A video showing some members of Hindu nationalist group Bajrang Dal receiving training in firearms recently went viral on Indian social media platforms. BBC Hindi’s Nitin Srivastava attends one of its training camps in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
It is an extremely hot afternoon in Siddharth Nagar district where around 100 teenagers armed with wooden sticks and knives are practising how to “decimate any attacker” in a large, fortified school campus.
Not very far from them, another group of around 50 youth are taking turns to squeeze past a ring of fire, some even getting bruised in the process.
Loud slogans of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” (Long live mother India) reverberate as a dozen of them start performing dangerous tricks with fire.
About 100 guests, including women, who are watching the show from a distance, clap aggressively after every stunt.
Although the activities being conducted here are more in line with what you would find at an army training programme, organisers insist that this is a “self defence” camp for youth.
They are conducted by the Bajrang Dal, a militant Hindu organisation that traces its origins from the days of the infamous Babri Mosque demolition movement in the temple town of Ayodhya.
The mosque was torn down by Hindu groups in 1992, prompting nationwide rioting between Hindus and Muslims in which more than 2,000 people died.
“We want Hindus to be prepared for any eventuality. Of course, the threat from across the borders is significant but the situation within the country is no less,” Ambreesh Singh, a senior leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which is Bajrang Dal’s parent organisation, tells the BBC.
At least six week-long camps like this have been held in various cities across Uttar Pradesh in the past month. A team of trainers, who supervise these camps, say that this training is essential to ward off “the enemy”.
They refuse to define or name “the enemy” saying only that “anyone who suppresses Hindus is an enemy”.
VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders have often said that Indian democracy “needs to be run by Hindu values, though all communities are welcome to live in India”.
Men from the Hindu community only need to pay a fee of 100 rupees (£1; $1.50) to participate in these camps and receive self defence training.
Mobile phones are banned inside the camps, while exercises begin at 5am in the morning and end after the sunset, leaving the trainees fairly exhausted.
And it’s not just the men who are trained in “self defence”.
Durga Vahini, another unit of the VHP, organises similar camps for women. It recently conducted a training session in the holy city of Varanasi, which is the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“Wielding the wooden stick is just not enough. I am keen to learn how a rifle gun is handled,” Sushma Sonkar, a woman trainee told the BBC.
It is this sentiment, coupled with videos of a recent training camp in Ayodhya, where some trainees are shown fighting against men dressed up as Muslims, that has resulted in public outcry against the camps.
Many feel that they are coercing young people towards violence, and are encouraging violence against minorities.
But organisers deny this.
“Consent of parents is the first step we take,” one of them tells the BBC.
The VHP and Bajrang Dal have also denied knowledge of the training tactics used in the Ayodhya video, but India’s Muslim community has questioned the government’s decision to even allow such camps to go ahead.
“This is a deliberate attempt by the right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and the state government to create fear among the Muslims of India. We will go to court against them,” Khaliq Ahmad Khan, a local Muslim leader said.
The leader of the camp in Ayodhya has been arrested on charges of hurting religious sentiments and spreading communal hatred.
But the governor of the state, Ram Naik, said that “self-defence was necessary and every citizen should be trained”.
After the recent outrage on social media, usage of light weapons seems to have been discreetly replaced by wooden guns, knives and sticks.
But the camps continue, with some leaders belonging to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) saying that they were not intended to promote disharmony against any particular community.
“What’s new about these camps? They have been organised each year for the past two decades. Even if some men were wearing headscarves or brandishing air guns, its was all just a drill’,” said Vinay Katiyar, a former Bajrang Dal leader who is now a BJP MP.