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Hello, can you help me fight hate?

For the past two and a half years, members of UAH have hurtled through the heartland of hateful India trying to fulfil their vision of being a rapid response team against hate

Umar Khalid (in the forefront) at a United Against Hate protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi against the lynching of Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand.
Umar Khalid (in the forefront) at a United Against Hate protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi against the lynching of Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand. (Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times)

When the phone rang last month at 11pm, it was a frantic caller from Panipat. The poor carpet weaver recounted how some people had come to the factory where he worked and threatened the workers with iron rods. If you want to continue living here, the aggressors said, you must repeat these slogans, otherwise we will kill you. Khalid Saifi assured the caller he would send somebody immediately.

He then called up N Sharma, a businessman who deals in bedsheets and is based in the area, and asked him to investigate. Sharma rushed to the factory and reassured the weavers. Next, he went with a bunch of influential locals to the home of the man who had threatened the workers. The family was aghast and insisted that their boy didn’t usually behave this way, that he sometimes got out of hand when he was drinking. The young man apologized and, reports Saifi, the situation was defused.

Saifi is a member of United Against Hate (UAH), a like-minded bunch who came together in July 2017 to counter the daily narrative of hate after 16-year-old Junaid Khan was beaten to death in a crowded train. In July, the UAH set up a toll-free helpline (1800-3133-60000) for victims of hate crimes. The above call was logged on this number.

It seems apt that I meet core group members Saifi, who manages a Haj and Umrah tours business and a family furniture business, Nadeem Khan, a marketing and sales veteran, and Banojyotsna, a sociology professor at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi, at the Constitution Club of India’s Article 21 café in the Capital. Article 21 of the Constitution secures a person’s right to life and personal liberty.

In the first 24 hours, 7,000 people called the UAH helpline, mostly checking to see if the number was correct and the people who ran it, reliable. “Do you know Zee News did two prime-time shows on how the ‘tukde-tukde gang’ had launched a helpline to defame the country?" Saifi says.

The term originated after the now infamous Jawaharlal Nehru University incident in February 2016, when students were booked for sedition because they allegedly shouted “anti-national" slogans. Later, TV channels used the moniker to describe the students—expanding it to include all manner of dissenters—as the “gang" who wanted to “break India". Two of the former students charged in the JNU case, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, are members of the UAH, as is Mohit Pandey, a former JNU students’ union president.

For the past two-and-a-half years, members of UAH have hurtled through the heartland of hateful India trying to fulfil their vision of being a rapid response team against hate.

In Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh, they debunked the state’s version of the communal violence of 26 January 2018 and provided an alternative narrative. “We heard stories such as ‘when Sherwani’s shop was burning, Gupta called him immediately to inform him and together they tried to put out the fire with buckets of water’, indicating that the trouble came from outside," says Khan.

In Bihar that year, they helped show that communal violence during Ram Navami celebrations in March had been orchestrated and followed a similar pattern across districts. In UP’s Bahraich district, they spoke up for 200 Muslims who were booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or Uapa, in December 2018. The Act was later withdrawn. The group has travelled twice to Assam, documenting tales of horror related to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) list.

In the case of 25-year-old Tabrez Ansari, who was tied to a lamp post in Jharkhand in June and beaten for hours, the UAH was one of the groups that compelled the state’s police to revise its claim that Ansari had died of a “cardiac arrest".

These past few years, they have kept the spotlight on stories such as the documented fake encounters of Muslim men in UP, the disappearance of JNU student Najeeb Ahmed from his hostel three years ago and the suspension of Dr Kafeel Khan in UP’s Gorakhpur.

Nadeem Khan says the UAH fights misinformation on social media that has “created an artificial atmosphere of hate". Adds Saifi, “By moulding history and circulating wrong statistics, the masses of India have been given a fictitious enemy."

Banojyotsna points out that even though hate is created artificially and spread through misinformation, its “normalization" is scary. “Once hate was spread through social media but now it has penetrated mainstream media, making it more difficult to discredit and counter." She believes that the economic slowdown will only up the volume and tenor of hate. “Hate acts as a recuperating factor for the slowdown," she says.

Sometimes, the counter to hate works best when it’s sweet and simple. For example, Nafrat Nahi, Kheer Baanto was the slogan when the group distributed kheer in Delhi on Eid and Diwali this year. “On Eid, we asked our Hindu members to distribute the sweet, and on Diwali, our Muslim members took the lead. They made kheer from 200 litres of milk at their homes and distributed it to 3,000 people on Diwali," says Saifi.

The helpline offers another, call-by-call way forward. A Hindu gent called from Dausa, Rajasthan, to say that the helpline was only focusing on hate against Muslims and didn’t care about Hindus. He explained that someone was sharing inflammatory posts about Hinduism on WhatsApp groups. “If we beat him, you will say he was lynched by us," the man told Saifi.

“Brother, first of all, I thank you for calling us up before beating him," Saifi replied. “Please send me details of the content he posted and his contact details. We will sort this out." And he proceeded to do just that.

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