His parents had named him Kamalveer Singh but he changed it to Rahul Kumar. He wouldn’t say if it was under the influence of 1990s Bollywood. He merely smiled at the question.

The 26-year-old was dressing an injury on a child’s leg when I had walked up to his hole-in-the-wall clinic in Dhakoli village in western Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor district on January 18. The signs painted on the wall said he was an eye mitra – an optician. A certificate showed he had done a two-month course in 2016. But the residents of nearby villages considered him a doctor and so did the representatives of pharmaceutical companies, evident from the stacks of free medicine samples clogging the tiny room.

It was a medical representative, said Rahul Kumar, who introduced him to NP Singh, the chief of the Hindu Yuva Vahini in this part of western Uttar Pradesh.

The Hindu Yuva Vahini describes itself as “a fierce cultural and social organisation dedicated to Hindutva and nationalism”. In the state’s police records, however, the ragtag vigilante militia stands accused of violent attacks against Muslims and Christians. Founded in 2002, it was barely known outside eastern Uttar Pradesh until its founder, the firebrand Hindu monk Adityanath, became the chief minister of the state in 2017.

After his shock elevation, the Vahini’s future appeared uncertain and it even briefly closed membership. But since then, it seems to have expanded its footprint, particularly in western Uttar Pradesh.

For the good of society

Rahul Kumar joined the organisation’s Moradabad division in 2018. “To work for the good of society,” he said. A year later, the same impulse, he claimed, made him volunteer as a police mitra – literally, friend of the police – under a community policing scheme of Uttar Pradesh.

The scheme, although not new, appears to have been given a fresh lease of life by the Adityanath government. In Bijnor district, every police station reportedly enrolled 100 civilian volunteers in October 2018 – to beef up security ahead of the Ayodhya verdict, the police superintendent told reporters then.

Hindu Yuva Vahini members take part in a rally in Unnao in April 2017. Credit: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

While the Ayodhya verdict in November passed without incident, December saw nationwide protests build up against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. The law expedites Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from three countries. By explicitly excluding Muslims, it has sparked fears that it could be used in the future in combination with a proposed National Register of Citizens to disenfranchise Indian Muslims – a “chronology” outlined by the home minister himself. [Read this explainer on the link between CAA and NRC.]

As nationwide protests gathered steam, the Uttar Pradesh police brutally enforced a ban on public meetings across the state. Twenty-four Muslim men were killed in the police crackdown on December 20 – two of them in Nehtaur town, 6 km from Rahul Kumar’s village.

In Nehtaur, many Muslims residents claimed they hadn’t even gathered for a protest that day – they were merely emerging out of Friday prayers in the Naiza Sarai or Naya Bazaar area when the police used batons and bullets against them, allegedly without provocation. [Read this ground dispatch from Nehtaur on December 22.]

Video footage recorded on mobile phones shows men in civil clothes wielding batons along with the police. The Muslim residents told Scroll.in they suspected them to be members of Hindutva organisations.

Their suspicions aren’t entirely misplaced. Rahul Kumar, the Hindu Yuva Vahini member-turned-police mitra, admitted he was present at the spot. He was among the civilian volunteers deployed with the uniformed police near the mosque in Naya Bazaar, he said. So was his friend, Lalit Sharma, 23, a resident of the same village, also a member of the Hindu Yuva Vahini.

The police had equipped them with police batons, they said. But Kumar denied using his: “All I did was throw stones back at those pelting us.” Sharma, however, boasted he dealt a few blows to those arrested later. “I gave a whack or two with my baton, in anger, naturally,” he said.

A still taken from a video showing men in civil clothes beating a man with police batons in Nehtaur.

What happened that day

The young men claimed they had been asked to gather in Nehtaur police station on the morning of December 20. A message sent at 10 am by a police clerk on the WhatsApp group of the civilian volunteers states: “All police mitra are asked to report to the thana immediately.” Twenty of the 100 volunteers showed up.

At the police station, they were briefed about their job: ensure no one gathered to protest in defiance of prohibitory orders and record videos of those seen inciting members of the public. They were given police batons to carry, but no other protective gear. Some of them had carried their own helmets, the same ones they used when riding motorbikes.

They walked through Nehtaur town along with uniformed policemen – “a flag march”, Lalit Sharma called it. Smaller groups were left to guard road intersections and other areas, he said, while a larger group of policemen – with eight civilian volunteers – took position outside a mosque in Naya Bazaar area around 1 pm, at the time when Muslims gather for prayers.

Why deploy police force there, I asked. “Kuch mahaul hi aisa hai wahan ka… Because the atmosphere there is such. It is a Muslim area…” he said, his voice trailing.

In interviews done by Scroll.in in the aftermath of the violence, Muslim residents questioned the rationale for deploying policemen outside a mosque when there was no formal call for protest. The deployment itself was seen as intimidation, they said, and provided the spark for the clashes that ensued.

The sequence of events from here on is contested: Muslim residents allege the police initiated the violence by beating up some men, which provoked Muslim youth into pelting stones, but the police mitra claim it was the other way around. “The police asked the crowd to disperse, they said we are merely doing our duty and we will go away,” said Rahul Kumar. “Par wo chauke barsaane lage. But they began to throw stones at us.” A stone hit a police inspector through his helmet, another smashed the window of a police vehicle, he said.

Lalit Sharma took shelter with other volunteers under a tin shed when a police officer came up to them. “Utho bachchon, aise kaam nahi chalega. Rise, boys, this won’t work,” Sharma recalled him saying. They stepped out and began to hurl back stones at the protestors. “What they did to us, we did back at them,” he said.

The clashes continued until police reinforcements arrived. “CO sahab aaye, goli chalaiyi, tab bhage,” said Rahul Kumar. “After the Circle Officer came and fired bullets, they fled.” Initially, Uttar Pradesh police had denied using bullets on December 20, but subsequently, video footage emerged showing policemen using guns. Kumar’s account further confirmed what Muslim residents had said: that bullets had been used against them.

What about the police batons, were they of no use, I asked the police mitra. “We can’t use batons against those hurling stones from a distance,” said Sharma. “But, yes, after people were caught, do-chaar lage hi, they were given a few whacks.” Did they beat the protestors? Rahul Kumar laughed: “My turn didn’t come, others were ahead of me.” Sharma said he hit a couple of men before pushing them into the police vehicle.

A still from a video recorded in Nehtaur shows baton-wielding civilian volunteers intermingling with the police.

More Hindus, few Muslims

In an interview with Caravan magazine, the Bijnor police superintendent Sanjeev Tyagi defended the use of civilian volunteers: “These are special police officers. People from all communities are made [police mitra]. Their purpose is to assist the police. Police regulation allows this; it is not illegal.”

However, Muslim residents allege a systematic bias in the recruitment under the community policing scheme. Muslims constitute 43% of Bijnor district’s population. In Nehtaur town, they form nearly 75% of the population. Arguably, if the aim of community policing is to build bridges between the police and citizens, local demographics should inform recruitment patterns. Yet, the police have drafted mostly Hindu men as police mitra, a large number of them from Hindutva organisations, Muslims residents allege.

Scroll.in was unable to access the overall list of police mitra in Bijnor district. But a limited list of 20 names of civilian volunteers enrolled with Nehtaur police station had only three Muslim names on it.

Lalit Sharma, who claimed to be one of the two co-ordinators for police volunteers in the Nehtaur area, said of 100 volunteers, 15-20 were Muslim. And how many among the 100 were members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini? “About 15. I only enrolled them,” he chuckled.

Sharma also took credit for drafting five other men from his village into the scheme, including ‘doctor sahab’ – a reference to Rahul Kumar. His own recruitment, he said, was done by the halka sipahi or beat constable of the area with whom he was well acquainted. His account suggested a recruitment pattern that was not open but closed, operating on the basis of social networks, prone to bias.

Sharma insisted, however, that after they had joined the community policing scheme, he and the others had distanced themselves from the Vahini. “I have stopped going to its meetings,” he said. “We were told by the police that we should not have a political affiliation.” But does that mean he was broken all contact with the Vahini leaders? “No, of course not, I am still in touch with them.”

What prompted him to join the Vahini? Sharma said he joined the organisation a few months after he became a member of the Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh in 2017. Distinct from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Mahasangh is a smaller outfit associated with Adityanath.

As chief minister, Adityanath might no longer be formally heading these organisations, Sharma quickly added, “par nam unhi ka chal raha hai”. But they are working in his name.

Was his decision to join these organisations informed by their association with the chief minister? “If the chief minister has started the organisation, then it must be good,” he said.

On the desk of Rahul Kumar, next to patient registers, lies the Ram Charitramanas.

Young men looking for work

Neither Hindu Yuva Vahini nor the community policing scheme fetch the men an income.

After a failed stint as a newspaper reporter, Rahul Kumar masquerades as a medical doctor, despite having a masters degree in arts. Lalit Sharma teaches at a private school for Rs 100 a day.

Both men spend much of their time applying for government jobs. Sharma has made several failed attempts to qualify for positions in the Indian Army, the Uttar Pradesh police and central paramilitary forces. Recently, he cleared the physical test for constable recruitment in the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and is now preparing for the written exam. His ambition to become a policeman is what drew him to the community policing scheme, he said. “It makes me feel as powerful as the police.”

Lalit Kumar, a third young man in the village who had joined the community policing scheme, had a more prosaic explanation for taking up unpaid work. “It boils down to unemployment,” the 23-year-old said, as he walked into Rahul Kumar’s clinic and joined the conversation. Unlike Rahul Kumar and Lalit Sharma, who belonged to upper caste families, Lalit Kumar was a Dalit. He was neither associated with any Hindutva group, nor had he served duty on the day of the violence. “While we don’t get paid for our work as police mitra, we hope this will give us an opportunity to gain knowledge and meet high-level officials, and who knows one day, this might help us in some form,” he said.

Rahul Kumar, however, offered a loftier perspective for joining the community policing initiative: “If soldiers can fight for the country on the border, then surely we can spare some time to help the police.”

But soldiers were fighting another country, as police mitra, they had beaten up people of their country. How did they justify that, I asked.

Shifting in his seat uncomfortably, Rahul Kumar said there was no reason for people to protest against the Narendra Modi government. “All that Modi ji is saying is show proof of your citizenship, show your Aadhaar card. That is no reason to protest.” When told that Aadhaar card does not qualify as citizenship proof, he said, “But people also have voter IDs.” It is not clear whether voter identity cards would have much value in the event of a nationwide NRC, since the rules for the exercise are yet to be framed, but in Assam, they were not counted as citizenship proof.

Indifferent to the details, Rahul Kumar stuck to his view: “Modi ji is not doing anything wrong. He is asking for proof to isolate terrorists who may have entered the country…”

A milestone near Dhakoli village shows its proximity to Nehtaur town.

Ignorant, yet stubborn

If the CAA and NRC did not affect Indian Muslims, why were they protesting, I asked.

Rahul Kumar had no clear answer. “When I go to Nehtaur, I rarely venture into Naya Bazaar,” he said, implying he had little contact with Muslims.

Lalit Sharma said: “They claim they are being thrown out of the country while nothing of this sort is happening. The home minister sahab has himself said Mohammedans living in India have nothing to fear, so what is their problem? This is nothing but a conspiracy of the Opposition.”

Among the three men, only Lalit Kumar seemed to have a basic understanding of the concerns of Indian Muslims. “The new law enables citizenship for people of some religious groups as long as they can show they have lived in India for five years, but it excludes Muslims,” he said. “In the future, when NRC is done, Hindus can get away with showing proof for just five years of residence, but Muslims will have to dig out proof from 60-70 years ago.”

He continued: “In my view, this is wrong. Our history textbooks tell us there was Muslim rule in the country for centuries, which means Muslims have lived in India for centuries. They belong here.”

Among the six men recruited as police mitra in the village, incidentally, one is Muslim: Salman Khan. Sharma claimed the village had only two Muslim families. “Yet, see, we took one of their boys as a police mitra,” he boasted.

Joining the conversation taking place in the clinic, Khan, 23, was cautious to distance himself from the ongoing protests and to denounce violence by protestors. He even justified the police firing. “If things get out of control, then the policemen will have to defend themselves,” he said.

But he was critical of the Citizenship Act: “If other people from Pakistan are getting Indian citizenship, Muslims from there too must be given a choice. After all, they too originally belonged to India.”

Lalit Sharma, the member of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, latched on to the reference to Pakistan. “Did you see Imran Khan has said Pakistan will not accept even a single person from India. So why should we take in people from Pakistan? On one hand, everyone is concerned about rising unemployment, on the other hand, you say take more people into the country.”

When it was pointed out to him that the Citizenship Amendment Act actually enables Indian citizenship for undocumented migrants – essentially, taking in more people into the country – he retorted: “But compared to the number of people taken in, a larger number of people will be thrown out. Isme aane waale kam hai jaane waale zyaada hai.” This formulation reflected the Hindutva view that the CAA-NRC would together enable citizenship for Hindus “refugees” while weeding out Muslim “infiltrators”.

Both Lalit Kumar and Salman Khan sprang up to challenge Sharma, prompting him to throw his hands up in the air. “Choddo, this is all politics. Let’s return to the topic of police mitra,” he said.

“Please write in your article that we are being exploited,” he told me. “Even a chowkidar who goes to the police station barely three-four days a month to sign a register gets paid Rs 3,000 as monthly salary and gets a free bicycle. We should be paid at least Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000. And we should be given safety gear, a helmet and shield like constables.”

Since they had joined, he complained they had not even been given any training. “Though, as village boys, we know how to swing a baton,” he laughed.

The police mitra of Dhakoli village did not want their faces revealed. They feared they could be targetted for their work with the police.