Finally, the gun boomed. There was no denying violence, not here, not in western Uttar Pradesh, not at this wedding. That’s why the guns were there; that’s why the guns were fired. Aqeel and Jamila had dreaded this moment, had prayed for the evening to pass without bloodshed. Yet there was a man lying with a bullet wound, their brothers were fighting, and threats of mass murder were flying thick and fast. All they had wanted was a wedding without violence.

The fears of the past visited them again, seven years later, this Eid. The couple was at Panchi village near Kharkhauda town in Meerut district to celebrate the festival with Aqeel’s parents. There was talk of trouble brewing in Kharkhauda and surrounding areas. The Meerut woman who had been made a mascot of “love jihad” had retracted in court her statement about forcible conversion to Islam. The region was politically charged and thugs were ready to roam the streets again.

Aqeel’s brothers and parents were worried, even though the couple themselves thought there was no reason to be afraid. Jamila’s maiden name is Jyoti, and she is a practising Hindu. “A fact that people in our village know very well,” Aqeel says.

The village has a sizeable Hindu population and the whole community had joined in the tense festivities when their wedding was held in the winter of 2007. “But times are changing around here now,” says Aqeel’s father Shahadat Hussain. He has been scared since the arrest of the 10 people, most of them Muslim men, from neighbouring villages like Sarawa, where he has some relatives.

Police walon ka koi imaan dharam nahi hai. Kisi ko bhi le ja sakte hain utha ke. (You can’t trust the police. They can pick up anyone.) They arrested innocent people even though the girl never named them,” he says, referring to the charges of rape forced out of the Meerut woman who has since retracted her statements.

“And see what has happened now; the girl has shown exceptional courage to speak the truth. This is all politics of these people,” he says without naming any political party, insisting that he does not want to, and that, “sab aise hi hain; koi saaf nahi. (They’re all the same. No one is clean.)”

Aqeel and Jamila were sent back to their two-room flat in Ghaziabad that very day. Eid could wait for now. This is the season of “love jihad”.

In his days at the Chaudhary Charan Singh (CCS) University, Meerut, Kshitij Bhardwaj (name changed) was a student leader. He fondly recalls beating up many people “even for fun” in those days as we drive down in his newly-acquired white Toyota Fortuner from Meerut to Hapur. As a consequence of one of those beatings, a Dalit student leader had died.

“You know I didn’t beat him so much whereas the others (his friends, followers, and supporters) did. And the poor fellow was weak and also said to have been ill at that time. So he died,” he says with a smile. The case made huge news, and since the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was in power at the time in Uttar Pradesh, he had to “go underground” while the police falsely arrested two Muslim men, “who were both known criminals”.

Did the police ever trouble him?

Aji unki kya himmat! Student leader thhe ham. Aur hamaare do chacha police mein  hain. (They didn’t dare! I was a student leader. And two of my uncles are in the police.)”

The family has two serving police officers—a point which is frequently made—and a huge real estate business. In his student days, Bhardwaj was an active member of the Brahman Samaj, a so-called independent society owing full allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He had been elected a senior leader with the “consent” of other Brahmin leaders, and some prominent BJP politicians, having heard a lot about him, offered him the post of party youth wing president in Meerut district.

“But I had to refuse because my family wanted me to stay away from controversies and focus on further studies and a possible job. I too wanted to move away from there, since there was no political future.” He moved to Delhi. But Delhi did not satiate his yearning for samaj seva (public service) and he was always on the lookout for opportunities that could take him back to Hapur.

He worked as a senior software expert at a company in Connaught Place that almost went bankrupt after a CBI raid earlier this year when its properties were attached. He quit and came back to Hapur, his hometown, where his extended family lives in an area consisting of 30 independent houses, referred to by the name of their village, barely 15 kilometres from Hapur along NH-24 towards Delhi.

Things have changed in the past six months. “I’ve been getting calls from all kinds of leaders. On weekends, when I used to be in Hapur, small groups started felicitating me and my family for involvement in local politics. A student group running a small workers’ union in the city called me as a guest because I had helped them once in my student days.”

There is a buzz around the success of the Modi government and the BJP at the Centre. And Bhardwaj is a devout Modi bhakt. “India will be different under him. And we all have to work for it,” he says, folding his hands.

He got a call from a senior BJP leader—whom he refuses to name “since he has been in a lot of controversy over the past year already”—and so has decided to join in as a volunteer. His peers, most of them also from technical backgrounds, some of them software engineers who studied at one of the hundreds of colleges in the National Capital Region (NCR), say he is set to emerge as a leader very soon.

Bhardwaj’s finances are taken care of by local “well-wishers” of the party and other volunteers from various regions. But that is only for the party work; he plans to set up a coaching centre or start teaching at an engineering college which is about to come up along the NH-24, and which is run by an “old family friend”.

Bhardwaj has been asked to help identify the “problem areas” for the BJP in the region and is part of an elaborate network of workers who have been “sufficiently directed” to keep an eye on the “love jihadis”.

“Whether you accept it or not it’s true (the “love jihad”). Many people have even reported that women disowned by their Hindu families because they marry a Muslim have suffered a lot. We want to identify such women and give them a chance to come back. They have to be encouraged,” he says.

In the Sangh Parivar’s articulation of “love jihad”, there’s a horde of smartly-dressed, affluent Muslim men with fancy mobile phones, tasked with ensnaring Hindu women, forcibly convert them to Islam so that they can bear Muslim children, and then abandon them. This, the Sangh and its offshoots say, is part of an Islamist agenda that will increase the population of Muslims and so is a threat, and is also an attack on Hindu pride and honour. There is no academic, historical, factual or cultural basis for this thesis, but when there’s an eager army of vandals on call, nothing else is needed.

“Love jihadis have to be identified and brought to book by the police. Or we will do that,” Bhardwaj says, holding his head high as he drives into the BJP office in Meerut, where a closed-door meeting of senior leaders and volunteers is to take place. Among them is Sangeet Singh Som, the most controversial politician of western UP for almost two years now.

Som was arrested for inciting a crowd of thousands at a Jat mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar last year. He had called on the crowd to stop Hindu girls from marrying Muslim boys and instead encouraged the boys to marry Muslim girls. “Beti bachao, bahu lao,” he had said. In an interview after being released on bail last year he had denied having said any such thing.

Som has since become known as Amit Shah’s right-hand man in the region and runs the show for the party. He has been felicitated at various functions in the state by Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both before and after the Lok Sabha elections. He now leads the party’s push in the state, with his mentor Amit Shah, earlier the party’s UP unit chief moving on to become party president. And “love jihad” figures high on his list, party workers say. Som himself has totally cut himself off from the media. All attempts to contact him failed.

Jyoti was working as a primary school teacher in Hapur when she first met Aqeel through a common friend. He is an alumnus of the school and would visit it once every few months to donate money and meet teachers and students. Aqeel worked at a hair salon, trained by one of his maternal uncles at his shop in Ghaziabad while also pursuing graduate studies from CCS University through a distance learning programme.

He rose through the ranks at the shop and eventually bought his own, where four people worked under him when he met Jyoti, who is two years older than Aqeel. The two started seeing each other often but only outside Hapur. “We would either go to Ghaziabad or Delhi to make sure no acquaintance saw us together. Meerut was a strictly no-go area because if you are spotted there (as a Hindu girl) with a Muslim boy by any acquaintance, the news spreads like fire,” says Jyoti.

When the couple decided to get married they were faced with the task of telling their parents, more so in case of Jyoti because her parents were already looking for a “good Brahmin boy” for her; she had delayed their plans a year by saying she was expecting a good job offer from Ghaziabad. “I had met a few of them because my father had insisted. And when I refused to marry any one of them, the pressure on Aqeel and me went up the roof,” Jyoti says, holding his arm sitting next to him.

“I had told them I didn’t want to continue with teaching for long, which was true. But that was also the period when we had to take our decisions. We had to commit to each other and decide to marry. When we did, we had to look at how best to convince our parents.”

Together they opened an advertising agency in Ghaziabad, where Jyoti took care of the creative department while Aqeel managed the rest. “It was very important to have financial stability so we decided to have our own business,” she says. “It was also important for my father to see that our business together was successful and that our decision was taken maturely and not in haste. ‘Aate dal ka bhav dekh ke pyaar bhool jaate hain log’ (‘Prices of groceries force people to forget love’) was a statement my father often made at the dining table.”

Jyoti’s parents did not take the decision well. Her elder brother vowed to “kill Aqeel” and neighbours too got involved. “My father was also a member of the BJP. So some learned men and our local pandit came and counselled me about how Muslim men only feigned love because this was a larger plan of jihadis across the country. They gave me examples of how Hindu women were killed after giving birth so that the man could marry again. They also pointed out that under Muslim marriage laws, Aqeel could marry another woman.”

When Jyoti would have none of it, her parents agreed to meet Aqeel, though she feared her brother might kick up a ruckus. “Her brother asked me a thousand questions. He also humiliated me by saying that we were lowly farmers while they were from a family of learned men working in government departments, including the police. He threatened to have me killed and said not even my body would be found,” Aqeel remembers, sitting at his Ghaziabad house in the Nehru Nagar locality two days after Eid.

Jyoti adds, “He used to tell me that I had simply fallen for his ‘fair, handsome, innocent’ looks and that I would repent my decision soon. He said much better looking boys were ready to marry me.”

Aqeel’s parents had problems too. They were advised by relatives that to be accepted in society, Jyoti would have to convert to Islam. They also feared for the life and safety of their son considering that she belonged to a bhajpa family, a term used for followers or members of the BJP. When the parents met, it was agreed that Jyoti would convert to Islam only for the purpose of marriage and that Aqeel would also convert to Hinduism as per the rituals of the Arya Samaj.

Aqeel’s father did not take this decision well and expressed his displeasure to him in person. “He said that I was a handsome boy and that I could marry a very beautiful Muslim girl instead of converting to a kafir. My mother sat next to him and told me I look better than all the Khans in bollywood. They expected me to understand and call off the marriage, but I didn’t do so.”

The Islamic ceremonies were held in the village after conversion at the same madarsa in Hapur where the Meerut “love jihad victim” was allegedly kept in confinement before being taken to another, bigger madarsa in adjoining Muzaffarnagar district. Aqeel’s conversion and marriage according to Hindu rites took place at the Arya Samaj temple in Noida. He was then given the name Akhilesh Arya, but Jyoti’s family and relatives call him Akhil. A reception was held in Hapur a few days later, where all family members met and blessed the couple. Jyoti and Aqeel now have a daughter.

Within the prevalent patriarchal system in both families, elders looked at safeguarding their own interests and “blood”. “My parents say he is a Hindu now and since you run the house, you must teach Niha also to be a Hindu, while his parents say the child will obviously be a Muslim,” says Jyoti. “But we have only named her Niha, which is an Islamic name but also sounds like Neha, which is a Hindu name. She can decide, when she goes for her 10th or 12th, whether she wants to be Niha Arya or Niha Hussain,” says Aqeel.

The wedding didn’t go off without drama. Words were said, guns were fired, someone had a bullet wound, and the police had to be called. They worked out a patch-up between the fighting relatives, and treatment for the gunshot victim was paid by Aqeel’s parents. The fires are still burning, though. Even today many people from Panchi village don’t stop at Hapur unless there is a pressing need, for fear of being targeted by people who can recognise them from the marriage ceremony.

In one case, a boy from Panchi was beaten up because another boy claimed the victim had slapped him during the marriage at Panchi. Some days later, the boy who had “wrongly claimed” to have been slapped was beaten up by a gang of boys from Panchi and surrounding villages who came “in a Scorpio”.

“Thankfully, we convinced everyone to not go ahead with a case. But tensions remain. They (neighbours and acquaintances in Hapur) still see me as an outsider and traitor though my parents have accepted us. Their street wars keep going on; they never end,” says Jyoti. “We could not visit Hapur on Dussehra as a result of that.”

These street wars have taken an ugly political turn in the region in the past two years as a result of the BJP’s revival in the state.

In Ghaziabad’s Nehru Nagar, Jyoti, dressed in a white Lucknowi salwar-kameez, prepares a non-vegetarian lunch, something she learnt after getting married. “I never ate non-vegetarian food earlier but am fond of it now. She likes it too,” she says, pointing at her daughter, sleeping peacefully on the sofa while Aqeel sits beside her.

“But she still never touches beef,” he says about Jyoti.

Musharraf Khan, who runs a hotel owned by his family in the city, joins Aqeel for lunch. He is also a member of the Samajwadi Party (SP) at the local level. “He too is married to a Hindu,” Aqeel says. Khan met the girl at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi almost a decade ago while he was studying for his masters in political science.

“We just ran away, got married, and then informed our parents. They had to accept us,” he says, adding that it would not have been difficult to convince them but that the demands of patriarchy and religion, like dowry and conversion to Islam, were unacceptable to them.

His wife is a journalist with the Dainik Jagran group, the newspaper with the highest circulation in the state. “It is also the paper spewing the “love jihad” venom the most in its writings,” says Khan, bespectacled and wearing a crisp white shirt and white trousers, like most politicians in the region tend to nowadays.

Having worked on the ground with SP cadre, he says the strands the BJP is trying to pick apart are fragile and will ultimately break the progressive push society has had in the state, especially western UP.

“If there is harmony and acceptance of inter-faith marriage, it’s a sign that our society is progressing and truly representing a secular India. But the BJP is alleging a conspiracy because they know it’s crucial to break this essential strand joining the communities.”

Khan says every region sees its share of tense moments when such marriages take place, but it eventually brings communities together. “Why would anybody wish harm to a community where you have relatives? It is this respect or tolerance for each other BJP wants to break to polarise the votes,” he says.

A prime example of the bond between communities being broken was the Muzaffarnagar riots. “Muzaffarnagar Gujarat banega.” (Muzaffarnagar will become like Gujarat) and “Mussalmano Bharat chhodo” (Muslims, leave India) were common slogans during the riots. Muslims and Jats of the rural areas of the region—who had united under ex-Prime Minister Charan Singh’s leadership and fought together—were killing each other. The BJP secured a victory in Muzaffarnagar—which had not even seen an MLA from the party win in the district for many years—in the Lok Sabha elections by a huge margin.

But equations change in the assembly elections and the BJP knows it will need a multi-pronged strategy in the state to become a strong player, leave alone securing a majority.

Jasim Mohammad, editor of the monthly magazine The Aligarh Movement from Aligarh, says, “It’s in the villages that the trust between communities is hard to break. In urban areas Modi factor will be a winning formula for the BJP, but in rural areas, they will have to instill fear among voters along with their promises of development to polarise votes. And for this, they are plucking at every fragile strand in the relationship among various religious and caste groups, most prominently between Hindus and Muslims.”

Musharraf Khan says the situation in the state is ripe for the BJP to play its divisive politics. The Akhilesh Yadav-led government of his party has failed to administer the state. “We’re seeing money flow freely at police stations and government offices while work done is minimal. The administration only manages to maintain status quo while the officials are quietly working hand-in-glove with BJP workers in many areas,” he says.

The word jihad—which broadly refers to a struggle both internal and external in the cause of Islam—has come to signify hate in the past few decades, the world over. The phrase “love jihad” first surfaced in Kerala and parts of south Karnataka, where also the bogey of Muslim men trapping Hindu women was used for political and religious mileage.

In UP, leaders like Sangeet Singh Som started using the phrase in rallies last year when the BJP began its big push, but later chose to avoid the term, using other phrases to push his point home, since the police had started recording some of his speeches at various rallies in the region, as a result of which he was eventually arrested too.

A senior BJP leader and MP from western UP said on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue, “We have seen Muslims rise to economic prosperity rapidly in the past two decades of BSP and SP rule. Meat businesses have boomed and they have also forayed into other businesses from the money earned from selling the meat of Indian cows to the Gulf countries.”

This prosperity has seen Muslims rise in the region’s social strata, and Meerut is the centre. A senior police officer, who does not want to be named fearing political and official backlash, says, “The major problem we faced before the BJP came into the picture with such vigour was the Shia-Sunni problem in the city. From being Hindu-dominated till two decades back, the city is now dominated by Muslim politics. This has made the BJP extremely insecure and they’re acting on any viable suggestion people bring to them. I’ve personally seen party workers stoop so low as to suggest banning the admission of Muslims into schools run by trusts owned by Hindus.”

The equality in social strata is also a factor that has led to rise in the number of Hindu-Muslim marriages in the region.

“Earlier, there was no scope for such marriages since prosperity and social acceptance were important factors. Today neither is significant. We don’t want to see a rise in this,” the MP asserts. “They’re planning this at their madarsas which now get foreign funding.”

While there is hardly any evidence to suggest that any madarsa in the region is funded from outside the country, there have been huge inflow from within the community in the region. “But this in no way suggests any sort of programme to train boys to lure Hindu girls into love marriages. It’s a shame that someone should ever make such allegations. They’re just trying to highlight the fact that ‘conversion of a non-believer is a duty’ is taught at madarsas. They should also remember that it’s also taught that forcefully or deceitfully converting a person is wrong,” says a BSP MLA requesting anonymity. “Moreover, do you think a poor madarsa-trained boy would even have a decent job, leave alone the time and energy for following diktats of love jihad?”

“Their problem is not the madarsa-trained Muslim, but the educated and assertive Muslim,” says Musharraf Khan.

Economic prosperity and the resultant assertiveness has also made a section of Muslims more liberal. Aditya Kumar, a former lecturer in sociology at CCS University, says, “We conducted many surveys on social integration of minorities in the western UP region as part of students’ training programmes and found that inter-religion marriages are more common among the educated and well-to-do families in both rural social structures and urban structures. It’s also in these strata that acceptance for such couples has grown in the past decade.”

However, Kumar says Hindu families are more opposed to the idea. In many cases, girls are killed if found to be having an affair with a Muslim boy whereas Hindu men are told to never expect to marry a Muslim girl. “It is not to say that Muslim patriarchal structures are any better, but they have shown more openness to mixed families, in which the BJP sees a conspiracy.”

But Musharraf Khan says Muslim society is as much to blame for the “love jihad” flare-up as the BJP workers instigating the Hindus. “Open as they may be, they still see the marriage of a boy to a Hindu girl as causing no harm whereas girls are suffocated in the environs of the homes,” he says.

As a result, there’s also been a rise in the use of burqa among Muslim girls as young as 9 or 10 and women in general, says Aditya Kumar. “In rural areas, there was no burqa till a decade back. But with Saudi influence coming in along with the economic prosperity and cultural exchange through the thousands of men who work there and come back to settle down in their villages, towns or cities, the trend has reached the villages. Nowadays one can notice women working in the fields wearing a different variety of burqa, mostly light blue in colour,” he says.

The boys, on the other hand, are accepted easily if they marry a Hindu girl. “In some areas, you could find many boys and men talking about the boys who have Hindu girlfriends or Hindu wives as lucky and successful. In most cases, a Muslim married to a Hindu woman is also comparatively well-to-do so it is seen as a sign of prosperity.”

Aqeel, who is preparing tea, adds, “I was taunted by people saying ‘oh so you have settled your business well, eh?’ and ‘oh you are a successful man to have a Hindu wife’. My relatives’ children danced and taunted their Hindu counterparts during the function in my village for having ‘snatched their daughter’.”

That these taunts and such mischief could ever be construed as a conspiracy is not something Kafeel Qureshi is ready to accept, however. A successful cloth merchant from a farming family, he set up his business in Meerut more than a decade back and married a girl from his own town. He hails from Haridwar district of Uttarakhand, from a small town called Najibabad which falls on the Dehradun-Haridwar Road.

Sitting in a plush showroom in the posh Abu Lane area of Meerut, wearing two gold chains and white kurta-pyjama, Qureshi says, “We had such discussions as boys too. In fact, I was motivated to convince a Hindu girl to marry me since I saw two of my cousins marry beautiful Hindu girls and living happily in my town. Luckily I found my one,” he says with a wink referring to Koel Rana, who was a student in a medical college in Dehradun when he met her and is now a practising doctor in a city hospital.

“She was the most beautiful girl in that college and I would hang around there regularly. We were introduced through a common friend and never looked back since then,” he says, adding that mohallawalahs got to know about their relationship too and that their parents had already “heard the rumours about us by the time we decided to break it to them”.

“We never faced any problem. Our parents sat together and my father warned me that he would kill me himself if Koel ever faced any problems or her parents complained to them. It was common practice in our town to hold such meetings with representatives from both communities present. And hardly any couple has ever faced any problems; no complaints have come up either,” he says confidently.

Aditya Kumar points out that the “problem area” is western UP, of which Najibabad too was a part until Uttarakhand became a separate state, allowing people like Qureshi and others in love enough breathing space. “The BJP has either unearthed a worldwide conspiracy by Islamic jihadis or is playing a sick game of communal politics in the western UP region by dragging the chatter and banter in homes and mohallas to the political akharas,” he says.

Acampaign against cow slaughter and slaughter houses in 2006-07—just when the meat export business had started paying off—was the BJP’s first major initiative in western UP. Party workers demanded that slaughterhouses be shifted outside city limits and that illegal ones be shut down. Rumours were spread about groundwater being muddied red due to the blood draining from slaughterhouses.

Some BJP workers like Puneet Khanna still recall the news. “There were reports that motors were pumping up blood-red water because it was drained directly several feet deep to prevent it from showing in the drains. There was a huge uproar in the city over it,” he says.

Many slaughterhouses were shifted outside city limits on the Meerut-Hapur road, which passes through Kharkhauda. Among the biggest beneficiaries of the industry has been Haji Akhlaq Qureshi, three-time BSP MLA from the region. His political opponents, mainly the BJP, have consistently tried to use the “cow slaughter” charge against him. He has stayed away from the media but attempts by the BJP to allege harassment and injustice have been persistent.

The party has managed to consolidate its vote bank in the district because of such attempts. Rajendra Aggarwal won the Meerut Lok Sabha seat for a third consecutive time this year for the party. So far, success in assembly elections has remained elusive. Even campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections had focused on this issue.

Faizuddin Shamsi, a Meerut-based meat exporter who runs his slaughterhouse and packaging centre along the Hapur-Bulandshar road, says, “It is well-known that beef consumed in the region is buffalo meat. Almost no slaughterhouse exports cow meat. I have heard that one or two do package cow meat but that too is said to be on availability basis only, since farmers do not sell their cows until they are of no use anymore.”

These facts have been well-established by the animal husbandry departments in various districts of the region but protests over “ill-treatment” of cows grow by the day.

Dainik Jagaran has carried hundreds of stories on protests by BJP workers and the “gau-bhakt” (cow-worshippers). People in media circles have also criticised the publication for focusing on such protests almost as a matter of policy and also for popularising the term “love jihad” but senior editors at the organisation claim such news is important because it sells. In many cases, protests have been over Muslim owners of a cow not providing enough fodder for their cattle and in some cases, for beating them too much.

Narendra Pandey, a priest at a temple in Meerut who visits the BJP office regularly and helps with some logistics, says, “Cows have to be kept well even by Hindus. It is a sacred duty to look after the welfare of all the cows in the world. I feel people are starting to realise that now.”

Meanwhile, cows roaming outside the party office are scavenging the dustbins and nobody seems to care about them.

With the failure of the anti-cow slaughter campaign in the region, the BJP and the RSS have now zeroed in on the idea of preservation of the “cow family” which would mean the killing of buffaloes too would be protested. The meat export industry will come under direct attack, impacting the economics of the region, predominantly the Muslims.

Ironically, however, the buffalo meat manufacturing, processing and exporting industry is owned predominantly by non-Muslims in India, including UP. But the work force at the abattoirs and various processing units is predominantly Muslim and an impact on the meat industry will directly impact them.

Buffalo meat, according to the Agricultural and Processed Food Export Development Authority (APEDA), a body which works under the Union Ministry of Commerce, is the second largest Indian commodity after basmati rice. Of the total meat exports of the country, worth ₹30,597 crore per year, the buffalo meat export accounts for ₹26,925 crore, with 1.4 million tonnes of buffalo meat exported every year, as per the APEDA figures. As per information freely available on its website, the buffalo meat export industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in the country. India has replaced Vietnam and Argentina to become the largest exporter of the meat in the world.

While there are very few abattoirs functioning in the country due to a strict procedure implemented by the APEDA, the number of processing units exceeds 20,000, a huge chunk of which are in the western UP region since it has a massive cattle population, being one of the oldest beneficiaries of the canal systems built by the British, much like western Punjab, which is now in Pakistan. Importantly, this industry also feeds the leather industry in Kanpur and Agra which exports goods worth $9 billion every year.

“Clearly, after Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, the BJP wants a ban on cow and even buffalo slaughter in the state not to protect the animals, like many of these BJP leaders like Maneka Gandhi claim to be fighting for. It is simply an attack on livelihoods of the Muslims, much like the ones in Gujarat,” says a BSP MP on condition of anonymity.

“Moreover, beef is a staple meat for even the Dalits, who are among the worst off in the state along with the Muslims. What is to come of this fight for buffaloes except hunger and street fights on something so basic as food?” asks Aditya Kumar.

There is no debating the issue with the BJP, though.

Literature on the uses of the buffalo and its religious importance will be supplied to the district soon, party workers say. And the material is likely to be distributed by “Pandeyji”, who will also advise the followers on how to worship the buffalo. Party workers took active part in the recently concluded All India Cattle Show in the district, where they felicitated the owner of the champion buffalo bull Yuvraj, which weighed 1,400 kilograms.

But this attempt to pull in more votes does not fit in with the larger goal of a majority in the next assembly elections. That is where the word “jihad” fits into the party’s agenda. Seeing no other way to further the polarisation of votes in the state, the BJP has chosen love and inter-faith marriage as the danger to the “blood lines” of the Hindus. At a rally in the city recently, a senior leader shouted to the crowd, “Hamaare ladkon ke hote kya majaal ki ladki samaj se baahar shaadi kare. (With our boys around a girl would not dare to marry outside the [Hindu] society.)”

After attending the closed-door meeting at the party office in Meerut, Bhardwaj and two of his acquaintances head back to Hapur. On the way, they stop at the Kharkhauda police post and get down to chat with the policemen. They greet Bhardwaj as “Netaji”. He’s provided with a brief description of activities in the area during the day. “Some incidents did take place which were brought under control but something is brewing around here,” a policeman says softly.

“You see, even the police know what lies ahead. They too know the BJP will rise again in the state and start real development in this region. We might be in the NCR but there is nothing worth calling world-class here,” he says. “The administration and various other departments are dominated by BJP and BSP men. We’re pushing our hands deeper into these resources to have a stronger base and bring about the change we want.”

While workers owing allegiance to the All India Backward (SC, ST, OBC) And Minority Communities Employees' Federation (BAMCEF), parent organisation of the BSP, stay away from the BJP they also facilitate work for the BJP cadres by letting them run riot in return for smooth payments at government offices and opportunities for mid-level corruption, claims Bhardwaj.

The BJP has always had the support of the administration and the lower bureaucracy in UP. The planned destruction of Babri Masjid was a prime example of collaboration between the two. “But officials now speak to us personally whereas earlier there were situations when party leaders discussed political strategy at the Kotwali police station in the city or at the DM’s residence.”

The police have an elaborate intelligence network and are fully aware of the political games being planned and played in the region. But they choose to take action only when the orders are from Lucknow.

“The lack of coordination and the confusion that this government has created among police officials is unprecedented in the state. Officers are transferred in a matter of weeks and months and anyone can be suspended at any time. In such a scenario the police officers only watch or connive with trouble-makers,” says a senior police officer posted in Meerut.

He says that the local intelligence units (LIUs) have repeatedly warned of BJP’s “instigative” activities in western UP. “Since it sees a bigger threat from Muslims in western UP and also because its attempts at polarising the votes in its favour in the past have failed consistently, this is one of the ways it thinks it could adopt to achieve that,” he adds.

But reports by the LIU are not taken seriously since the “maintenance of peace” is quintessential while the BJP keeps launching protest after protest in the state, which has the SP government on the back foot.

For a self-confessed crusader against “love jihad”, Bhardwaj has his own story of a failed romance with a Muslim girl. “I was madly in love with her and wanted to marry her. I kept asking her to break it to her parents and was ready to meet them and then also tell my parents. But she never gathered the courage to talk to her parents.” The girl came from a middle-class family and lives in a different part of Hapur. She was his junior at CCS University and their relationship blossomed till Bhardwaj decided it was time to get married.

“Her elder brother and sister both knew about our relationship but advised her against telling the parents. I tried hard to convince her but she just kept delaying it.” Bhardwaj says he had decided to get a job in Delhi only to make sure he had a place to stay and sustain him and her if his parents did not agree. “At one point I had convinced her to elope with me and get married, after which I am sure both families would have accepted us. But my own will betrayed me then,” he says, sipping a beer while driving.

Bhardwaj’s family—”well-to-do and well-known in Hapur”, he says—would not have been refused the proposal had they decided to meet the girl’s parents. “But she did not agree to even that; otherwise I could just have told my parents about it and the deal would have been taken care of,” he says. “Maybe I should have just taken her to Delhi and married her when I had the chance. I too would have been a love jihadi then for a good cause. I know my parents would have agreed; I just didn’t have the courage then.

“But I don’t understand how one can feign love and marry a girl, or even a boy for that matter. Something must be wrong with the DNA of these love jihadis,” he says, resigning himself to the wisdom of the leaders with whom he spent the day.

Bhardwaj’s one-room office on the first floor of a house on the outskirts of Hapur, close to NH-24, belongs to one of his juniors from CCS University who lives downstairs with his family. Akshay Goel designs websites for a living. He’s an active member of the small group that assembles at the room every night to discuss plans for further action. He’s constantly busy updating the Facebook pages of various accounts and groups he runs, most of them of the BJP’s local units as well those where group discussions on “love jihad” are taking place.

One of the pages is also dedicated to the “holy cow” and another one on the buffalo is to be uploaded within days of the literature reaching them. “It is expected to come from Indore and will be delivered in Meerut before Diwali,” Bhardwaj says, to which Goel gives a thumbs up.

The room has a small red fridge used to store “only water and beer”. Two tables lie in separate corners with a laptop on each of them. One of them is an iMac system used for editing heavy video files. A lot of the videos of rallies and various other speeches made by leaders at functions are sent to Bhardwaj or are downloaded from sources on the Internet.

“Some of our videos on various subjects and proposals are also edited here from time to time. The frequency of such work is increasing steadily and will rise exponentially in the days to come. I plan to install two more systems so that more people can work here at any given time,” Bhardwaj says.

The work he’s referring to is propaganda material, including video-graphic instructions on how to tackle various kinds of situations during political rallies or on tackling the various threats, “love jihad” being one of them.

Sitting on one of numerous plastic chairs kept on the open terrace in front of the room, Bhardwaj says he’s yet to understand the concept of jihad fully and so is researching the subject thoroughly. To make the common people and party workers understand how the minds of these jihadis work, one will have to get into the muck.

Keechad mein kisi ko toh utarna hi hai. (Someone has to get into the slush to clean it),” he says, proud that he’s been given such an important task. His task, he says, is also to keep a close eye on the “love jihadis” who might be out on the streets in Meerut, Kharkhauda and Hapur.

“There are already people being paid to keep a close watch on Muslim boys who roam around various colleges or schools in the region. Many cases of abduction or disappearance are also said to turn out to be kidnappings for love jihad. I have to compile all this data for the perusal of senior leaders and to be provided to the police and administration when required, since they don’t keep track of these things in any case,” he say.

Inside the room, reams of printouts on terror groups like al-Qaeda and the latest sensation, Islamic State, are lying around with pencil marks and comments written on them. Talking of IS, he says, “I quite like them. They’re working on a task similar to the goals of the BJP, of uniting a Hindu India with space for others too. Their strategies are modern but they’re working on an age-old principle of expanding the base of orthodox religion, which was tried against us Hindus over many centuries. But we haven’t expanded our base in our own country despite history teaching us such bitter lessons. We could learn from their strategies, apart from the violent battle trades of course.”

The gang that hangs out at the room also tracks news about arrested and suspected Indian Mujahideen (IM) operatives. “They pose a threat to every leader in the country. If they can target a rally of Narendra Modi they can target any leader at will. We have to be prepared for such attacks and understand the weaknesses they look for and exploit. We have to plug the holes.”

With the literature lying around at the room, the men could easily be arrested and branded as terrorists considering that the police relied on much flimsier evidence for prosecuting many Muslim men for terror activities across the country.

But then Bhardwaj is not a Muslim. He is a jihadi fighting his battles against love, of which he knows something too.