New Delhi: Two days ago, a photo of a young man at the Ghazipur farmers’ protest site went viral. Activist Zakir Tyagi shared the picture on Facebook, with a patriotic caption in support of the farmers. In the photo, a protesting farmer braving the harsh winter, displayed his bare back, engraved with the names of all the servicemen killed in the Pulwama bomb attack. Tattooed above the list, in capital letters, was the nationalist slogan “Vande Mataram”.
The photo reminded me of a gory video I had seen a few months earlier, but I needed to investigate, since the face of the person in it wasn’t visible. I reached out to Zakir for the source of the photo. He had taken it from the Twitter handle of the media portal The Lallantop. The viral portrait was shot by PTI’s photojournalist Ravi Chaudhary, who confirmed that the individual in the picture is Vijay ‘Hindustani’.
I looked him up. On his Facebook, he has shared videos of ABP News, Aaj Tak, Zee News and News 24. He can be seen speaking to these channels, with farmer leader Rakesh Tikait, and flashing his tattoos for the camera. He had also inked a letter to the government with his blood protesting the farm laws. On his bare chest, he had stuck a poster reading, “I love farmers”.
On his chest, Vijay Hindustani has another tattoo, which perhaps he did not want the cameras to capture on this occasion. The tattoo reads: “WE SUPPORT CAA NRC.”
Earlier in 2020 as well, Vijay Hindustani had gone viral on social media, in a video where he had issued a warning to protesters in Shaheen Bagh to vacate the roads in 48 hours or face the consequences. He also went to Shaheen Bagh in person, riding a bicycle from Shamli, and flashed the tattoo on his chest to rouse “sleeping nationalists” to free their roads.
In February, large scale mob violence against Muslims broke out in many parts of North-East Delhi and social media was inundated with distressing videos. One of the videos from Maujpur, the epicentre of the violence, Vijay can be seen abusing and threatening Muslims on camera, and saying, “This is an all-out fight now. Either you Katmullas and Pakistani Pimps (derogatory terms on Muslims) runaway from Delhi or else the day is not far when Modi ji and Vijay Hindustani will throw you out.”
All the posts on his Facebook page, between December and February, have since been deleted. But on February 22, in another video for a social media channel, Vijay can be seen disrespecting Islamic holy slogans and proclaiming that if anyone wants to live in India, they will have to chant “Jai Shri Ram”.
A cursory glance at his social media profile tells us that he regularly shares disinformation and Islamophobic posts. He has campaigned in support of laws against “love jihad” and has shared photographs with prominent hate mongers. His posts supporting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) have been shared by far-right Hindutva influencers like Deepak Sharma. But in a recent tweet, he criticised Deepak, whose posts and tweets he regularly shares, for tweeting against farmers.
Several Hindutva leaders have threatened the farmers protesting against the three controversial farm bills. A few days ago, Ragini Tiwari, an influential Hindutva ideologue, warned those protesting the farm bills that she and her fellow Hindutva activists would “once again create Jafrabad” and do to the protesting farmers what they had done to the anti-CAA protesters at Jafarabad.
Tiwari’s hate-speeches, videos of her pelting stones and her murderous calls during the northeast Delhi riots have been shared extensively on social media. Against this backdrop, it was unusual for Vijay Kumar, an emerging right-wing influencer with over 40k followers on Facebook, to protest the farm bills.
The change in his posture and seeming disenchantment with the Modi government prompted this reporter to speak to him on the phone. The conversation, which was in Hindi and has since been translated, was geared at learning what pushed Vijay to adopt a method of protest he had scorned months ago.
You were associated with an ultra-right Hindu organisation – I mean organisations which support the BJP. How come you are protesting against the farm laws now?
Vijay: I used to be associated with these organisations. But not anymore. When even farmers have been declared “Khalistanis,” then what’s left?
When the whole country was facing a pandemic, we were providing food, and now such accusations are being levelled at us.
I am the son of a farmer. My grandfather was a farmer. I am a farmer too and that’s why I am here.
What inspired you to get the names of the Pulwama dead tattooed on your back?
Vijay: Four days after the dastardly attack in Pulwama, I got these names tattooed on my back. It was out of my respect for the brave-hearts who risked their lives to protect us. I consider all Indians as my family. This was my tribute. It is unfortunate that even after so many months we don’t know how such an attack could take place despite the heavy security and surveillance in that area.
You claim to be a nationalist and the BJP claims to be a party of nationalists. You have been a vocal supporter of BJP on issues of ‘nationalism’. What prompted this change of heart?
Vijay: They are supporting big corporate houses and not the kisans and jawans. While Modi ji asks us to follow Gandhi, his own ministers support Godse. What nationalism are you talking about?
All the farmers supporting these bills are paid workers and IT cell warriors of the BJP. This is the age of social media and editing; you can spread any fake news. None of the farmers here has engaged in any anti-national activity. As a farmer, the policies of the government have caused losses to my family.
They are increasing the price of electricity. We have not received any hike in the sugarcane crop since 2013. Most farmers are opposed to these bills. Even NDA ally Hanuman Beniwal has left the alliance.
You were opposed to roadblocks as a form of protest when protesters at Shaheen Bagh adopted this method. What has changed since?
Vijay: I am not associated with any such groups now. The roadblock was causing problems to locals and that’s why I raised my voice.
Refugees of all faiths whether Hindu or Muslim should be protected. There was nothing like that in the Bill. Have you read it? I would not like to comment on the CAA protest now.
While Vijay was very reluctant to speak on the visuals of the CAA protest and his participation in the pro-CAA protests, he insisted that his view of the government and mainstream media has sharply changed. He named channels like R Bharat, Aaj Tak and Zee for maligning the peaceful protests of the farmers. Perhaps, he formed his opinion on CAA and minorities by believing those very channels.
This is not a suggestion that his views on the CAA or Muslims have changed drastically, although he pointed out the secular credentials of these farmer protests. A group of Jamia students visited the Ghazipur-Delhi border protest site to express solidarity with the farmers, and were refused entry by some hostile farmers. (India TV reported that the students wanted to hijack the protest and turn it into Shaheen Bagh, a supposed violent revolt against the state. Of course, everything about that is untrue.) Vijay had shared a sarcastic post endorsing the denial of space to Jamia students. In another post, he angrily questioned the Modi government for using force against farmers but doing nothing to Shaheen Bagh.
His comment was ironic. In the last 26 minutes, he had thoroughly explained to me how the mainstream media and government are working closely to discredit the farmer protests. And how the bills are anti-farmer despite the assurances of the government. On the CAA, however, his ability to understand how propaganda is used against dissenters completely disappears. It’s hard to say if he’s confused or a victim of long-held prejudice. It’s hard to say if he’s an isolated case or if he represents a growing number of right-wing Hindus who are dissatisfied with the BJP government. What I know is that when the question is about his own life and livelihood, dissent becomes patriotic, government and media show their flaws, and traffic is suddenly not so important.
Alishan Jafri is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. You can find him on Twitter at @AsfreeasJafri.