Ajay Singh is a voice of dissent at the heavily and openly pro-Muslim AMU campus, and the repercussions of a 12 February incident appear to suggest that a “change has begun”.
Of the many videos that shed light on the events that unfolded in Uttar Pradesh's Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) on 12 February, there is one where a crowd of seemingly hundreds of men are heading menacingly towards a group of 15-20 men. The smaller group is struggling to stop one Ajay from going in the direction of the crowd, which soon reaches him despite the police. At this point, the video is disrupted.
There are conflicting versions of what happened before and after the clip. But a first information report (FIR) was filed an hour later at the Civil Lines police station on charges of attempt to murder and rioting. The statement by complainant Nishit Sharma, who is Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Aligarh district spokesperson and a former student of AMU, says that when he and his friend went to AMU Circle after receiving some information, they saw Hindu students being beaten up and their vehicles set on fire while Ajay Singh had been injured.
The statement further says that when they tried to intervene, the crowd attacked them with rods and hockey sticks, and even opened fire. Sharma named seven men in the FIR including former AMU Students' Union (AMUSU) vice-president Nadeem Ansari, former secretary Nabeel Usmani, and honorary secretary Huzaifa Amir.
This was the second FIR filed on the day. The first was by Mukesh Lodhi, a Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) worker, for a separate incident earlier in the day when AMU students entered into a scuffle with the crew of Republic TV channel.
Thakur Ajay Singh, a 24-year-old first year Masters of Law student, was injured and hospitalised after the attack. He sustained injuries to his spine and forehead. A week later, he is back home and recovering.
We met Singh this week and asked him about the story behind the viral clip. The student leader narrated his version but rued that several English news portals approached him and listened to him, but "none of them wrote even a sentence of it".
On the morning of 12 February, he and his supporters staged a protest against a scheduled visit by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president Asaduddin Owaisi (picture below).
"The students' union had invited Owaisi along with other Muslim parties to discuss the formation of a Muslim front, for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls," Singh says. "Our position is clear. We are against Owaisi as he has shielded his brother who has openly called for violence against Hindus. The idea of a Muslim front itself is a ploy to divide Indians."
Owaisi did not make it to the campus but representatives of other 15-16 parties did, and held "a closed-door meeting", Singh says. He and his group went home but returned after being informed that a BTech student Manish Kumar had been thrashed by some students in the hostel.
"We went to the proctor and gave him a letter demanding that Manish's case be given to the local police station," he said.
The letter says that "in past few months, the students of particular community has been targetted continuously", and claimed that Manish had been assaulted for participating in a protest against Owaisi. The letter says that if no action was taken, the students would hold an indefinite strike against "biasness".
Singh told Swarajya that when he was meeting with the proctor, two Muslim students barged in, threatened him, and challenged him to "try whatever you can".
"The proctor refused the take the matter to the police. The police told us they can't act until asked to by the university. So we had no option but to sit on another dharna at Bab-e-Syed gate," says Singh.
And so the group sat on a dharna again. Moments later, a crowd rushed out of the meeting hall and aimed straight for the protesters' bikes parked at the administrative block, he says. "They began smashing our bikes. What you see in the clip is me trying to go to the spot and save our vehicles. Other students were stopping me.”
Singh says that soon, the crowd swelled and made a dash towards the protesters (this much is captured in the video). "They fired at us and beat us up with hockey sticks and rods. This is recorded in the FIR."
The FIR by Nishit Sharma also says that the crowd raised pro-Pakistan slogans. However, there is no evidence of it so far, a police officer told Swarajya.
Singh says he could have been killed that day.
"I usually sport a long beard. But I had shaved my hair and beard a few days ago because my grandmother passed away. So it's possible that the crowd did not recognise me. Otherwise, they could have killed me," he says. He added that the crowd comprised a lot of "externals", mainly political workers of Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Congress.
Undergraduate student Dheeraj Chowdhary also suffered in the violence. Chowdhary told Swarajya that after Singh and his group managed to escape, the crowd caught him while he was on his way for some work. He said he was taken to the registrar's office, was beaten black and blue and forced to lie on camera that he was sent by Ajay Singh to ransack the registrar's office. Chowdhary said he was targetted by the crowd only for being close to Singh and his circle.
Dinesh Kumar Singh, a BTech final student, told Swarajya that his bike worth Rs 1.8 lakh, which one of the protesters had borrowed from him, was burnt down by the crowd. Ankur Chowdhary, a BSc student, said his bike was saved but bears bullet marks. Ajay Singh claims that around 10-15 bikes of the protesters have either been burnt or are missing.
While the police is investigating the matter, there is a different version of the events. A news portal has quoted a student anonymously who blamed the violence on Singh and his group of "externals".
"Around 4 or 5 pm, they came inside the campus in a Scorpio and on some bikes. When students tried to bar their entry, they opened fire and there was a violent ruckus. The externals eventually fled and the angry students set their bikes on fire," the student has said.
Fakhara Khan, a cabinet member of AMUSU (there are 10 cabinet positions, along with three core positions of president, vice-president and secretary), told Swarajya, "Ajay and his RSS goons held dharna despite the fact that Owaisi was not coming. So their plan was obviously to create ruckus. He had weapons in his car. He and his group were the ones who fired at us."
When asked if he or his group was carrying a weapon, Singh told Swarajya, "Hathiyar nahi, hum toh sirf jigar lekar gaye they” (not weapons, we were armed only with courage).
Indeed, Singh has been hailed for his bravado in a section of social media, even as he has been called a saffron goon and political opportunist in another.
Singh, along with three other students – Manish Kumar, Aman Sharma and Pavan Jadon – has been suspended by the university pending inquiry for "indiscipline". Manish calls the move unfair. "I was the one who got beaten up and I only got suspended for it," he says. "The administration has seized my hostel room and made it inaccessible to me. I even had to buy new clothes as all my stuff is still there in that room,” he told Swarajya.
The university has also suspended four Muslim students who were their alleged attackers. In protest, the AMUSU has been gathering daily since 13 February at Bab-e-Syed gate demanding that the suspension of these four Muslim students be revoked. They are also demanding that Singh and his group should be rusticated, and charges of sedition filed by Lodhi against 14 students be withdrawn (some newspapers have reported that sedition charges have already been dropped).
This correspondent has got access to a video that shows AMUSU president Salman Imtiaz entering a classroom and asking students to stop classes and participate in the agitation in the name of Allah. “...jo nahin aayenge is andolan mein, to ek baat jaan lijiye, yahan se degree lekar farig to ho jayenge, lekin Allah ko jawab nahi de payenge (Those who are not participating must know that even if you succeed in taking degrees from here, you will not be able to show your face to Allah),” he can be clearly seen saying.
Singh laments that in his absence, the AMUSU is running a "vilification campaign" against him.
The suspension letter signed by proctor Mohsin Khan says that Singh "created chaos" and "disturbed communal harmony of the campus".
This is precisely the charge that the AMUSU has been repeatedly hurling at him for some time now – that he is disturbing communal harmony of the campus and is "RSS-BJP-Hindutva" type.
But Singh argues that communal harmony at AMU, much like secularism in India, has been perverted to mean systemic discrimination against non-Muslims."I am fighting for equal space for non-Muslim students and their concerns, majority of whom are Hindus. I am not surprised that they are labelling me communal for it," he says.
Labels anyway come easy to Singh, as he is the grandson of Thakur Dalveer Singh, BJP MLA from Aligarh's Barauli constituency. But Singh claims that his BJP connection does not explain his student activism.
"My grandfather was a leader of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) for a long time before joining the BJP in 2017, whereas I have been active as a student leader since 2014. My activism is purely based on my lived experiences on the campus," he says. Notably, as an RLD leader, Chaudhary was quite vocal against the BJP and was pro-Samajwadi Party.
Dalveer Singh, 73, told Swarajya that he has never visited AMU campus or interfered in Ajay’s college life. “The Muslim students label him as a BJP-RSS man. But the truth is, he has no association with the two organisations at all. He has a mind of his own,” he said.
As Singh has been unabashedly taking up Hindu causes which include demand for a temple in the premises, his critics allege he is being groomed to step into his grandfather’s shoes.
His supporters and some former AMU students who this correspondent spoke to, however, say he is a voice of dissent at the heavily and openly pro-Muslim campus.
Singh says he was "very much a liberal" when he first got active in student politics in 2014, when he unsuccessfully contested for a cabinet position. "I wore the sherwani and the topi, greeted everyone with as-salaam-alaikum and did everything else that got me acceptance from the majority Muslim students," he says.
"But their attitude towards me changed completely when I contested for the president post in 2017."
Dalveer Singh said his grandson was the first non-Muslim student in AMU's history to contest for the post of president on his own strength in 2017.
Singh told Swarajya, "You can gauge the extent of under-representation of non-Muslims by the fact that I was also the only non-Muslim candidate even in 2014 polls. And the only Hindu member of AMUSU right now, Nishant Bhardwaj [a cabinet member], won because he openly said that he is a Hindu only by birth and has been raised by Islam.”
A video of Bhardwaj that Singh shared with this correspondent corroborates it.
Singh says the run-up to the polls in 2017 was a revelation as his opponents ran a campaign against him solely over his religious identity. Singh shared audios and campaign material from 2017 where Muslim students are appealing to not vote for Ajay Singh in the name of Muslim unity, Khuda and Islam.
In AMU, there is no involvement of any political party in student polls, and candidates compete individually.
In what he says was a highly polarised election, Singh lost but emerged as the closest opponent to the winner. Veerendra Singh Bahadur, 64, a former student of AMU and Singh’s neighbour, calls it “historic”. “For a non-Muslim candidate to achieve this without the backing of Muslim students is no mean feat,” he said.
Singh says, "I'll be honest. I wouldn't have come this far if I was an ordinary Hindu student. The political stature of my grandfather has played a role.”
Singh, who lost his father when he was just 12, says he routinely gets threats to his life. He showed this correspondent some messages he has received on various social media platforms that are full of abuses and threats.
Singh says that after the elections, he embraced the identity that was forced on him – that of a Hindu leader.
He sums up this journey, "I joined the campus in 2011 for Class 11. I noticed that every now and then, non-Muslim students would get thrashed and the administration would turn a blind eye to it. There was and there is, little place for the sentiments of non-Muslims. We are constantly made to feel alienated. That, combined with the experience of the 2017 polls, convinced me that there was a huge need for dissent. At the same time, non-Muslim leaders were looking up to me. I decided there was no looking back."
He upped the ante in January 2018 when he and his supporters decided to hold a rally against the murder of Hindu boy Chandan Gupta at the hands of some Muslim men during a tiranga yatra in UP's Kasganj district. Singh says he was stopped by the administration, so the group simply handed over a memorandum to the police. But he managed to stage a protest next month demanding justice for minor Hindu girl Geeta (name changed) who was raped in a Delhi mosque.
Next, he tried to celebrate Holi which he says had never been a tradition at the campus "even though all Muslim festivals are celebrated with active participation of the faculty". The group also held a demonstration in support of President Ram Nath Kovind when his visit was opposed by AMUSU for his "RSS links".
Singh's stature as a dissenting leader rapidly grew when in August 2018, he paid homage to former prime minister and BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Singh showed us a Facebook post put out by an AMUSU student leader from that time. The post shows Vajpayee's picture at the Bab-e-Syed gate and says that the presence of "one of the murderers of Babri masjid at AMU gate shows that the Muslim university is going through a leadership crisis" (translated roughly by Swarajya, screenshot below).
After the Vajpayee episode, the university made it mandatory for students to take prior permission before holding any event. Singh says it's yet another example that shows how dissenting voices are stifled. "Other students have organised all kind of protests and rallies in the past but such a rule came up only after our event," he says.
"They hold rallies for alleged human rights violations in Kashmir, hold talks for Dalit-Muslim unity, organise prayers for a terrorist like Manan Wani [a PhD scholar from AMU who had joined Hizbul Mujahideen], burn copies of the bill giving 10 per cent quota to economically-weaker sections and what not. But administration sides with them and gives them a free run."
Singh says he next got into loggerheads with the administration when they served him two show-cause notices - one for staging a dharna demanding action in a case where Hindu student Adesh Chowdhary was allegedly thrashed by a former student Imran Khan, and the second for taking out a tiranga rally on Republic Day.
But the tension really escalated with his two letters to the administration in the last two months. In the first letter addressed to vice-chancellor, he has demanded a "Saraswati temple and other places of worship" at the campus which, as per students, houses more than 20 mosques. In the second letter addressed to the dean of Faculty of Law, he has raised the issue of "extreme nepotism and favouritism prevailing in the faculty".
Singh says that all this culminated into "violence against him" on 12 February.
The AMUSU, on the other hand, has been accusing him of doing "Hindu-Muslim politics" and vitiating the campus atmosphere.
Singh denies the accusations and says he is only trying to justify the "immense support" he now enjoys among non-Muslims students. Indeed, when Singh did not contest the polls last year, many students crossed all other names on the ballot paper and scribbled his name instead (it was reported in the local media).
He says he doesn't fear labels anymore. "Pasting labels like religious bigot and fascist on anybody who disagrees with them has been their strategy for long. In the university, we even have a term called 'musanghi', which means a Muslim who is a sanghi. You see, even dissenting Muslims aren't spared labels," he says.
Singh says that even if he wants to, he cannot afford to go back because "a change has begun".