In Hathras 'Conspiracy' Plotline, a Glimpse of How Hindutva 'Fringe' is Really Its Mainstream

Figures like Sharma help manufacture "spontaneous" situations which often set the agenda of divisive media debates for days before they are further 'mainstreamed' by BJP politicians.

New Delhi: In August 2017, a Facebook video went viral in which a Hindutva activist sporting a handlebar moustache ranted against secular Hindus who had criticised him for his hate-filled posts on “anti-nationals” and Muslims. Many found the rant-video hilarious. But three years on, the activist, Deepak Sharma, can say he has had the last laugh as he has grown from being an amusing sideshow on the ‘fringe’ of India’s hate politics ecosystem to a key player in both the ‘mainstream’ Hindutva narrative on contentious issues as well as the use of violence.

When the BJP’s government in Uttar Pradesh found itself under attack for its callous handling of the Hathras gang rape and murder case, Sharma, who is from Hathras, played an important role on the ground in creating and then seeding disinformation about the young Dalit woman and her family, orchestrating violent attacks on opposition politicians and floating the theory – which quickly became the Adityanath government’s official line – that the rape charge was an Islamist ‘conspiracy’ involving an Islamist party, the Popular Front of India.

Sharma accomplished this by his skilful use of video and social media, moving seamlessly from one role to the next: Sometimes he was a multimedia content creator, pumping messages out to his followers, at other times an activist on the ground orchestrating protests and even violence. There are even news videos on mainstream channels where he is presented as a member of the public.

Nor is his role in Hathras mere happenstance. Sharma pops up as agent provocateur in half a dozen other Hindutva causes, some of which, like the Tanishq advertisement or the Kasganj fake ‘Hindu exodus’ story, turn into actual flash points while others – like the attempt he made to rename Akbar Road in Delhi as ‘Atal Bihari Vajpayee Marg’ fizzle out before they can be mainstreamed.

Sharma’s violent career has been punctuated by brief periods of incarceration but his utility to the wider Hindutva agenda ensures his frequent deployment. The upper echelons of the Sangh parivar may keep their distance from activists like Sharma but key rabble-rousing BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra appear as visible points of intersection with the ruling party and play a key role. Sharma and similar Hindutva foot-soldiers are used to test the waters and push the envelope on the hate front both online and offline, while their handlers decide what to amplify and how. The most successful of these campaigns are then escalated to higher-tier BJP leaders and seeded in the media.

But there is a third element that is crucial to the success of this hub-and-spoke model of hate politics: the access Sharma and others have to subterranean video groups and online channels which can ensure their primary messages reach millions.

A history of hate

After gaining notoriety as the perpetually outraged Hindu “lion” fighting attacks against his religion, Sharma visited the Taj Mahal, which according to his supporters (and many prominent BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra) is an ancient Shiv Temple called Tejo Mahalaya. He went there with his group of hyper-nationalist Hindutva supporters called the Rashtriya Swabhinan Dal to recite the Shiv Chalisa inside the premises.

Over the years, Deepak Sharma has made scores of hate videos. In these, he can be seen threatening a long list of “anti-nationals”. He does not shy away from targeting students of certain universities, liberals, intellectuals, journalists, Bhim Army supporters, Muslims, actors, Communists, Zomato and Tanishq. Some months back, he released a video against Bollywood actor Aijaz Khan. Flashing a sword into the camera, he went on to graphically describe how he would stab Khan’s genitalia if he didn’t mend his ways.

Making online bigotry go viral

In the past month, Deepak Sharma single-handedly mobilised two huge Twitter campaigns. The first against Tanishq with the Hashtag #Tanishq_Mafi_maang, forcing the Tata-owned brand to withdraw an advertisement which depicted an inter-faith couple to promote communal amity. He even warned Tanishq of nationwide mass protests outside their stores in case they didn’t apologise. Asked about the controversy in an interview, Union home minister Amit Shah refused to condemn the threats that were being bandied about and limited himself to saying there should be no “over-activism”.

Also read: How Did the State Come to Legitimise Vigilante Action?

Sharma’s second online campaign was against madarsas. The hashtag #Terrorism_in_Madarsa was started by a news anchor, Deepak Chaurasia, but suddenly received lakhs of retweets and comments on Deepak Sharma’s intervention.

Not only can Sharma make communal content go viral online but he also mobilises Hindutva supporters offline. At times, this has led to violent attacks against minority groups.

After the brutal Hathras gang rape and murder, a large section of the mainstream media began questioning the UP government’s actions. All of a sudden, right-wing groups came out in support of the accused. Amongst the first Hindutva activists to mobilise themselves in defence of the Adityanath administration was Deepak Sharma, a resident of Hathras. He went to the ground to show the “Thakur side” of the story. Interestingly, Deepak’s videos received millions of views and thousands of retweets.

The next day, this “citizen journalist” who was reporting from the ground turned into an activist and started peddling his own version of the story. He and his supporters came out on the streets, claiming that the accused were being framed and that the 19-year-old woman’s death was a case of honour killing. Sharma went on to declare that there was an affair between the victim and the accused. However, this line, though taken up vigorously by the Hindutva chatterati, was refuted by the victim’s family.

Foisting the angle of a ‘conspiracy’ 

Meanwhile, Sharma was already laying the ground for the Hindutva ecosystem’s next diversion. As per “strong” intelligence reports of the UP government, he asserted, some leaders of the opposition were allegedly trying to create a serious law and order situation in Hathras. It had already been claimed that Hathras was an international conspiracy to defame India and provoke caste riots.

In a democracy, opposition leaders meeting a victim’s family and the media questioning the state’s apathy is a normal state of affairs. Yet, Aam Aadmi Party leader Sanjay Singh was attacked with ink while entering Hathras by Deepak Sharma who shouted, “PFI ke dalalo wapas jao“.

The police were forced to arrest Sharma. By the evening, the hashtag #ReleaseDeepakSharma was trending on Twitter. His ‘heroic actions’ received huge support from BJP supporters, and he was released from detention. Lakhs of #WelcomeBackDeepakSharma tweets were shared the next day. After attacking Sanjay Singh, he warned Digvijaya Singh against visiting Hathras.

A few days later, three Muslims, including a jouralist, who were intending to visit Hathras were arrested under UAPA for allegedly hatching an ‘international conspiracy’ against the peace in Uttar Pradesh. Also arrested with them was their taxi driver, who happened to be a Muslim. Notably, in one of his videos, speaking to Sudarshan News, Deepak claimed that the PFI was funding riots. He said that gangsters Mukhtar Ansari and Ateeq Ahmad were fueling unrest. Some mainstream media channels also made these unsubstantiated allegations even as the Enforcement Directorate refuted such claims. It was also claimed that the PFI gave 100 crore rupees during the anti-CAA protests and another 100 crores during the Delhi riots.

A day earlier, Jayant Chowdhary, leader of the RLD, was thrashed by the UP police while entering Hathras. Singh and his supporters were manhandled at the barricades and were beaten up while speaking to the media. Deepak Sharma was also present there. The crowd behind Sharma was raising slogans that said, “Jayant Chowdhary Murdabad.” Sharma called them “vultures” and claimed that PFI funded them.

Also read: Why the Hindutva Right Is Better at Propaganda Than its Opponents

Another video of Deepak raising slogans against Aaj Tak and ABP News for their ‘biased’ and ‘anti-Hindu’ reports also went viral. Deepak’s videos from the ground were actively shared by BJP leaders, including the likes of Kapil Mishra, as the “truth” behind the Hathras incident. Soon after, mainstream media channels caught onto this narrative and portrayed the case as one of honour killing. A report by ABP news accused Deepak of vitiating the already tense situation in Hathras.

Promoting hate attacks

In January 2020, after a radicalised young man shot at protesters in Jamia Millia Islamia, his photos with Deepak Sharma went viral on the internet. A close friend of the Jamia shooter told Al Jazeera that he idolised Sharma. In 2018, Deepak Sharma’s name also emerged in connection with the violence that had occurred between a group of Indian and Afghan students at Sharda University in Greater Noida.

Several videos of him making incendiary speeches and declaring that Afghan students “are trying to turn the university into a Mini-Taliban” were circulated, and the district administration even vowed to book him under the National Security Act. One day after the brawl between the students, Sharma reportedly visited the campus and allegedly incited violence.

Some Kashmiri students were grievously injured after being wrongly identified as Afghans. Months after being assaulted, a Kashmiri student went missing from the university and joined the militancy. A video of him threatening his assaulters with revenge surfaced on the internet before he finally surrendered to the police.

In 2019, Deepak Sharma was banned from Facebook for his violent videos and posts after Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) wrote a letter to social media platform and the National Human Rights Commission. In one of his videos, Sharma recites a poem: “In every street, ‘their’ misadventures are on the rise. Their heads should be cut. We need another Godhra.”

Support for Rajasthan killer

Deepak was one of the first Hindutva activists to extend support for Shambhulal Regar, the man who hacked and burned a Bengali Muslim labourer to death on camera.

Deepak proclaimed, “We have to stand by such Hindu warriors who pick up arms while protecting our religion” and went on to call Regar a modern avatar of Shiva. The 40-minute live discussion between Sharma and Regar’s advocate is filled with Islamophobic slurs and fake news – at one point, the lawyer even claimed that Afrazul, Regar’s victim, was a Bangladeshi migrant. Sharma also called upon his followers to extend monetary support to the lawyer as he was arguing the case pro bono.

Not only did Sharma garner support for the killing of a Muslim labourer, but also mobilised a crowdfunded campaign for the killer’s family, triggering other online campaigns. At the time, such brazen actions produced an outpouring of outrage to the point that even the Vasundhra Raje-led BJP government in Rajasthan was forced to freeze their bank accounts.

Akbar Road to Atal Road

In 2019, Deepak Sharma and another Hindutva activist, Ragini Tiwari, went to Delhi to demand that the name of Akbar Road be changed to Atal Bihari Vajpayee Road. This was followed by several polarising online discussions and even prime time debates on TV about Muslim rulers.

Sharma association with Ragini Tiwari was not happenstance. Tiwari holds a track record similar to that of Sharma’s and shares a common trajectory. She gave several inflammatory speeches and was seen on camera inciting Hindu mobs to attack Muslims during the riots in Delhi. During the row over offering namaz publicly in Gurugram, Tiwari was one of the protestors who had held a sit-in to release the controversial Hindutva figure, Yati Narsinghnand Saraswati, and called for a ban on namaz in public spaces.

Also read: The Vigilantes Are Here. How Do We Fight Them?

The incident received extensive coverage by the media and served as fodder for debates targeting minorities. When the vigilantes who had abused, mocked and disrupted namaz prayers in Gurugram were released on bail, Deepak put out a video featuring the three men. The video used slurs against Muslims and implied that they were traitors.

In 2018, VHP leader Sadhvi Prachi and her supporters demanded that Muslims be evicted from Hindu majority colonies after Chandan Gupta’s murder on January 26. One year after the violence in Kasganj, Sadhvi Prachi, Deepak Sharma and their supporters forcibly visited the district and took out a march when section 144 was imposed.

Deepak Sharma also revisited Kasganj along with a BJP leader from Telangana, T. Raja Singh to pay his tributes. Videos filled with vulgar slurs for Muslims emerged from that meeting. In a video, Singh and Sharma can be seen using vile language for Muslims.

Figures like Deepak Sharma are commonly disregarded as ‘fringe elements’ who are too far from the ideology of the ruling party. However, most observers ignore the well-oiled Hindutva machinery within which such figures function and flourish alongside people in the ruling party. They help manufacture “spontaneous” situations which are then exploited by polarising figures in the mainstream. They often set the agenda of divisive media debates for days.

The names of such influencers and their organisations pop up every now and then in the backdrop of controversies. Once they have done their bit, some controversial BJP leader takes over and soon after, the mainstream media and the ‘IT cell’ put the final layer of icing on the cake of “spontaneous” violence and hateful online outrage.

There are hundreds of such characters with countless followers across India. To many, the similarity of their modus operandi may seem like a coincidence. However, upon closer examination, it is clear that they function as part of a conspiracy to cause social tension,  communal polarisation and even violence in the country.

Alishan Jafri is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. You can find him on Twitter at @AsfreeasJafri.