New Delhi: Last week, Munawar Faruqui’s show in Bengaluru was cancelled with police citing law and order as the reason, prompting the stand-up comic to hint that he is exiting the profession. Faruqui has been in the eye of the storm since he was arrested earlier this year in Indore for alleged derogatory jokes about Hindu deities and Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
One of the groups that had a hand in the show’s cancellation is the Bajrang Dal. “We have complained to the administration about his shows. He is continually making fun of Hindu rituals and India. It can’t be tolerated. We’ve said that if he holds shows, we can disturb them,” said Bajrang Dal Karnataka convener Sunil K.R.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Bajrang Dal has taken up a litany of causes in the past few years, from protesting against alleged proselytisation in Karnataka to attacking the sets of Prakash Jha’s web series Aashram. Its members have also reportedly been on the lookout for inter-faith couples in Uttar Pradesh to report alleged instances of what it describes as “love jihad”, or conversion on the premise of marriage.
But what is it that makes this group tick — and who are its leaders?
National convener Sohan Singh Solanki said their “primary task is to protect our Hindu religion and culture”. “We will teach a cultural lesson to all those who try to harm or humiliate it. We will force them to recite Hanuman Chalisa,” he added.
Founded on 1 October 1984 to guard a shobha yatra launched by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) as part of the Ram temple movement, the Bajrang Dal has evolved far beyond its initial role as a security force, and is often called the VHP’s youth wing.
Today, it claims to have more than 40 lakh members around the country, organised into 52,000 units. Its influence is believed to be greatest in Madhya Pradesh, where it has around 15,000 units, followed by Rajasthan and Gujarat with 5,000-7,000 units.
It’s a big organisation with a hierarchy to match.
Sohan Singh Solanki, national convener
Solanki is the organisation’s eighth national convener. A resident of Dhar, a tribal-dominated region in Madhya Pradesh, he spent 30 years as a full-time pracharak for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) before joining the Bajrang Dal. He was the latter’s co-convener for a year and a half before being appointed national convener in 2018.
This was a time when the Bajrang Dal went on the offensive across the country, in the name of causes ranging from opposing ‘love jihad’, cow slaughter and proselytisation to protesting against the portrayal of Hindu deities on TV and OTT platforms. And against comedians who “maligned” India’s image.
Solanki led it from the front. After the Ram temple movement, he spearheaded a similar agitation back in Dhar alongside the VHP’s Naval Kishore to take control of Bhojshala, an archaeological site and place of worship claimed by both Hindus and Muslims.
Speaking about Faruqui, Solanki said the comedian “is not an individual but an idea: how to denigrate Hinduism”. “It can’t be tolerated,” he added.
Suryanarayana, national co-convener
Suryanarayana has been associated with the VHP for the past 20 years, ever since he finished his education, and is currently the Bajrang Dal’s national co-convener.
A native of south Karnataka, he was made convener of the state’s Bajrang Dal unit in 2008 when predecessor Mahendra Kumar was removed from his post and arrested due to a controversy involving the Christian community.
Bajrang Dal members had allegedly attacked Christian missionaries, schools and more than 20 churches in Mangaluru and Udupi, leading to massive protests by Christians.
Suryanarayana held the state convener post for 10 years. In 2018, he issued a warning against New Year’s parties, threatened to forcibly shut down all hookah bars, and said partying midnight increased the risk of sexual exploitation for women.
“Our dal was established to to protect Hindus and culture. There is a continuous campaign of conversion and ‘love jihad’ going on. When we get the news, we act, but we also do a lot of seva (service) in tribal areas,” Suryanarayana told ThePrint.
Bharat Batra, Delhi provincial convener
Bharat Batra has been associated with the VHP for the past 10 years, and was a vibhag pramukh in that organisation.
In January last year, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal launched a major agitation against the removal of a Hanuman temple — carried out on court orders — as part of a beautification drive at Chandni Chowk in Delhi. Batra was jailed as a result of this protest.
Batra, who works in real estate, says the Bajrang Dal was formed on the premise of “protecting the Hindu dharma”. Be it the killing of Bajrang Dal activist Rinku Sharma in Mangolpuri, Delhi, this February, or the murder of Nikita Tomar in Ballabhgarh, Haryana in October last year, Batra, being the provincial convener of the Bajrang Dal, has led protests everywhere.
“Nikita was murdered because she did not want to become a Muslim and the accused was forcing her to convert to Islam. We can’t afford to compromise on the issue of ‘love jihad’,” said Batra.
He added, “Nowadays, photos of Hindu Gods and Goddesses are printed on tiles in some shops and people walk on them. We have warned these shopkeepers to remove these tiles or else be ready to face the consequences.”
Sushil Sudele, Madhya Pradesh provincial convener
In October 2021, film-maker Prakash Jha was shooting his web series Aashram in Bhopal when Bajrang Dal members ransacked his set, and spilt some ink on Jha. They accused Jha of intentionally choosing the name Aashram to defame the Hindu religion. The protest was led by Sushil Sudele, the group’s Madhya Pradesh convener.
The state police registered the names of seven people, including Sudele, in the FIR filed in the matter. However, Sudele was granted bail within 24 hours.
In 2014, a Bhopal court had sentenced him to 14 years of imprisonment in a case of conspiracy related to a murder that took place in 2011. However, Sudele was granted bail in this case in 2015.
Sudele is also a relative of former Bhopal Mayor and BJP Madhya Pradesh vice-president Alok Sharma.
Sunil K.R., Karnataka provincial convener
In April this year, four Bajrang Dal activists barged into a bus in Mangaluru and allegedly attacked a Muslim youth who was traveling to Bengaluru with a female friend. Sunil K.R., convener of the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka, was quoted as saying at the time that this was a ‘love jihad’ issue and that they had carried out the attack to prevent it.
On 28 November, some Bajrang Dal activists forcibly entered a Christian prayer meeting at Belur in Hassan district, making allegations of proselytisation, and allegedly chased away the people who were praying. Before that, a video of Bajrang Dal activists creating a ruckus and singing hymns in a makeshift church in Hubli had gone viral.
Sunil, also a former VHP man, was in charge during all these incidents. He also said he was involved in pressuring police into forcing the cancellation of Munawar Faruqui’s show.
“What kind of humor is created by insulting Hindu deities and India? We will not allow this. Our outfit has been formed to spread good culture in society,” he said. He added that there are more than 38,000 Bajrang Dal activists in Karnataka.
Jwalit Mehta, North Gujarat convener
In August, Mehta set fire to a copy of the Kamasutra displayed in Latitude, a bookshop in Ahmedabad. He then posted a video in which he is seen threatening the shopkeeper. Mehta tells the shopkeeper that if he continues to sell this book, the shop itself will be burned.
Mehta has been in the Bajrang Dal for 20 years, and is currently convenor of its North Gujarat unit. In September, his team had put up posters in Muslim-dominated areas in the state, saying no Muslim should try to enter any Garba function (a dance performed during Navaratri in honour of the Goddess).
The same month, the Gujarat Bajrang Dal issued a threat to Munawar Faruqui, reportedly saying he might be attacked if he dared to host his show anywhere in the state. The planned programme was subsequently cancelled.
Mehta defends the group’s activities. “Why would Muslims enter Garba functions, why would they purchase land in a Hindu area? They should buy land in their own areas. They do it to marry Hindu girls and grab land. We constantly keep track of such activities.”
The national-level structure, headed by the convener and co-convener, has a number of provinces under it, with big provinces having three to five conveners.
Activities such as physical exercise and group drills for self-protection are regularly carried out at the Bal Upasana Kendras. The group also holds a weekly sanskar diwas (cultural day) in temples, which includes a collective rendition of Hanuman Chalisa that’s ostensibly intended to keep the cadre organised and energetic. They celebrate Hanuman’s birthday as Bal Upasana Divas.
Within the organisation, the responsibilities at each centre are divided among six or seven prominent people. These include officers such as the chalisa pramukh, who is responsible for the collective rendition of the Hanuman Chalisa. The akhara pramukh is in charge of physical training.
The suraksha pramukh’s responsibility is to inform the state and central units before conducting any raids. The prashikshan pramukh focuses on the year-round training of the cadre.
This story first appeared on theprint.in