Hardline Hindu youth call the shots on streets of northern India
One recent afternoon, dozens of young Hindu men, swords drawn and saffron scarves draped around their necks, rode motorcycles through a Muslim neighborhood near the capital of India's most populous state and chanted "Hail Lord Ram!", APA reports uoting Reuters
In the preceding weeks they and their peers had acted as informers, police officials say, helping them identify thousands of Muslim-run butchers' shops that have since been shut and urging officers to stop Muslim youths talking to Hindu girls in the street.
Their organization is the Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Force), a private militia set up in 2002 by Yogi Adityanath, a local priest and politician, to assert the dominance of India's main religion which he felt was being eroded by minority faiths.
Since Adityanath's promotion last month to chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, home to 220 million people of which a fifth are Muslims, the group has become emboldened, openly proclaiming its Hindu roots and putting pressure on police.
The appointment of the 44-year-old, known for his fiery anti-Muslim rhetoric and a campaign against "Love Jihad" - or the conversion of Hindu women to Islam - has shocked some Indians, who say it undermines the country's secular status.
They worry that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "development for all" agenda will be overtaken by radical, Hindu-first policies with the potential to stoke communal tensions that have erupted sporadically through India's 70-year history.
Adityanath declined to be interviewed for this article.
"Blood can be shed, and Muslims will feel the pain," Pankaj Singh, a senior leader of the Hindu Youth Force, told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of the rally in Unnao, an hour's drive southwest of the capital Lucknow.
Such comments have sent a chill through some in the Muslim community, on the defensive in Uttar Pradesh since this year's election in which Adityanath rallied the Hindu majority and delivered a resounding victory to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In return for his successful campaign, the party handed the priest one of India's most powerful positions, emboldening his militia to act and speak more openly than it did under the previous administration.
Based in Uttar Pradesh and funded by members who want to win favor with local power brokers, the youth force says it is 2 million strong and growing.
In Unnao, police stood back as members blocked traffic, honked horns and shouted pro-Hindu slogans on the busy streets. Muslims who came out to watch did so quietly from their doorways.
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