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Nidhi Suresh

Disgruntled with BJP, estranged from family: Hindu Mahapanchayat organiser’s fight for 'justice'

The midnight blue Audi came to a halt outside a mall in Rohini, in west Delhi. Preet Singh, 33, stepped out of the car. He untied his shoulder-length hair and adjusted the collar of his camouflage green shirt. He was now ready for his interview.

After taking a few steps towards the KFC outlet where he had agreed to meet this reporter, Singh stopped and said, “Actually let’s go to McDonald’s. KFC sells too much meat.”

At McDonald’s, the driver of the Audi, who had accompanied Singh into the restaurant, set up a phone to record the interview on video. “These days you never know what kind of allegations women will make about you, right?” Singh said, chuckling.

(This didn’t stop Singh from saying, “Look how beautiful and well-dressed you look in Indian clothes. Imagine if you wore a burqa and were sitting opposite me, how would I feel?”, while explaining why he thought Karnataka’s hijab ban was a good move and promoted equality.)

Meet Preet Singh, the founder and president of Save India Foundation (SIF). Set up in 2021, SIF is a relatively new member of the Hindu Right ecosystem. However, it has already got quite a track record. SIF has organised two live, on-ground events so far. Both have drawn crowds and made the news. The first was at Jantar Mantar, in August last year, and earned Singh one month in jail after being accused of hate speech (he’s now out on bail).

The second was the Hindu Mahapanchayat held on April 3, in Burari, in New Delhi.

‘What can we do if he wants to be crazy?’

Even though McDonald’s was his pick, Singh refused to order anything to eat or drink. “I gave up on all kinds of food for this fight against injustice. I live only on milk and juice,” he said. “Anyway,” he added, “this restaurant is fully influenced by Western culture.”

Born in Bulandshahr district, in Uttar Pradesh, Singh grew up in Rohini. His grandfather, who is a role model to Singh, came to Delhi to become a professional wrestler and the family put its roots down in Rohini. This is the neighbourhood where his parents raised their three sons – Singh is the second – and it’s where Singh lives, on his own, now that he’s separated from his wife.

Singh says he was “never meant to lead a normal life”.

“Something inside me told me that I am born to fight against injustice,” he told Newslaundry. “When I was 10 years old, I stood on my school desk and yelled ‘give me blood and I will give you freedom!’ That’s how dedicated I was.”

He said he hated attending English lessons in school because he was “always against the perpetration of Western culture”. While he says he completed an undergraduate degree in commerce, Singh also told Newslaundry he used to “tear up question papers because they were in English”.

Singh’s elder brother Jeet said the family doesn’t keep in touch with Singh. “What can we do if he wants to continue being crazy? We have tried talking to him, but he won’t listen,” said Jeet, who works at a spare parts shop in Rohini. The last time Jeet met Singh was after the latter was released on bail in September 2021. “I stay away from him and his activities. Now it is his life and his fate,” said Jeet.

Singh is also estranged from his wife Manisha and their 10-year-old son. Manisha and Singh had an arranged marriage in 2009. Nine years ago, when Manisha was eight months pregnant, Singh walked out of the marriage. “He said he didn’t want me anymore. I don’t know why he got married,” she said.

Singh is estranged from his wife Manisha and their 10-year-old son.

Manisha still lives with her in-laws, who she says blame her for the failed marriage. “They’ve kept me here like a servant now,” she said. Manisha doesn’t know much about Singh’s current activities. “I know he went to jail once. I don’t know why he’s so into this Hindu-Hindu thing,” she told Newslaundry. “No one in our family is like that.”

Her son, who was present when this reporter met Manisha, cringed at the sound of his father’s name.

Arun Singh, a long-time friend of Singh’s, has also distanced himself from Singh. In November 2020, before the lockdown, Singh had requested Arun to give him a place to stay. Arun welcomed Singh into his own home where he lives with his wife and two children. Within four months of living together, the friendship soured. “He [Singh] was influencing my wife and girls with this Hindutva nonsense. I was not comfortable with him living under my roof. That’s when we stopped talking,” Arun said.

Preet Singh says he hated attending English lessons in school.

Singh, having left his parents’ home in 2012, sees his past differently. “I just knew that people need me. I can’t be tied down by family and relationships,” he told Newslaundry.

Today, there seem to be few remnants of Singh’s old life. Being the president of SIF, which Singh founded in April 2021, appears to have afforded him a fan following and a relatively lavish lifestyle, like the Audi in which he drives around.

When asked about the car, Singh laughed and said it wasn’t his, but wouldn’t say whose it was.

Last year, Singh rented an apartment near his parents’ home, in a predominantly-Hindu housing society. Neighbours said they’ve seen Singh performing rituals in the local park while being recorded on video.

Singh has a fan in the president of the apartment building’s residents’ association, Manoj Shaukeen. “He’s such a good person,” Shaukeen said of Singh. “He’s working for Hindus. What’s wrong with that? We Hindus are paying tax and Muslims are simply giving birth to children. Is that okay?”

Shaukeen attended the Hindu Mahapanchayat that SIF had organised at Burari grounds last week.

The road to SIF

Over the last 10 years, Singh has worked a series of jobs while “fighting injustice”. His professional life shows how the Hindu Right has grown in prominence and prosperity, becoming steadily more mainstream in recent years.

When Singh got married, he was unemployed. Manisha said he worked as an auto rickshaw driver for a year, but then gave it up. After that, he was a mechanic for a few years.

It’s difficult to tell when Singh first came in contact with Hindutva ideology, but in 2014, he started a gau shala (cow shelter) and even though he gave it up a year later, reverence for the cow has remained an important part of what Singh describes as his work as a “freedom fighter”. In 2016, Singh started learning how to perform Hindu rituals like havan, and continued working in different gau shala.

Arun recalled Singh joined the Arya Samaj, known as “a vigorous reform movement”, around the same time. “But within a year, he was kicked out as he was very aggressive,” Arun recalled. In 2017, Arun said Singh briefly joined the Hindu religious leader Asaram Bapu (who is currently serving a life sentence after being convicted for raping a minor girl). He also tried to join yoga guru Swami Ramdev’s company Patanjali, but wasn’t able to get through.

“After that, he started working on his own, took to social media and ran a cow ambulance for some time,” said Arun.

In April 2021, Singh set up SIF. He says it was “frustration” with the state of the nation that drove him to start the foundation.

On its website, SIF lays out its agenda — the implementation of equal education, uniform civil code and temple rights; evicting illegal immigrants; and more stringent laws against religious conversion. Interested people can become supporters by filling up a form with their name, number, gender and Assembly constituencies. The website also allows people to donate money. Initially, the organisation collected Rs 100 from anyone who wanted to join SIF, but now membership is free.

The foundation says it runs on donations.

SIF has a core committee comprising five of Singh’s friends, including a lawyer and an accountant. The foundation’s general secretary is Arvind Kumar Tyagi, 47, who met Singh in 2014 when both were with the Haryana-based Sant Gopal Das Gaushala, a cow vigilante group. According to Tyagi, Singh was a “young, hardworking boy” who quickly caught his eye.

In 2014, Tyagi and two others were held for damaging a 200-year-old statue of Queen Victoria in Mathura. Tyagi said they vandalised the statue on the anniversary of the Quit India movement because it symbolised the British Raj. The case is still ongoing.

When asked to describe the work that SIF does, Tyagi said, “Every day, we reach out to young people through social media. We have our WhatsApp and Telegram groups as well. Apart from that we attend sabhas, gatherings, where we speak to people face to face. Now we’ve started holding events like the one in Jantar Mantar and Burari.”

At the end of each work day, at 8pm, SIF’s five core members get on a call to discuss the work they’ve accomplished.

When SFI was set up, Tyagi says everyone was in agreement that Singh should be “the face of the movement”. “I am 47 years old and this is a movement that will continue for a long time. It needs a young face,” Tyagi told Newslaundry.

A rift in the Hindutva ecosystem?

When Tyagi met this reporter in April this year, the location he chose was a small medicine shop in Delhi’s Faridabad. It was owned by a friend, Tyagi said. Inside the shop, Tyagi led the way to what looked like a wall full of shelves with medicines, but was actually a door. Behind the door was a staircase, which led to a big, well-lit office.

Arvind Kumar Tyagi met Singh in 2014.

Sitting down, Tyagi asked his assistant, who was also present, to record our interview on video, much like Singh had. When asked why, Tyagi said, “For our own safety.”

Tyagi’s work experience includes a year with the Hindu nationalist, volunteer organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). RSS has been the dominant thought leader for the Hindu Right-wing and is widely known as the ideological parent of BJP.

Famed for its organisational network, RSS has 60,929 active shakha – its smallest unit operating at a neighbourhood level. These shakha are spread out across the country, according to its recent annual report. RSS affiliates are collectively known as the Sangh parivar (family) and there’s no consensus on the exact number. Affiliate organisations usually have RSS members in their governing bodies and proclaim a vision of India as a Hindu rashtra (state), rather than a secular nation.

Tyagi joined an RSS unit in Faridabad, in 2012. “I used to attend their shakha and work for the Sangh,” he told Newslaundry.

However, both Tyagi and Singh emphasised SIF was not an affiliate of RSS. “Any big organisation like RSS will not support a smaller organisation like us. They stand in a neutral state. They neither support nor oppose us,” Tyagi said.

Tyagi and Singh said SIF’s target audience is a younger generation of Hindus. When Tyagi spoke about RSS, he was diplomatic, but there was a visible hint of dissatisfaction, hinting at a rift within the Hindu Right wing. “These larger organisations have too many political connections and obligations. Like RSS and BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] are the same, and what work have they really done? We want to get things done faster,” he said.

Similarly, Singh expressed a mix of disillusionment and loyalty when talking about the BJP. Eight years ago, Singh says he campaigned for the party during the 2014 elections because the leadership had impressed him. At the time, BJP and Modi, who led the electoral campaign as the prime ministerial candidate, had given Singh hope that Hindus — who are the dominant majority in India but, according to the Hindu Right-wing, have been robbed of their due by other religious communities — would see better days with Modi as prime minister. “It finally felt like someone was concerned for equality for all in this country,” said Singh.

Today, Singh has multiple complaints against BJP, beginning with “the issue of cows” being dropped from the party’s manifesto and no sign of the uniform civil code being implemented even though Prime Minister Modi is currently serving his second term.

Frustrated as he may be with the Modi government, Singh was quick to clarify that BJP still had his support. “They’re at least doing certain things like introducing the CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act] and NRC [National Register of Citizenship]. That’s better than nothing,” Singh said.

In sharp contrast to his muted response to Modi was the admiration he expressed for chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, who attaches “yogi” (ascetic) as a suffix as he is also the head priest of the temple and monastic order of Gorakhnath Math. “I love his [Adityanath’s] Dabangg-type style. He is like the Vin Diesel of India,” said Singh, referring to the series of films starring Salman Khan as the punch-happy police officer Chulbul Pandey who takes on evil gangsters and politicians, all the while sneaking bribes on the side.

Looking for freedom

According to Singh , the problem in India is not the government, but its general public.

“I want to ask all the cowards in India, why are they not fighting for their rights?” he said.

The Hindu rashtra that Singh imagines is a land of warriors and has no place for victims. This is why he regards Kashmiri Hindus who were forced to leave Kashmir in the 1990s, with contempt. “So when terrorists attacked the Hindus, they just left Kashmir? Why didn’t they stay and fight? Those were simply 8 lakh cowards who ran away. I have no respect for them,” he said.

His stand on the issue of the Hindu migration from Kashmir is another indication of a divide within the Hindu Right, which is usually seen as a united front. Historically, Right-wing groups have spoken up for Kashmiri Hindus, accusing the Congress government and the Left of downplaying or ignoring their plight. When The Kashmir Files was released in March this year, Bajrang Dal, RSS and even the Central government came out in support of the film.

Singh didn’t just ignore the agenda laid out by RSS with regard to The Kashmir Files, but went against it. He told Newslaundry that SIF was opposed to the film and would not promote it.

For Singh, SIF is part of a movement to change the Indian mindset. Tyagi and Singh see themselves as freedom fighters whose fight has only just begun. They’re convinced India remains a vassal of the West, despite gaining independence in 1947.

“How can we call ourselves a free country when we’re still part of the Commonwealth?” asked Tyagi, referring to the Commonwealth of Nations, a political association of mostly former colonies headed by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Its relevance in the present is questionable and its meetings have been described as “the zombie summit”.

To free the country, SIF carries out its campaign both online, using messaging platforms, and through events like the two it has organised so far.

The first was held in August last year, in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, to demand the implementation of the uniform civil code. It drew a crowd of hundreds and was attended by prominent Hindu Right wing leaders, like Deepak Singh, founder of the extremist group Hindu Force, and Hindu Raksha Dal chief, Pinky Choudhary. Slogans like “When Muslims are slaughtered, we will shout ‘Jai Sri Ram” were raised at the SIF event in Jantar Mantar.

Six people were arrested for making incendiary speeches at SIF’s first event, including Choudhary and Singh himself. BJP’s Ashwini Upadhyay tweeted about the event (he later deleted those tweets) and was also arrested. Upadhyay got bail a day later. Singh spent a month in jail and was granted bail in September 2021.

Tyagi said applications and donations started pouring in after the Jantar Mantar event.

The Hindu Mahapanchayat

Six months after being released on bail, Singh was on stage in Burari, on April 3, at the Hindu Mahapanchayat. Even though the police denied SIF permission for this event, it went on for almost five hours without interruption.

There was a large crowd at Burari grounds. Inflammatory, anti-Muslim speeches were made, adding to what has been described by experts and activists as a genocidal campaign against religious minorities in India. A number of journalists, including two Newslaundry reporters, were assaulted at the event.

Upadhyay was not among the attendees – he told Newslaundry, “I was and never will be an office bearer of Save India Foundation” – but there were other heavyweights from the Hindu Right who took the stage.

Sudarshan News’s Suresh Chavhanke flexed his biceps while posing for a photo with Singh and warned the audience that Hindus are under threat. Apparently, the community is “moving towards the last stage” of being wiped out. “In 2029, no Hindu will be prime minister of India,” Chavhanke prophesied and pointed to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan where laws have been “raped”.

Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, head of the Dasna Devi temple and a champion of anti-Muslim bigotry, also took the mic. In December 2021, at an event held in Haridwar, Narsinghanand had asked the audience to “kill two million of them [Muslims]”. Following this, he was arrested and subsequently released on bail, on condition that he would not deliver any speech at any group or event that would disrupt social harmony.

Last week, at Burari, Yati Narsinghanand said, “If you want to change the situation [for Hindus], be a man! Be a man! And who is a man? The one who has a weapon in his hand.” He also exhorted the gathered audience to “give birth to children, and make your children worthy fighters.”

Singh claims he did not invite Yati Narsinghanand to the Hindu Mahapanchayat, though he admitted to having met the Hindu leader “many times before”. “When I organised this event, I sent out a public announcement and asked all those interested to join us. That is how Yati Narasinghanand came for the event,” said Singh.

Tyagi said the inflammatory speeches made by Narsinghanand and Chavhanke “should not have happened”, but also refused to describe their words as incendiary. “I don’t see it as hate speech. To me, they were both men in pain. They just want what’s best for this country,” he said.

When Singh spoke at Hindu Mahapanchayat in Burari, he was aggressive and loud, but also careful. Rarely did he use the word “Muslim” and instead, his speech was peppered with seemingly progressive phrases like “equality”, “culture” and “anti-religious conversion”. However, the intent was to remind the audience of the Hindu rashtra of their dreams.

Singh reminded the audience that Hindus had 'disappeared' from 10 states in India.

In his speech, Singh reminded the audience that Hindus had “disappeared” from 10 states in India. He didn’t clarify which these states were, but added, “The problem doesn’t seem evident, but the results are clearly visible.” Raising his voice, Singh asked, “Where our religion does not remain, where our culture does not remain, where our people do not remain, how will that place be a part of India? Can we hold a [Hindu] panchayat like this in that place?”

A first information report (FIR) was eventually filed by the police against the organisers of the Hindu Mahapanchayat for “promoting enmity” and for holding the event despite permission being denied. This FIR names Yati Narsinghanand, Chavhanke and Singh.

No arrests have been made so far.

Emboldening silence

This year in January, Gregory H Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, spoke about the silence of the government and the impending threat of genocide in India.

“We should be aware that genocide is not an event, it is a process,” he said. Stanton pointed out that BJP’s election campaigns have featured Islamophobic rhetoric and Prime Minister Modi’s government has pushed for policies that effectively target Muslims. He also said the prevalence of language that dehumanises a community was also a cause for concern. “We are warning that genocide could well happen in India,” Stanton said.

Singh may be dissatisfied with the BJP government for not doing enough for Hindus, but he and SIF are benefiting from the environment that the current administration has enabled. That SIF was able to hold the Hindu Mahapanchayat in the national capital — after being slapped with an FIR six months ago and being denied permission for the April event — indicates the authorities are helping to normalise hate speech, either by design or because of disorganisation.

The way SIF is flourishing suggests organisations like Singh’s are no longer fringe elements, but practically mainstream. Currently the SIF handle has close to 10,000 followers on Twitter and over 7,000 on Facebook, while their YouTube channel has over 10,000 subscribers. These are not particularly large numbers, but SIF appears to be gaining in popularity.

Tyagi said SIF has received over 19,000 applications in the past year and in Delhi, the foundation has appointed 24 “ward leaders” who manage their own cohort of members through online and offline “channels”. The setup sounds similar to the organisational system of the Prashasak Samiti, a Hindu Right-wing collective that spreads disinformation and hate speech.

SIF is currently recruiting and appointing leaders in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, said Kumar.

Their unbroken track record of earning FIRs from live events hasn’t deterred either Singh or Tyagi. “Why should we be scared? What are we doing wrong? I’m sure even the government cannot accuse us for doing wrong,” said Tyagi.

So far, the government has not acknowledged that India has a hate speech problem and the Hindu Right ecosystem benefits from this state of denial. Despite SIF having organised two big events that platformed hate speech in the national capital, the Delhi BJP chief, Adesh Gupta, has remained silent. BJP’s national spokesperson Nalin Kohli told Newslaundry that “these incidents have been state issues and not national issues”.

Meanwhile, Singh is busy planning the next SIF event: another Hindu Mahapanchayat.

Transcription assistance by Vartika Walani.

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

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