The Bajrang Dal is the rogue child of the Sangh Parivar. It is anarchic in both structure and disposition.
By N K Singh and Uday Mahurkar
It took only a slogan for the Bajrang Dal to become India's public enemy No 1. In the early hours of January 23 at Manoharpur, the vehicle in which Graham Staines and his little boys slept was set afire by a rabid mob. Slogans of "Jai Bajrang Bali" rent the air. It didn't take much for the news to spread that the slogan was actually "Jai Bajrang Dal", referring to the youth brigade that is an adjunct of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Orissa's Director General of Police B.B. Panda gave the sentiment an official stamp: "The Bajrang Dal was behind the attack."
Despite the confusion about the slogan, there was ample reason for the needle of suspicion pointing to the Bajrang Dal. Dara Singh, the prime accused in the Staines' murder, had on June 28, 1998, waylaid a truck carrying cattle in Thakurmunda. The driver and others in the truck, all of them Muslim, were savagely beaten up and the cows "rescued". Two salient features of Dara Singh's modus operandi were evident that day. First, that he blew a whistle as if to warn his victims; a whistle is said to have been heard the night the Staines family died as well. Second, Singh unfurled a banner that read "Bajrang Dal (Orissa)".
The group that is today seen as Hindutva's version of the lumpen proletariat is an amorphous one, so amorphous that its definition keeps changing across state borders. Yet, through its area of operation, one characteristic of the Dal remains constant: hooliganism as an article of faith. To quote one senior RSS leader, "All the riff raff, the rejects of society. And the discards of the Sangh Parivar. These are the people who find refuge in the Bajrang Dal."
The Dal itself is a by-product of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid conflict. It was born in 1984 along with the female version, the Durga Vahini. Its job was to mobilise youth for the Ayodhya movement. At the time of its formation, the Bajrang Dal had different names in different states. Catering to local emotions, in West Bengal, for instance, it was called the Vivekananda Sena.
Gradually, a uniform nomenclature emerged. Yet the Bajrang Dal differs from the 60-odd other affiliates of the RSS in that it is not directly controlled by the Sangh. It has no organic all-India structure and is federalised to the point of being anarchic. Loosely put, it is a banner under which ruffians with Hindutva leanings -- the first attribute often being more important than the second -- have gathered in state after state.
Bajrang Dal activists were all over the place on December 6, 1992. When the Babri Masjid was demolished, the Dal was among the organisations banned by the Union government. Later, of course, a tribunal revoked the ban. By then the Bajrang Dal had gained both notice and notoriety. In Uttar Pradesh, it claimed to be something of a small town vigilante force. Others described it as a compulsive mischief monger, which organised maha aartis in cities like Kanpur, made menacing statements about "liberating temples converted by Muslim rulers" and so on. In 1991, the Dal's first national convener, Vinay Katiyar, had been elected to the Lok Sabha from Faizabad. He was re-elected in 1996 but lost in 1998. By then, however, he was more eager to project himself as an OBC Kurmi leader.
To some extent, two terms in Parliament have sobered Katiyar and he is the odd Bajrangi who has graduated to formal politics. Even so, his penchant for ridiculous statements remains intact. Today he accuses Congress President Sonia Gandhi of organising attacks on the minorities to "tarnish the image of the BJP government". Katiyar, it must be emphasised, is a relatively polished Bajrangi. His counterparts in other states stretch the definition of the lunatic fringe.
Take Madhya Pradesh, which threw up the Dal's second national convener, Jaibhan Singh Pavaiyya. Until 1992, the Dal here was Ayodhya-centric. After that, it has been groping for a cause. It took up the issue of cow slaughter but that was a bit of a damp squib. In the past year, the Bhopal unit has detected only two trucks carrying cattle to the slaughterhouse. In 1998, the Dal demonstrated against a Bhopal convent that had asked its students to wear bloomers under their skirts and warned of inspections.
The current hobby horse is the "Muslim conspiracy to lure Hindu girls and marry them to Muslim boys". According to Sudhir Jachak, the Dal's Bhopal chief, "Every year about 50 girls in the city are converted this way. Whereas the number of Muslim girls marrying Hindu boys is no more than four or five." What does the Dal do? "We prevent the marriages and send the girls back to their parents."
Jachak, 30, is the picture of a typical Bajrangi. A copier in the Madhya Pradesh Public Works Department, he has been on daily wages for 11 years and is not yet a confirmed employee. It is unlikely he will ever be one, as his day is spent in Dal activities rather than at the office. He has given every member of the Dal a trishul -- "It is symbolic but it is also for self-defence" -- and sees himself as the godfather of Hindu interests. Recently, a Hindu school's head told Jachak he was being harassed by some local Muslims. The Bajrangi boss proceeded to set things right: "The police ignores complaints against Muslims. We force them to act."
Jachak seems positively harmless compared to the Bajrang Dal of Karnataka, which is such a loose cannon that even the VHP and the BJP have disowned it. In December 1998, it was part of a larger VHP-led operation to "free" a Sufi shrine atop Baba Budangiri peak, about 30 km from Chikmagalur. It took 10,000 policemen to quell the 6,000 gathered activists.
A month later, the Bajrangis were back in action. The Mysore unit threatened to disrupt the bicentenary of Tipu Sultan, the valiant king who died fighting the British in 1799. Karnataka Bajrang Dal convener Pramod Muthalik who has gone underground now, spoke of storming the mausoleum of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu at Srirangapatnam near Mysore, and evicting the family of Asif Ali Shah. Shah claims to be a direct descendant of Tipu and has pitched his tent in a corner of the 34-acre mausoleum complex. Ironically, he is a member of the BJP and a close friend of party MPs.
So sharp has been the reaction to the anti-Tipu campaign that the VHP's Karnataka Secretary B.N. Murthy has distanced himself from Muthalik. A BJP spokesman too says, "We have nothing to do with them (the Bajrangis)."
With 1.5 lakh members statewide, the Bajrang Dal is probably at its most organised in Gujarat. It is certainly at its most media savvy here. Haresh Bhatt, 48, is a vice-president of the national Bajrang Dal and was till recently the convener of the Gujarat unit. He has impressive credentials: MA in economics, formerly a storekeeper in the air force, now running a security agency. All in all, Bhatt would seem a man with not an enemy in the world; actually he has many.
Bhatt's biggest bugbear is the English media: "You have painted us as villains. The Bajrang Dal is wedded to the national cause. But you make it look like a body of anti-nationals. How many of you have taken note of our public welfare services? We are there after every road or rail accident. We run classes for children in slums. But all that is blacked out." There is some truth in this. When Surat was flooded by the Tapti in the previous monsoon, Bajrang Dal workers were prominent in the relief operations.
Even so, the fact remains the Dal is better known for plain vandalism. Post-Pokhran II, when the US imposed sanctions on India, the Dal in Ahmedabad announced a boycott of Pepsi and Coca-Cola. It ransacked vehicles and shops stocking the soft drinks. Pepsi was forced to close its local bottling plant for a month. It was Bhatt who "launched" the boycott by ceremonially breaking a crate of Coke bottles at a public meeting.
Actually, the Gujarat Bajrangis are sticklers for ceremony. This includes an initiation rite called "trishul diksha". Explains Bhatt, "We enrol a youth as a member by presenting him a trishul. We believe in seva (service ), sanskar (culture ) and suraksha (self-defence). The trishul is a symbol of the Hindus' self-defence."
Prevention of both cow slaughter and Hindu-Muslim marriages apart, the Gujarat Bajrang Dal is at the forefront of the anti-beauty contest agitation. It has prevented any beauty pageant from taking place over the past year. Most recently it scuppered the Miss Saurashtra beauty contest.
Was the Dal involved in the recent anti-Christian violence in Dangs? Jayantibhai Patel, state joint convener, is emphatic: "No. It is the tribals who are reacting to conversion activity." Adds Bhatt: "Conversion by missionaries is like poison. We are going to fight it tooth and nail." If the Bajrang Dal is not banned before that.
--with Stephen David and Subhash Mishra
© Living Media India Ltd