The author presents a personal, first-person, account of his experience of working with Bajrang Dal activists in Ahmedabad. He attempts to throw light on the everyday lives of the Bajrang Dal boys, especially in the context of increased reportage on right-wing vigilante groups and their attacks on minorities across India. In this three-part article, he argues that there is more to these groups than violence. In certain parts of India like Gujarat, these groups and activists are embedded in the everyday life of the neighbourhood, where they often act as problem solvers and intermediaries.
In the middle of a long meandering walk in Ahmedabad on a cool February evening in 2010, we stopped before a mosque. “Just look at it now. You should have seen it when my boys and I burnt it down in 2002,” said Kunal. I looked up and saw a large pale green mosque covered in decorative lights. Eight years on, there were no signs of the destruction. But I stood in front of the mosque and tried to imagine the assault. It was hard to conjure the scene of a mob burning a mosque in the middle of a busy street packed with street vendors selling bangles, vegetables, and sweets.
Kunal, a Bajrang Dal activist and a long-time resident of Madhavpura, tells me that they had a surprise visitor during the attack.
“As we were breaking the lock of the mosque, the Police Inspector’s (PI) jeep came by and we all ran away. But he stopped his jeep near the mosque and shouted keep doing what you’re doing.”
The news and election cycles make men like Kunal flicker in and out of our lives, making it easy to dismiss them as part of the fringe. But what do these men do when the burning, looting, and stabbing is over? We conveniently look the other way when the riot is over, when the lynching is done, and when the elections are lost or won. For us, the fringe becomes visible only during moments of “exceptional” violence—lynchings, vigilante attacks, moral policing, and massacres. But the fringe is also a world view—Hindu supremacy—that resonates with the fears of common people, fuels the masculine fantasies of young men, becomes a tool to access the state, and a pragmatic mode to gain influence in the neighbourhood.
Kunal is short and stocky with a barrel chest, bulging biceps, small ears, and a floppy haircut. Most evenings, he sits outside his house on a cot with “his boys.” On Sunday mornings, they go together to a municipal gymnasium and attend cock fights. They are all members of the Bajrang Dal. Raj is a night shift security guard, Ajay sells religious photos outside courts, Sanjay sells fried snacks on a cart, and Jai, the most educated, is 22 years old and is student of accountancy.
To show me how he joined the Bajrang Dal, Kunal pulls out an old coverless photo album from underneath his mattress. It has colour photographs of many young men joining the Dal. We flip through pictures of men striking identical faux aggressive poses till we find a young Kunal. Irrespective of their built, they all strike the same pose—holding up shining trishuls in their hands, and a bright orange Bajrang Dal sash hanging loosely across their shoulders. In the background, there is a small temple and a map of Mother India on a tiger. Standing next to the men, a local Bajrang Dal leader smiles broadly at the camera like a principal distributing prizes to his best students.
Kunal strikes that same pose as soon as anyone approaches him; he stands very straight, stuffs both his hands in the pockets of his trousers, and thrusts his chest out. You can spot his house from the street because it is the only one with a red trident and Jai Shri Ram painted on it. And then you notice the dusty cot on which his parents sit all day, the broken windows of his dark, sunless one-room shack, and the ragged clothes of his neighbours. He says he is a Rajput from Rajasthan unlike his Dalit neighbours, whom he finds filthy.
“They are low caste, so when they call us for weddings, we don’t go. Forget about eating with them, we don’t even drink water in their house.”
Since 2010, I have been visiting Kunal and his boys in Ahmedabad to understand men who roam the streets to protect Hindu women from Muslim men, raid Muslim neighbourhoods to seize cows, vandalise cinema halls to protest movies like “My Name is Khan.” They are, of course, the foot soldiers, not the top command; the small fry who burn the mosque, not the big sahibs who make sure that the police do not disturb them. In 2002, my attempts to meet these Hindu activists in Gujarat were largely unsuccessful. When I walked across from a Muslim relief camp to the Hindu neighbourhood next to it, the streets were empty, and all I saw was a freshly painted wall with the message: “The Pride of 5 Crore Gujaratis, Narendra Modi.” Walking down the empty streets in the afternoon, I felt a hundred eyes on me as I desperately tried to find someone to talk to. Then a man beckoned me from his balcony with a wave.
“No one here will talk to you. Go back to Pakistan.”
So, when a friend introduced me to Kunal, I was surprised to meet an affable young man who tries to help his neighbours. Barely literate, with no stable job, Kunal is passionate about rescuing Hindu women from Muslim men and saving cows from Muslim butchers, but it is the idea of seva (service) that he finds attractive.
“They (Muslims) collect together and talk about their dharma. Why can’t we talk like that too? Why can’t we collect together and be strong? If any Hindu is hurt, I am very saddened, so I act. I try to help my neighbours people as much as possible. If I can’t help them then I talk to some people above me.”
One evening, a Hindu couple approaches him after their neighbours (also Hindus) file a police report against them. There is some dispute over a staircase and the neighbours have gone to the police. After listening to couple, Kunal accompanies them to the local police chowki, and helps them file a counter case against their neighbours. Kunal’s brother and I wait outside the small one-room chowki. Through the open door I see Kunal enter and shake hands with the policemen, seat the couple in front of a desk, and stand behind them. They are out in 10 minutes. He tells them, “we will pull them out of their [the neighbours] house if they make trouble.”
“The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal are different from the Sangh (RSS),” says former VHP leader Chandanbhai.
“The Sangh is not known to fight or send boys to begin a scuffle. They concentrate on laying the roots with physical exercises and patriotic songs.”
Swaying his grandson in his arms, Chandanbhai says that things have cooled down.
“It seems that the top leaders don’t want any activity from the Bajrang Dal and VHP. For several months now there have been no incidents, meetings and orders.”
Organisations like Bajrang Dal cycle through hot and cool phases. Elections are typically hot. And we often only hear about them when they pass through a hot phase.
But from the perspective of young men like Kunal, there is more to these Hindutva organisations than a cynical electoral strategy to polarise voters along religious lines and win elections. That is true and important, but it does not capture what these organisations do for them. In a life that promises no prospect of a stable job, or any kind of social and economic mobility, these organisations give many young men a chance to be part of something bigger and grander than their precarious everyday lives. It gives them influence with powerful state officials and institutions like the police. It gives them feelings of “manly” strength and power. It gives them something to rescue and something to destroy.
Ask Kunal what he does for a living and he tries to change the subject. “I buy and sell cloth. I buy cloth wholesale, give it to small vendors, and take a percent of the profits.” One day when he is away, his brother tells me something quite different. “He (Kunal) walks around neighbourhoods selling hosiery items. You know ladies’ stuff…” When Kunal asks for my cellphone number, he cannot type it himself because he is barely literate. With no formal education or skills, he has no prospect of securing a white-collar job or a traditional factory job, and belongs to the large and precarious informal sector in Ahmedabad. His father had moved to Gujarat from Rajasthan to work in Omex Mills, but the mills too closed down long ago. In Ahmedabad—where everyone has finer clothes, smarter phones, and better paying jobs—Kunal and his boys are proud of saving Hinduism from effete Hindus and treacherous Muslims.
“There is no Muslim in this neighbourhood who doesn’t know that we are from the VHP. We are kattar.”
Kattar (fanatic) here is not an insult, but a badge of distinction.
They build this reputation by intimidating anyone who comes in the way of their projects. When a Hindu neighbour protests against the building of a temple next to his house and threatens to call the police, Kunal collects his boys and gives him a thrashing. When the municipal corporation tries to remove an illegal temple to widen the street, they protest against it. The police arrive and take them to the station and let them go with a tip:
“Rebuild the temple, but do it at night.”
They build a bigger and grander temple on the widened road.
When a Muslim family buys a house adjoining his neighbourhood, Kunal feels it is “too dangerous.” He asks his neighbours to throw trash into the balcony to impede the new owner’s efforts to renovate it.
“Some of the neighbourhood women even burned some of their clothes hanging out to dry. When they (Muslims) tried to oppose us, I called the police and told them to come here quickly before a riot begins.”
For Kunal and his boys, the police are a malleable force that can be molded to fit their agenda of Hindu supremacy. This happens through persuasion and appeals to policemen to help protect shared Hindu interests or through connections with politicians. When a Hindu man protested against the building of an illegal temple next to his house, it was a Muslim policeman, according to Kunal, who asked the man, “What kind of Hindu are you?” What happens when the police don’t intervene in their favour? “We phone our leaders at Mahalaxmi (the Bajrang Dal office in Ahmedabad) and make them speak to the police.” Under “ideal” conditions, as in 2002, the state falls in line. But their work goes on.
Looking at 22-year-old Jai, quiet and bespectacled, it is hard to imagine him stealing into a slaughterhouse in the middle of the night with two friends and a camera. Later, they send the footage to the local Member of the Legislative Assembly and the police commissioner. Standing back, his mouth swollen with red betel juice, Jai smiles when the boys show me signs of his other life: a thick, long brown lathi (stick) is tucked away discreetly on the side of his motorbike. He is a member of a civil defence committee.
“Two weeks ago, we saved a dozen calves from the Muslim neighbourhood opposite us. For us, the cow is like a mother, but for them she’s a meal. Have you seen a printing press? They have a blade that slices paper into two halves. They have automatic machines where the blade comes down and simply chops the head off. Then the carcass is cleaned up. If you see it, it will give you goosebumps.”
Before Bakrid, the boys make a gang and forcibly enter Muslim neighbourhoods to save calves. But they are not alone.
“During the raid, we kept calling the police control number.”
“But such rescue missions must be dangerous?”
“Of course, but we have police protection. The police support us because they know we are from the Dal and do this work.”
But the police also use Kunal. One evening, as Kunal and I sit on the cot outside his house admiring his new Samsung phone, I see two men arrive on a motorbike across the street and gesture towards us. Kunal hands me his phone and walks across to meet them. When the men leave, Kunal apologises.
“Plain clothes policemen. They help us a lot, so I make sure I chat with them.”
Kunal’s Muslim neighbours have bigger and better houses.
“We have thatched roofs and they have towers [multi-storied apartments]. When there is violence, they throw rocks and petrol bombs, but our stones don’t reach them.”
I peer into the buildings in the distance and my eyes settle on a distant tube light-lit room. I can see the outline of a person. I hear a thin voice next to me say “We are surrounded by Muslims.” It’s an old woman bent double on a walking stick looking up at me. She leaves without saying anything else. We continue our evening walk weaving in and out of tiny one-room houses. Kunal greets everyone with a loud “Jai Shri Ram!” People call us inside their homes to have a meal. A gang of small boys follow us around chanting his name. We stop at his aunt’s house and she wants to talk about the government houses that have been promised to slum dwellers who are displaced by the Sabarmati Riverfront. She waves an affidavit at him as we leave. “I will talk to Barot about it,” says Kunal.
Kunal, Jai, and I are “tripling” (three riders on a motorbike) down Ellis Bridge in Ahmedabad. Jai is weaving in and out of traffic at full speed. Kunal sits behind me nudging Jai to drive faster and catch up with a motorbike ahead of us. “Just look at her straddling the bike,” he points with his chin at a burqa-clad woman riding pillion on the bike. We catch up with them at a red light. Kunal stares at the woman and the shiny blue sports bike. When they roar past us, he nudges Jai to follow them. At some point, they get tired of following the woman and turn back to go home.
One day I notice Kunal is wearing a tight black t-shirt with Lajja Bachao (Protect Honour) in blue letters at the back and Nagrik Raksha Sangathan (Citizen’s Protection Committee) on the front. He says it is “an old organisation that works to protect women and their honour.” The t-shirt reminds him of a funny story.
“Recently I saw a boy and a girl traveling in an autorickshaw and the boy had his arm wrapped around the girl. I had my tika on the forehead and I stopped them.
What’s your name?
Who are you?
I am from the VHP. What’s your name?
Okay. And what’s your name?
Farooq, what are you doing with her?
She’s my friend.
Okay. Is this how you sit with your friend? With your arm around her? Is this the way you sit with your sister?
And then I thrashed him nicely. A crowd gathered and all the girls fled on their scooties.”
Kunal’s world is a peculiar mix of fear and fantasy. Kunal tells his boys to trap Muslim women. “Make them love you and then make them Hindu.” I ask him how that will happen and that his plan is like a scene from a bad Hindi movie.
“If while walking you spot a Muslim girl, you should give her the look so that she falls in love and then you make her Hindu. Understand?”
It would be a mistake to treat Kunal and his boys as an exceptional aspect of Hindu nationalism or even Indian politics. These men are part of a growing network of Hindu right-wing organisations that are trying to lay the groundwork to make Hindu supremacy mainstream. But violence alone is not enough to spread the word, recruit new supporters, enter new neighbourhoods, and win sympathisers. Their work often involves the most ordinary things, like helping a neighbour.
In February 2016, I was sitting and chatting with Kunal on the cot outside his house when a man wandered in looking for him. Kunal did not know the man. The man needed help. His house shared a wall with a neighbourhood mosque. The mosque authorities raised the height of the wall without the man’s consent and in the process, even cut a part of his tin roof. “I have a mud wall. What if it collapses when I am inside?”
Kunal was quick to point out that this was a situation where he must intervene because “a poor Hindu is being harassed by Muslims.” The man quietly nodded in agreement. “I will talk to them and if they don’t understand, we will file a complaint with the police.” The man turned around and walked back to his house, next to the same mosque that was burned down in 2002.
This story first appeared in Economic And Political Weekly Vol 53, Issue No 4, on January 27, 2018 here.