On 12 April, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad organised the “Ram Shobha Yatra,” a rally in Delhi which passed through multiple Muslim-dominated localities. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN
On the evening of 12 April, a procession of around three hundred people participated in the “Ram Shobha Yatra,” a rally in Delhi organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—along with a few other religious organisations, to celebrate Ram Navami, a festival marking the birth of the Hindu deity Ram. The procession passed through multiple Muslim-dominated localities of the capital city. Most of its participants were men—of all ages—sporting orange turbans, several of them armed with swords. Raj Kumar, a member of the VHP, told me that the rally did not have a political agenda, and did not seek to threaten the Muslim residents. But Kumar also said, “Yeh rally Hinduon ki rally hai. Ab ki baar, Hindusarkar”—This is a rally of Hindus. This time, a Hindu government.
The rally started at the Ram Leela Maidan—where the VHP’s Delhi unit, called the Indraprastha Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the other religious organisations had held an event earlier that day—and passed through the Muslim neighbourhoods of Sadar Bazar and Daryaganj before coming to an end at Karol Bagh. Vaghish Issar, the working president of the Indraprastha VHP, told me that the Ram Shobha Yatra has been an annual affair for 15 years. He said the rally usually passed through Chandni Chowk, but due to construction work in the area this year, they crossed Daryaganj instead.
At various points during the rally, the participants raised their swords to chant “Jai Shri Ram.” Kumar was one of them, but claimed that it was not a sharp-edged sword, and that it would not be used to hurt anyone. When I asked him why swords were necessary for the procession, he said, “If weapons are not required, why were they used during the war between Ram and Ravan?” I tried to ask him about the effect such a procession would have on the Muslim population living nearby, but he cut me off. “We have just swords, they have AK-47s in their hands,” he said. “They don’t have flowers in their hands either.”
A tableaux of popular Hindu deities, on trucks and bullock carts, followed the procession. “Hum sirf apne dharam ke upar prachar kar rahe hai”—We are just promoting our religion— Kumar said. One such tableau on top of a truck depicted a temple, with a banner that read, “The future Ram Mandir in Ayodhya,” with text below that stated, “Ramlalla, we will come and make a grand temple.”
Another tableau had replicas of the India Gate and the recently inaugurated National War Memorial. A banner underneath detailed the inauguration ceremony conducted by the prime minister Narendra Modi on 25 February. Three men dressed in khaki uniforms, similar to those worn by the Indian Army and police officers, were also standing on the truck—ostensibly as a part of the tableau. But Issar dismissed the costumes as the personal choice of the individuals. He denied that they were trying to politicise the defence forces. “There is no connection between Lord Ram and the army.”
Issar insisted that the intention of the rally was not to flare up communal sentiments. “Yahan itne Muslim bhai hai, yeh humaara swagat kar rahe hai”—Our Muslim brothers are here to welcome us—he said. At this point, three men wearing skull caps appeared and began showering flower petals on Issar.
Among the participants, there was a Delhi University student, who was carrying a pistol. He refused to let me photograph him with his pistol but asserted that he would use any weapon to defend his religion. “Chahe pistol ho, top ho, bomb ho, grenade ho”—May it be a pistol, a cannon, a bomb or a grenade—he told me. He did not mention who was threatening his religion.
More than two dozen police personnel were present at a nearby intersection, but they did not walk alongside the procession. Syed Muhammad Aslam, a 49-year-old resident of Sadar Bazar, told me that he had witnessed many rallies by Hindus and Muslims in his area. But over the last two years, Aslam continued, members of the VHP and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, had begun chanting slogans outside the Masjid Sheikhan, a local mosque. According to him, during this year’s rally, the procession stood in front of the mosque and shouted, “Bhagwa lehraenge, topi waalo ka sar jhukaaenge”—We will hoist a saffron flag, and make those wearing skull caps bow their heads. The police did not intervene.
Other Muslim residents, too, told me that such processions had created a sense of fear in recent years. “Muslims have been living in fear for the past five years,” Abdul Hameed, a 55-year-old shopkeeper in Sadar Bazar, said. “This is the RSS’s government. These people want to further the RSS’s agenda and have succeeded to some extent.”
Omar Farooq, a 36-year-old resident of the neighbourhood who said he served on the Muslim Advisory Committee of the Delhi Minorities Commission, said that Muslims have been persecuted under previous governments as well, but never have they been targeted on such a scale. For instance, he said, the participants of the procession sloganeered against Pakistan in front of the mosque. “We support them in these slogans, but why are they trying to scare us?”