Monu Manesar represents the rise of a militant Hindutva during the Modi decade

By Shoaib Daniyal

In October, a YouTuber named Monu Manesar received a “silver play button” award from Google for crossing 1 lakh subscribers. Based in Haryana, Monu Manesar would post videos of him and his friends chasing down and assaulting people who he accused of transporting cattle to be slaughtered for meat.

Manesar was a member of the Bajrang Dal, an organisation under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s umbrella of Hindutva groups. Cow vigilantes like him worked under the protection of the police as well with the backing of a draconian new anti-beef law passed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Haryana in 2015.

Manesar’s main target are the villagers of Nuh, a small Muslim-majority region of Haryana. In January, Manesar uploaded a video of him and a group of vigilantes assaulting and abducting three Muslim men from Nuh. Later, one of them, Waris Khan was found dead.

Despite of the video evidence, the police denied Manesar’s role in the assaults and claimed instead that Khan had died in a car accident. The relatives of the three men said that they did not even have cattle with them and alleged that the police were hand-in-glove with Manesar in carrying out the murder.

A month later, two more Muslim men, Junaid and Nasir, this time from Rajasthan, were found charred to death in a car in Haryana. Like with Khan, the relatives blamed Manesar and accused the police of colluding with the vigilantes. Even as the police made no move to arrest him, Manesar received mass support from Hindutva groups. Community “panchayats” were held to back him. Declared the organiser of one event, “If the Rajasthan Police set foot in Manesar to arrest Monu, they will not return the same way.”

Khan and two other Muslim men being abducted by Manesar's gang. Later, Khan would be found dead.

Far from being arrested for these murders, Manesar, it seems, had complete freedom of movement. On July 30, he released a video to say he would be joining a Bajrang Dal procession in Nuh the next day. The procession, in which many participants were armed, came under attack from some Muslim residents. Five people were killed in the intense communal riots that followed. The violence soon spread to neighbouring Gurugram, where the cleric of a mosque was murdered and there was a mass exodus of working-class Muslims.

Manesar’s role in the violence is now being investigation by the Haryana administration. As one Muslim man from Mewat told Scroll, “He burned two people alive and the police say they can’t catch him. And then he goes around making videos and giving interviews threatening us, and we are not supposed to be angry also?”.

Poster boy

The rise of Manesar brings into focus a new facet to Hindutva mobilisation in India. State support for communal violence is not new to India. In fact, anti-minority violence in India is often highly organised – a phenomenon that political scientists Paul Brass described as an “institutionalised riot system”. Despite this history, the open state support for a man accused of such gruesome crimes is still a fairly new phenomenon. In states such as Haryana, for example, such explicit backing for militant Hindutva groups only started during the Modi era.

In 2016, Caravan reporter Ishan Marvel managed to join a cow protection vigilante group, writing in great detail about the incredible anti-Muslim violence they unleashed with the full backing of the state government. In fact, much of the anti-Muslim violence was often carried out jointly by the police and Hindutva gangs, Marvel found. This pattern is apparent in the murders for which Monu Manesar now stands accused. So entrenched are militant Hindutva groups in BJP-ruled states that political scientists Christophe Jaffrelot calls them the “deeper state”.

Manesar is not the only one to be rewarded for such violence. On Saturday, the BJP named Kapil Mishra as its Delhi vice-president. In 2020, Mishra had delivered an ultimatum to the Delhi Police: if they did not stop the anti-Citizenship Act protests then underway in the city, he would take the law into his own hands. Violence began a little after Mishra’s threats, culminating in widespread rioting across North East Delhi . An investigation by Scroll also found that support for Mishra was a key driver for rioters in Delhi.

On July 30, a man named Kapil Gurjar shared a photo on social media of him meeting with the BJP’s National General Secretary, Kailash Vijayvargiya. In 2020, Gujjar had opened fire at people protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act. Not only did Gujjar quickly make bail, he was clearly important enough for one of the BJP’s senior-most leaders to meet and be photographed with.

The road to 2024

The BJP’s support for such elements is obviously dangerous for law and order and, specifically, Muslims. Though communal anarchy has been a recurring theme of the Modi age, the party is unlikely to stop pushing it. One reason is, of course, ideology. Support for militant Hindutva groups dovetails well with the BJP’s idea of a muscular Hindu nationalism. The second is even stickier: it helps during elections.

That seems obvious for the fact that even as the Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar has refused to arrest Manesar for the murders committed in his state, he said on Thursday that the Rajasthan Police were free to arrest him. In fact, when the Rajasthan Police had previously tried to arrest Manesar, an FIR had been filed against them. With this battle of words, the BJP is hoping to polarise the upcoming Rajasthan elections, making sure Hindu-Muslim relations dominate the conversation, crowding out economic factors such as welfarism on which the Congress is on a strong wicket.

Given this dynamic, paired with the fact that economic distress is high, the road to the 2024 Lok Sabha election could likely see many more communal incidents in BJP-ruled state and the coming to prominence of more radical leaders such as Manesar.

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