On 14 February 2015, I met a nineteen-year-old man at a KFC outlet in a shopping mall in Meerut and asked him why he had tied an iron rod to the back of his motorbike as he left his house that morning. Arjun Kumar was short and skinny, his long, pale face dotted with pimples. He rarely looked at me during the six hours he sat across the table picking at his fried chicken. Seeing a teenager go through a whole conversation with a real person while looking at his phone didn’t surprise me. What did startle me were the bloodshot eyes he fixed on my face every time I turned my attention to his two friends at the table. Kumar wasn’t that pleased to meet me. He didn’t hang out with women on principle. I was exactly the kind of woman he loved to hate: urban, independent, opinionated. But when one of his two friends at the table had called him in the morning to say they have got to meet someone from Delhi, he came along without thinking. So here he was, picking at a combo meal I had bought us, trying to find words to answer my question.
Finally, drawing circles on his plate with his fork, he said it: I hate couples.
His first instinct when he sees them around in public – in parks, shopping malls, fast-food joints – is to go flying at them with his iron rod. He isn’t allowed to do that every day, so he looks forward to Valentine’s Day for the rest of the year. It’s when the boys of the Bajrang Dal get a free pass to do with young lovers as they please. It’s the only day of the year when the world takes notice of them: Reporters follow them around and the police stand ready to control the damage caused. The boys plan their action days in advance, watching the movement of young couples and assigning stake-out positions. For years, Kumar tried to build an aura of fear in preparation for his first Valentine’s Day; it’s already his second. The whole of Meerut is his battleground on Valentine’s Day and he a caped commander saving it from ruin. He is counting the minutes to dusk as he tells me about the various ‘lovers’ points’ in the town. They are supposed to receive a call from their leader any moment, assigning positions for the evening. Kumar would have liked to calmly map his moves while he waits, but the scene around us was far from conducive to tactical planning. The restaurant had been filling up with couples since morning. Kumar’s eyes were no longer fixed on his phone; they were closely examining the exchange of roses and teddy bears around us. The rituals make him sick. ‘I wish, I just wish I could take a bat to each of their faces,’ he said to himself, his bony fingers thrumming with temptation. However, he didn’t have official permission yet.
Kumar joined the Bajrang Dal while he was still in fifth standard. He was thirteen then. At that point, he says, it was just about being cool in the neighbourhood. Growing up in a mohalla crammed with men whose main occupation was to somehow pass the time till the next festival, Kumar had noticed the air of purpose bestowed by the battle for Hindutva. One doesn’t get to fight at its front line as a young teenager, though. So what Kumar did in his early years as a teen soldier was mostly stand outside the Bajrang Dal’s local office with other thirteen-year-olds and look aggressive. On days when there was a meeting, he and his comrades arranged the plastic chairs in straight lines and checked the mike for sound. His status rose fast. Before he knew it, Kumar was using the Bajrang Dal’s badge to deal with situations as wide-ranging as poor school attendance and street fights. Everyone backed off. Or as he saw it: ‘People give you izzat.’ Kumar was a certified dude by the time he joined the Chaudhary Charan Singh College in Meerut as a seventeen-year-old. To make sure everyone understood it, Kumar began by skipping classes. ‘College mein apni chalti hai (It’s my rule in the college).’ How bad could it get, he asked himself, if ever in doubt. The teacher would complain to the principal and the principal would threaten to suspend him from the college. But would the principal insist on taking action if the president of the ABVP’s college unit called him with gentle advice that sounded like a warning about the consequences of any such action? ‘Mahamantri knows everyone in the police. Whom will the college administration complain to?’
Gradually, Kumar moved into the next orbit of influence. His own attendance no longer mattered to anyone, so he upped his stake: organizing protests, damaging property, flattening enemies. In 2014, Kumar was angered to learn that the ‘general-category’ students of law—mostly upper-caste Hindus—had scored fewer marks in an internal exam than those who fell under ‘reserved’ categories. Kumar joined his ABVP colleagues in a series of violent demonstrations against the principal’s ‘partiality’. They wanted the man removed from his position. Later that year, Kumar said, in breathless bursts of words, the government in Uttar Pradesh decided to intervene. He told me it was he who went to meet with the governor of the state—‘alone’—to let him know their demands. (The governor is an appointee of the Central government, which the BJP won in May 2014.) He said he has never felt more important in his life. ‘You should have seen the security at his office. They shot a photo and video of me before I entered. Man, you can’t even take a mobile phone inside.’
Kumar currently focuses his malevolent energy on one thing alone: fighting Muslims. Like most Hindu men of his age in Meerut, he grew up detesting them. A city of 42 per cent Muslims and 58 per cent Hindus, Meerut has long been classified as ‘riot-prone’. Its first sectarian riot was well before Partition, in 1939, and its most recent in 2015. Hundreds of residents have died in the violence. News reports always pin the blame on a random incident—Hindu and Muslim college boys got into a scuffle; a Muslim man married a Hindu woman; Muslims encroached on Hindu property—but researchers have suggested the existence of an ‘Institutionalized Riot System’. In a city where Hindus and Muslims are comparable in numbers as well as economic and political influence, Hindus find it harder to coexist with Muslims than elsewhere in India. In 1987, in a horrifying incident of sectarian violence, a company of all-Hindu paramilitary men stormed into a Muslim colony, picked up forty-five men, drove them to the bank of a canal, lined them up, and shot them one by one. Only three survived.
Sectarian hate is often the first strongly felt emotion for a boy in Meerut. Kumar despised Muslims before he could count to ten. He has felt furious every time a gang of Muslim boys won a fight on his street. He has choked with frustration every time a Muslim man bought a house in his colony. He has burnt with anger every time a Hindu girl in his colony went out with a Muslim boy. When the local chapter of the Bajrang Dal vowed never to let another Muslim man woo a Hindu woman again—they call it ‘love jihad’—Kumar jumped right in. Since then, Kumar and his gang receive an alert from head office if a Hindu girl is sighted with a Muslim boy. His job is to make sure they don’t meet again. Fortunately, this is a process that involves a degree of violence, since that is the bit that Kumar likes best. Roaming the streets on his motorbike every Valentine’s Day, he keeps a special eye out for Hindu- Muslim couples. ‘Last year was fun. I had been watching this guy for a month and it’s on that day I finally see him with a girl from Dharampuri walking hand in hand in Gandhi Park. I was unstoppable.’
Today Kumar has what he hungered for as an adolescent lining up for the Bajrang Dal’s recruitment parade: izzat, or status and honour. ‘If I stand at any place in Dharampuri, there will be a long line of men behind me in no time.’ What does a young man in Meerut desire after he has achieved that? Kumar will be out of college in 2017, with a bachelor’s degree in commerce and no idea of what to do with it. Thousands of other young men in Meerut will be in the same position. Kumar already feels anxious about the future—he can’t go back to being irrelevant. There is only one way for him to go and he knows it. ‘I am thinking of politics,’ he said, after a deep sigh of contemplation.
Arjun Kumar is what think pieces explaining the Trump and Brexit verdicts term a loser of globalization, one of the millions of leftover youths whose anger is transforming world politics. It’s like the world swept past him while he was arranging chairs in the Bajrang Dal office. Kumar is not sure he will find a job he’d like or find a girl who’d like him. On an elemental level, he doesn’t know if he matters to the world. There’s only one way left for him to make that happen: punish everyone who’s moved ahead of him in that queue. This is what he thinks politics is about. He knows only one party that will allow him to practise it.
Kumar has stopped going to college altogether. ‘I divide my time between hanging out at the offices of the ABVP, BJP and VHP—two hours here, three hours there. It’s how my days go.’ Two months ago, when the BJP organized a mega convention in Meerut, Kumar did his best to be visible to the high and mighty of the Hindutva establishment. ‘Twenty-five thousand people were there. Very important people—you can say celebrities.’ Kumar spent his whole time there ‘making connections’. He picked up his phone from the table and began to recite the names and numbers of people who ‘personally know him’ now. He wanted me to note down these details. He said all I had to do if I needed them to do something for me was drop his name. I felt a little sad for him, in spite of knowing that he would abandon this interview the moment he got a phone call telling him to go out on the streets. I asked him why politics. ‘To serve the nation,’ he said with a straight face. But one doesn’t just become a politician, I said. He laughed his first laugh of the day. I shouldn’t underestimate him, he said. He had a plan. It was to follow the track of a man whose plan had worked. Sangeet Som first won a state assembly seat as a BJP contestant from Meerut district in 2012. But that’s not his claim to fame. In 2013, months before parliamentary elections in which the BJP eyed Uttar Pradesh, the young MLA circulated a fake video through mobile phone networks to spark off sectarian riots in western UP in which fifty people were killed and 50,000 displaced. The party, which won seventy-one of eighty seats in the elections that followed the riots, rewarded Som, a school dropout with no talent other than setting Hindus against Muslims, for fighting the good fight. He’s been a role model for Meerut’s young Hindu men ever since. ‘I follow him around every time he comes to Meerut,’ said Kumar.
There’s another reason Kumar gets to observe the MLA at a close distance. Som has recently hired a personal tutor to teach him to speak English—the man happens to be Kumar’s older brother. Why does a man who seems to have made a political career out of pitting Hindu boys against their Muslim neighbours need to speak English? For a simple reason, Kumar explained. Sangeet Som can use his success in politics as the shortcut to the good life he would otherwise have spent a lifetime chasing, but the world will still see him as a provincial wannabe unless he speaks the language of privilege. It’s the language he will need to speak when he is travelling abroad, meeting dignitaries, mingling in high society. From the rumours Kumar has heard in Meerut, Som’s long-term plan to develop his personality include getting an MBA degree from Australia. Kumar can’t speak fluent English himself, but he isn’t too bothered about it yet. He has more important things on his mind. Building his political image tops the agenda. The work has begun on the platform best suited to his needs: Facebook. Kumar has six Facebook accounts altogether, each targeted to a different audience, from his gang of boys in Meerut to the global soldiers fighting ‘love jihad’. He keeps them active 24/7, often staying awake the whole night. I ask him if he has any time left for a personal life. He glares at me bewildered. Girls, I specify. ‘Do you like girls?’ Kumar tells me he likes to ‘stay away from girls’. His friend almost snorts out his Coke. ‘He had a girlfriend,’ the friend explains, ‘but she left him for another guy—a rich guy.’
‘True?’ I ask Kumar.
‘Girls,’ he says, his eyes on his phone screen once again, his mouth twitching, ‘they are not worthy of trust.’
It’s 5 p.m., but Kumar still hasn’t received a call from the leader. By the time we say our goodbyes, it’s clear the call isn’t coming at all. There was a reason the Bajrang Dal cancelled its annual carnival of violence on that Valentine’s Day. The bosses figured out couples wouldn’t be crowding the streets and parks of Meerut. The lovers would stick to KFC and McDonald’s like the previous year. Those who couldn’t afford it would save up to spend the special day in the safety of the town’s new shopping malls. Kumar’s victims had sat around him all day—holding hands, exchanging teddy bears, sharing Coca-Colas—and all he could was glare. They were protected by the safe spaces created by that same globalization that had condemned Kumar to a place at the back of the queue. Life hadn’t been fair to him, and as he rode his bike back to a neighbourhood empty of young men luckier in love than him, Kumar was officially tired of fighting it.
Excerpted from “Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World” by Snigdha Poonam, published by Penguin India.
Featured image used for representative purposes only