The Vadodara police in Gujarat, India, have busted a vigilante gang that targeted interfaith couples, specifically where the woman was Muslim and the man Hindu, orchestrating coordinated attacks via a WhatsApp group.
Anupam Singh Gehlot, Vadodara police commissioner, recently revealed that the group, comprising members of the Muslim community, targeted at least 50 couples using this method.
Gehlot disclosed at a press conference that a WhatsApp group, created explicitly for this purpose, had around 500 members. Police have arrested eight individuals and interrogated 73 others associated with the group so far.
The first three arrested, identified as Mustakin Imtiyaz Sheikh, Sahil Sheikh, and Burhanbaba Saiyed, were labeled by Gehlot as the "masterminds" of the operation. Five others were apprehended the following day, namely Aquib Ali Mehboob Saiyyed, Mohsin Pathan, Noman Abdul Rashid, Abrar Khan Sindhi and Moin Ibrahim Shaikh.
All accused are from Vadodara, but police said the network was spread across Gujarat.
The commissioner elaborated on the group's modus operandi, revealing that they took into confidence food vendors, such as falooda and ice-cream sellers, frequented by couples and friends.
If a Muslim woman was suspected to be hanging out with a Hindu man, their information would be shared in the WhatsApp group. Group members would then visit the location, photograph the man's vehicle, use the RTO application on Google Play to identify the owner, and then physically confront the couple on their route.
Assaults on the couples would follow, and the parents of the Muslim women would be sent pictures of their daughters with Hindu men.
Gehlot mentioned that most conversations in the WhatsApp group were audio recordings and that around 500 people had joined the group in communal moral policing. The vigilante Whatsapp group, initially formed in February as 'Hussaini Lashkar'.
After a few months, the group admin deleted the group to wipe out records of their conversation, and shifted to a new group named ‘Army of Mahdi’. The name of the most recent group, formed after deleting the previous one, was ‘Lashkare Adam’.
Two of the arrested, Aquib Ali Mehboob Saiyyed and Noman Abdul Rashid, run a paan shop and work as a medical representative, respectively. The court remanded the three "masterminds" for two days in judicial custody.
All accused have been charged for promoting religious enmity, and their mobile phones have been seized and sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) for audio and video recovery.
Police said the group's actions could lead to mob lynching and communal tension, and cops are investigating if they were self-inspired or supported by a larger organisation, or linked to any radical outfit.
The main objective of the vigilantes was to "save" Muslim women from relationships outside their community. In one instance, a victim attempted suicide after videos were circulated online, police said.
Authorities are now encouraging victims to come forward and file complaints, noting that the vigilantes operated in areas without CCTV cameras. The investigation began after Sunil Naidu, a 21-year-old, was assaulted and robbed while with his neighbour, Sania Sheikh, on 26 August.
In his police complaint, Sunil said that he and Sania were returning on a two-wheeler from Sabarmati Riverfront in the afternoon when a group accosted them, telling him - ‘You are Hindu and you go around with our Muslim girl’.
Three individuals were arrested in connection with the case, namely Akbarkhan Pathan, Faizan Sheikh and Hussain Saiyad, under IPC sections 392, 394, 323, 153A(1), 294(b), 506(1) and 114.
While this revelation of organised vigilantism against Hindu men hanging out with Muslim women is unprecedented in India, numerous similar incidents have occurred nationwide over the past year.
The incidents have followed the spread of the 'bhagwa love trap' conspiracy theory among Muslim groups. Promoted by prominent clerics, political party supporters, influencers, journalists, and anonymous social media accounts, the theory alleges that Hindu men, trained by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), target Muslim women to make them leave Islam.
The term ‘bhagwa’ means saffron in English, a reference to Hindus. Khalil-ur-Rahman Sajjad Nomani, a senior cleric and spokesperson of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, is a notable proponent of this theory, although he is not alone.
Nomani has made several sensational, unsupported claims in his speeches, asserting that RSS has trained a large team of men for this purpose, and that a Hindu man successful in making a Muslim woman leave Islam receives a substantial reward to the tune of Rs 2.5 lakh, a house and a job (watch here).
Eight lakh Muslim women have become “murtad” (apostate, one who leaves Islam) after marrying Hindu men, Nomani has claimed in several of his speeches, without ever citing any evidence of the claim.
Several clerics have been found spreading this conspiracy theory in their public discourses, warning Muslim women of dire consequences in the afterlife if they leave Islam for marriage (watch here). Additionally, a misinformation campaign featuring a fabricated RSS letter outlining guidelines for Hindu men to trap Muslim women was widely shared on social media earlier this year (read the details here).
Multiple YouTube and Instagram accounts, operating under the name 'bhagwa love trap', consistently post videos glorifying the harassment of couples by vigilantes.
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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