Nearly every other structure around Achal Tal is topped by a spire. Scores of temples, small and big, line the narrow lanes around the lake in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. “There are at least a hundred,” said Kaushalnath Yogi, chief priest at Gilahraj Hanuman Mandir.

On Monday afternoon, the temple was empty save for a lone woman slumped against the guardrail protecting the idol. But for a few days in March 2017, the temple had been packed. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Adityanath had just become the state’s chief minister and local Hindus wanted to join the militia raised by him called Hindu Yuva Vahini. “There was no room here to sit,” said Kaushalnath, 34, who oversees the militia’s units in Aligarh, Hathras, Eta and Kasganj districts.

Many visitors went back disappointed as membership of the militia is tightly regulated, said Kaushalnath. Its leaders are a suspicious lot. “If these people did not join us all these years, why did they want to now?” asked Kaushalnath. “We like to check and sometimes ask them to work with us for a year. Many of them support our activities and join us in our work.”

A few metres from the temple, local units of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, both affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, share office space. The students’ group has reported a steep rise in membership and influence over the past two years. The Hindu Jagran Manch, another affiliate of the RSS, operates in the city as well, although it is currently without an office. There are also smaller Hindutva groups, including Hindu Jagran Samiti, Dharm Jagran Manch and Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh. A shifting set of followers hop on and off these groups or moonlight for several at once. Some stick around even after their memberships are revoked.

It was a crowd of these Hindutva followers that descended on the Aligarh Muslim University on May 2 to protest against it keeping a photograph of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah in the students union hall. The university community allege that the attackers carried and fired weapons and deliberately disrupted a students union programme where former Vice President Hamid Ansari was scheduled to speak. As students set out to file a first information report, they faced a police lathicharge that sent over 20 of them to hospital with injuries. Protests began at the university instantly and continue.

The Hindutva groups deny the allegations. Both the Hindu Yuva Vahini and the ABVP claim they were not involved as organisations even though some of their workers were. The Hindu Jagran Manch’s Sonu Savita has admitted to organising the May 2 protest but claimed it was only to burn an effigy of the university.

A devotee at Gilahraj Hanuman Mandir near Achal Tal, Aligarh. The temple also serves as the headquarters of the Hindu Yuva Vahini. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Gaining strength

The Aligarh unit of the Hindu Yuva Vahini began with Kaushalnath’s arrival from Vrindavan in 2007, although it became fully operational only the following year. Kaushalnath directs the militia from a tiny chamber attached to the shrine where Adityanath’s photographs hang on the wall.

The militia counts 1,200-1,400 “official members” in each of the four districts Kaushalnath oversees, but since its founder became the chief minister thousands of other Hindus are willing to do the priest’s bidding. “We also have social media, I have 1.16 lakh followers on Facebook,” he said. “Government employees are not allowed to join but they push their children towards us.” After the May 2 incident, with students demanding the arrest of the attackers, Kaushalnath said he had “spoken to the senior superintendent of police”.

One of the pair arrested for the May 2 attack, Amit Goswami, was reported to be with the ABVP. But the group’s Aligarh chief, Yogendra Verma, said Goswami was never a member but may have supported “like a normal student”.

The ABVP’s Aligarh unit started in July 1949, said Verma. Till 2015, it had a modest 6,600 members. The number increased to 8,000 the next year and to 9,465 in 2017. “When you have a government that subscribes to your own ideology, it increases your confidence,” Verma explained his group’s growing popularity. He did not attribute it to the power shift in Uttar Pradesh, however. “Students see that we work for them,” he said.

Unlike other Hindutva groups, the ABVP cadres are solely students. In Aligarh, the group has significant membership in Dharm Samaj Degree College, Shri Varshney College, Gagan College of Management and Technology, Gyan Mahavidyalaya and Tikaram Kanya Mahavidyalaya. Verma, 29, originally from Mathura, has completed a master’s in business administration, collected a postgraduate degree in law and has applied for PhD at a private university.

The other man held for the AMU attack is Yogesh Varshney, whose membership of the Hindu Jagran Manch was apparently revoked in January. Set up in 1935, the group has “200 to 400 members” in Aligarh, Savita said. Till 2014, said Kaushalnath, Hindu Jagran Manch worked on “ghar wapsi, converting Muslims and Christians to Hinduism, supposedly their original faith. Facing widespread criticism for this coercive practice, they turned to issuing statements to the press and campaigning on matters such as the Jinnah portrait.

Though Savita said the Hindu Jagran Manch has not seen a significant increase in membership recently, Kaushalnath said membership always grows in the wake of such campaigns. “Students want to join us in large numbers,” he said. Last year, he had “raised the issue of Hindu students of the AMU not getting meals during Ramzan”.

Spires of temples dominate the skyline around Achal Tal. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Key target

The AMU is an essential part of Aligarh’s heritage. The majority of its 35,000-odd students are from outside Aligarh and a large number from beyond Uttar Pradesh. It was placed 10th in the central government’s ranking of universities this year. Because it is a national symbol identified with the Indian Muslims, practically every Hindutva organisation keeps its eyes on it.

Both Kaushalnath and the ABVP’s Yogendra Verma said the university is “very important” for them. “We do not have a unit there but it is the only central university here so we must keep an eye on it,” said Verma. They are planning a campaign to challenge the university’s status as a minority institution, which allows it to not reserve seats for marginalised Hindu groups. “AMU is very important for the future too,” said Kaushalnath.

The Hindutva organisations accuse the AMU of housing students who are “anti-national” and support terrorism. “The Students Islamic Movement of India was born in Aligarh,” said Kaushalnath. “The university’s students march in support of people like Yakub Memon, and Manan Wani was a student there.”

The Students Islamic Movement of India was banned in the early 2000s. Mannan Wani, a research scholar from Kashmir, went missing on January 2 and reportedly joined the militancy. Memon was executed in 2015 for his involvement in the 1993 bombings in Mumbai.

Kaushalnath’s protest against the AMU’s alleged support for Memon had led to a police case against him in 2015, but Adityanath, then an MP, had come out in his support – a singular honour for Hindutva operatives.

They have supporters on the AMU campus, Verma claimed, and Hindu students come to share grievances and keep them informed. “We stay in touch with teachers too,” said Verma, adding other allegations. “Did you know that Muslim teachers are partial to students from their community?”

Kaushalnath added, “We make sure no one exploits or suppresses us.”

The university’s students, Muslim and Hindu, are wary of the Hindutva groups’ attempts to mobilise on the campus. It was a Hindu student who attempted to counter the allegations about the availability of food during Ramzan last year, explaining on social media that “dining halls close if there are less than 100 takers for meals and there is no compulsory Roza for Hindus”. He also argued that complaints about such matters are best left to the proctor or provost to resolve. He was so berated online for his post that when he spoke to, he was reluctant to be identified.

This time too the Hindutva groups are in no mood to back off easily. About the May 2 incident, they all tell the same story, contradicting the university community’s account entirely. They claim that Hindu Jagran Manch cadres only wanted to protest and not disrupt the students union programme. They blame the students for starting the violence and firing illegal weapons. As far the lathicharge, while Verma said it “stopped a riot”, Savita claimed it was the students who beat up policemen, and a photojournalist. “We will not let the campaign end and the organisation will think of other ways,” said Savita.

Kaushalnath is reluctant to support anything that could disrupt commerce in the city, but he is not letting this slide either. “We could go to the state Assembly or even Parliament,” he said.

Yogendra Verma leads the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in Aligarh. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Uneasy city

The university has received support from some Aligarh residents, who have sent food and drink to see the students through the protests. But fear of violence in the city has kept student leaders and teachers on edge from the first day.

Wasim Sheikh Khan, a researcher at the university, believes that shared business interests of Hindus and Muslims will help keep peace. “If one makes locks, the other makes keys,” he said. But AMU Hindi professor Ajay Bisaria is sceptical. “Each one works in their home or in small groups in sheds,” he explained. “They don’t work together in large factories where they can interact.”

As Aligarh has expanded over the past two decades, ghettoisation of the communities has increased. According to the 2011 Census, urban Aligarh is 55.36% Hindu and 42.64% Muslim. While in the old parts, Hindus and Muslims live cheek by jowl, albeit in distinct clusters, gaps between them are wider in the newer areas. Anoop Shahar Road, for example, is mostly Muslim. “There are three Hindu homes,” said Mobeen Khan, a journalist. “Jai Jawan’s, halwai and dhobi.” Ram Ghat Road is almost entirely Hindu.

The Hindu Jagran Manch has constituted Gram Raksha Samitis in several colonies and slums of Aligarh, said Sonu Savita. The Hindu Yuva Vahini’s members, too, are divided into teams of 10-12. Starting jagrans, a form of worship, with loudspeakers at Achal Tal during Ramzan, Kaushalnath said, counts as a major achievement for the Hindutva groups.

While no group has contacted him directly, said the student who had countered the Ramzan controversy, the number of invitations he gets to Hindu religious events – Shivratri, Navratri, Holi Milan – has increased of late. “The venues are outside, but invitations come from people on the campus,” he said.

A seventh-generation resident of Aligarh, Bisaria witnessed riots in the city in 1990 and has followed the increased polarisation since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. “The groups speak of god and culture and for ordinary people these seem small and benign,” he said. But when trouble erupts, these groups use their influence to spread misinformation, which people fall for. “Everyone’s mind gets polluted,” he said. “In their outlook, these groups are all the same. They adopt different names just so each can deny it was involved in an incident.”

Ajay Bisaria, a seventh-generation resident of Aligarh, teaches Hindi at the Aligarh Muslim University. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury