Over the past week, Delhi has seen three firing incidents directed at people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. In one case, the gunmen reportedly escaped on a scooter. But in the two others, they were caught on the spot and were immediately identified. They had very little in common – except for their apparent hardline Hindu sentiments.

One gunman is reportedly 17 and a school student. He comes from a lower-middle class Brahmin family whose only source of income is the boy’s father’s tiny pan-shop jutting out of their derelict home in western Uttar Pradesh.

The other, Kapil Gujjar, aged 25, is the elder son of a semi-urban Delhi family with thriving business interests and several high-end luxury cars. The Gujjar family belongs to an eponymous historically pastoral community that is currently counted among the “Other Backward Classes” by the Indian government.

Gujjar’s father is a former Bahujan Samaj Party politician, a party that has traditionally represented communities at the bottom of India’s caste pyramid. On Tuesday, photos surfaced on social media where Gujjar is seen with Aam Aadmi Party leaders. He and his father had joined the party recently, according to Delhi Police.

The unaffiliated Hindu hardliner

Neither Gujjar nor the teenager was part of any Hindutva organisation and appear to have acted on their own. Yet, both spoke the language of Hindu nationalists. While Gujjar invoked the Hindutva fantasy of India as a “Hindu Rashtra”, the 17-year-old impenitently announced that he was giving “azaadi” – freedom – to the protestors.

The Urdu word “azaadi” has been an integral part of the protest vocabulary of the ongoing anti-Citizenship Amendment movement – protesters have often metaphorically invoked it, demanding “freedom” from communal politics.

The Citizenship Amendment Act expedites Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from the three neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Those opposing the law say that it introduces a religious criterion for Indian citizenship in violation of the constitutional right to equality.

What explains the actions of these seemingly lone wolves?

How are young men – as different as Gujjar and the school-boy from Uttar Pradesh – without direct membership of right-wing Hindu organisations getting radicalised?

A screengrab from a video of the Jamia firing posted by @Nrcprotest on Twitter.

A good reputation

In the East Delhi neighbourhood of Dallupura where Gujjar lives, his friends and cousins spoke of him glowingly: hardworking, non-confrontational, well-mannered, loyal friend, the list goes on. Queries about Hindutva connections are vehemently shot down. “He had Muslim friends too,” insisted a cousin.

The first explanation offered for when he fired in the air at the Shaheen Bagh protests on February 1 – which his kin insist was a “momentary transgression” – is “business losses”. Among other things, Gujjar’s family runs a flourishing dairy business which, according to his friends and cousins, was suffering because of the protests at Shaheen Bagh, more than 15 km away. The area has seen a continuous sit-in led largely by Muslim women against the Citizenship Amendment Act since mid-December.

“His milk delivery was getting affected because the protesters have blocked the road,” claimed a childhood friend from the area. “He was very upset. Anyone would be if their livelihood got affected. And we Gujjars are hot-headed as it is.”

‘Did it for the country’

Why then raise Hindu supremacist slogans if it was about purely business? As he was being accosted by the police, Gujjar defiantly declared on camera, “Ours is a Hindu nationalist country, only Hindus will have their way here.”

One of his friends rationalised: “Are any Hindus sitting at Shaheen Bagh? And isn’t the road meant for both Hindus and Muslims? How can the Muslims then block it? How long can one tolerate this?”

Dig deeper and the anti-Muslim bias among Gujjar’s closest friends – whom he spent time with every evening – becomes evident. “If you really want to see the true nature of Muslims, you should go to Trilokpuri,” suggested another friend. “There, we Hindus have no chance.”

In 2014, the East Delhi neighbourhood of Trilokpuri was hit by communal riots between Hindus and Muslims.

The veneer then starts to go off quite quickly as plans are made to shoot a video in support of “Kapil bhai”.

“If you can’t belong to India, you can’t belong to any country,” said a friend who went to the gym with Gujjar every morning, referring to the protesters at Shaheen Bagh. “It’s simple: you can’t spit on the plate you are eating as the people eating biryani at Shaheen Bagh are. What Kapil bhai did, he did it for the country. ”

A screenshot of Kapil Gujjar. Credit: Saiyed Mohammed Saquib/Twitter

Hate speech, inflammatory TV

Politicians of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have, on several occasions, cited the consumption of biryani at the Shaheen Bagh protest as a dog-whistle: an attempt to portray the agitation as one driven by Islamist forces and sponsored by Pakistan. In reality, though, protesters, have staunchly and repeatedly affirmed that it was a secular assembly. In fact, Shaheen Bagh protestors rang in Republic Day by singing the national anthem and reading the Preamble to the Constitution at midnight.

Inflammatory communal statements by BJP leaders were further amplified by right-wing television channels – popular television anchor Arnab Goswami recently referred to the Shaheen Bagh protest as “anti-Hindu, anti-India”. This rhetoric seems to have influenced the Uttar Pradesh teenager . In the past too, he appears to have parleyed with right-wing leaders and participated in protests organised by them.

On January 27, BJP minister Anurag Thakur was heard shouting “desh ke gaddaron ko [the traitors to the country]” while the crowd responded with “goli maaro saalon ko [shoot the traitors]”. The slogan seemed to be in reference to anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protestors.

Three days later, on January 30, the teenager fired shots at protestors gathered near the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, injuring one student in Delhi.

An ardent TV viewer

Neighbours and family members of the boy in the state’s Jewar town said the 17-year-old was an ardent viewer of television news – mostly on his mobile phone. His Facebook posts certainly suggest as much too. “This revenge is for Chandan bhai,” he wrote minutes before opening fire from a pistol

This seems to be a reference to Chandan Gupta, a right-wing activist who was killed in communal clashes in Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj in 2018. The violence had begun when motorbike-borne men waving saffron flags and the Indian tricolour disrupted a Republic Day celebration in a Muslim-dominated locality, leading to shots being fired from both sides. In fact, according to the police, the first shots were fired by the Hindu mob.

A picture of the teenage shooter from his Facebook page.

However, right-wing news channels had at that time reported the incident as an episode of an unprovoked attack on unarmed Hindus – a line that endures in Jewar. Om Prakash Tiwari, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader from the town, repeatedly invoked the incident to seemingly justify the 17-year-old’s action. “First it was Chandan Gupta, then someone else, one by one they are targeting Hindu leaders,” he said. “We have to respond too – we cannot keep shut forever.”

Speaking the language of propaganda media

Exposure to right-wing propaganda television starts early here. Dilip Goyal, a leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent organisation, said that it is “suggested” to young boys – starting from fifth standard students – who attend the local RSS academies that they watch nationalistic channels like Republic Bharat and Zee News.

This seems to be the story across the communally volatile Western Uttar Pradesh, an area riven by violent riots in 2013 that left hundreds dead.

In Bulandshahar, the Hindutva outfit Bajrang Dal’s Shivam Ghansal, 23, referred to a news story from 2019 about arms being recovered from a madrassa in Bijnor. “They are factories of terrorism,” said Ghansal who has been with the Bajrang Dal since 2012. When the story broke, right-wing news channels at that time used an almost identical phrase.

As Rashtriya Lok Dal politician Asif Ghazi from the city put it: “From 6 till 10 in the evening, young boys watch TV news which talks about little else. It is no surprise that young boys are getting radicalised.”

From left to right: Sehej Shevanand Puri; Anish Gehlot; Shivam Ghansal. While Puri and Gehlot are from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Ghnasal is part of the outfit's youth wing, the Bajrang Dal

Viral hate

Internet, cheaper than ever, amplifies hate speech even more. News and debate clips – often edited to make them appear even more provocative – make their way into messaging apps such as WhatsApp. The comment section on these videos invariably abound with loaded provocations from both sides.

The teenager who fired at the Jamia protests used Facebook generously – and his online activity seem to have largely been centred around hardline Hindutva politics.

“It’s all because of Facebook where the Mohammedan boys say nasty things about Hindus,” said Tiwari in Jewar. “You see all that and your blood boils. How much can they tolerate?”

Across Jewar and adjoining towns, right-wing activists offer a similar explanation for the teenager’s actions: that he had pushed to the edge by “derogatory Mohammedan propaganda against Hindus” on social media.

As Sehej Shevanand Puri, a senior functionary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Bulandshahar, said: “Pehel chhedenge nahi, phir chhodenge nahi.” We won’t start, but we won’t spare either.