from East Delhi, but it was registered only in 2014. Since then, it has organised a rally every Hanuman Jayanti – called Bajrang Shakti rally – with the number of participants swelling by the year.

“Last year, there were some 200 motorbikes in the rally and this year we had around 500,” said Sandeep Ahuja, the group’s president, sitting in his office in Madhu Vihar, East Delhi. Four maps of what Hindutva groups call Akhand Bharat, or Greater India, adorn the walls of his office alongside a picture of Baikunth Lal Sharma, now a nonagenarian.

From left: Sandeep Ahuja, Virander Singh and Kuldeep Rathore in Akhand Bharat Morcha's office in Madhu Vihar. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

The group counts around 4,000 members across Delhi, Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh, Ahuja said, but its centre of influence remains the eastern part of the national Capital. Most of its members are street vendors and labourers, he added, but there is a small proportion of students, government employees and self-employed persons as well. The majority of them are 18 to 35 years old.

Ahuja himself is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindutva mothership, working in its extremist youth wing, Bajrang Dal, in the late 1990s. He also claimed to have worked with the BJP’s youth wing, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, as a coordinator and as chief of its Gau Raksha unit between 1994 and 2008.

‘Who will not be scared?’

The rally has left Muslim residents of the area scared, said Mohammad Faizal Jamaee, imam of Mohammadi Masjid, one of the four mosques targeted by the hooligans along with Fazl-e-Ilahi Masjid, Madni Masjid and Jama Masjid. “Who will not be scared after such a display of weapons by such a large group?” he asked. “They chanted slogans such as ‘Hindustan mein rehna hoga toh Jai Sri Ram kehna hoga’.” If you want to live in India, the slogan went, you will have to chant ‘Jai Sri Ram’.

Jamaee said hooliganism outside his mosque continued for around five minutes. “In a secular country, we cannot stop anyone from organising a religious procession,” he said. “But the police should have interfered when it came to deciding the route of the procession.”

Senior police officials said the rally was accompanied by police personnel but they had little control over the route.

The Delhi police's permission for the rally was taken in February this year.

The length of the route nearly doubled this year, to 10 km from around 5.5 km last year. The rally, as always, started from a Shiv temple in Madhu Vihar, only this year it was flagged off by three BJP councillors, said Virander Singh, 34, the group’s East Delhi district president. The rally travelled far beyond the localities it usually covered – Madhu Vihar, Ghazipur village, Indraprastha Extension, Mandawali, West Vinod Nagar, Pandav Magar, Chandan Vihar – to Shahdara, Karkardooma and Jagatpuri.

“There are four mosques on the old route, but the new route covers six,” said Kuldeep Rathore, 33, a member of the group. “But what can we do? This is the land of Hindus and we can’t keep thinking of mosque locations before choosing routes for our religious processions. The complaints, however, have originated from mosques on the old route.”

Singh and Rathore both participated in the rally. Singh, a resident of Ghazipur village, is a property dealer while Rathore, who lives in Madhu Vihar, works in the office of a plywood manufacturer. Both said they came to know about the group through friends and acquaintances and were glad to join it. This year’s was Singh’s second motorbike rally and Rathore’s fourth.

In one of the videos of the rally that appeared on social media, Singh is seen brandishing a club and is surrounded by men brandishing swords. Who shot the video, originally streamed live on Facebook? Singh and Rathore claimed they could not say, and Ahuja said “there were many such participants who were doing Facebook Live that day”.

In Mandawali, Muslim residents said they had never seen such a rally. “They might have organised such a rally before but never of this size,” said Zahoor Alam, imam of Fazl-e-Ilahi Masjid. “In fact, no one in the area seems to have seen such a rally before. Why is it happening now? It is difficult to understand.”

Why did the Muslims who complained to the police about the hooliganism not ask for an FIR? Jamaee explains why. “The group clearly wanted the Muslims to react so they could turn it into a violent event,” he said. “We had asked all residents not to do so. We did not insist on a police case because it could have escalated the matter into something worse and the police have anyway assured us such things will not happen again.”