Thirty-six years after it was formed to protect a rath yatra in the early days of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple movement, the Bajrang Dal is making international headlines again.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported last week that the Hindu nationalist group’s alleged support to violence against minorities pushed an internal assessment team of social media giant Facebook to call for a ban on the group. But the US-based company looked the other way over financial and safety considerations.
In an immediate response, Bajrang Dal’s parent body Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) threatened to take legal action against the American daily.
Moreover, Facebook India chief Ajit Mohan deposed before a parliamentary panel refuting WSJ’s claims. He said the company’s fact-checking team found no evidence that necessitated a ban on the Bajrang Dal.
But this was not the only reason the Bajrang Dal made news last week.
Once known primarily for hassling couples on Valentine’s Day and disrupting movie screenings over ‘hurt religious sentiments’, the group has now set its eyes on so-called ‘love jihad’ cases under Uttar Pradesh’s new illegal conversion law.
In Moradabad, Bajrang Dal members handed over a man identified as Rashid to the police. Rashid had married a Pinky, 22-year-old woman from Bijnor, about five months ago in Dehradun, the capital of neighbouring Uttarakhand. Pinky said the police were convinced they married out of choice, but filed an FIR under pressure from the Bajrang Dal. The police, which arrested Rashid and his brother under the new law, however, dismissed Pinky’s allegation.
Other cases of the Bajrang Dal’s ‘intervention’ under the new law in UP appeared as well. This is why it is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
‘Used when Sangh Parivar doesn’t take a position’
The Bajrang Dal was formed in 1984 to provide security during the Ram-Janaki rath yatra from Ayodhya to Lucknow, and has grown steadily over the last four decades.
Senior journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of the book, The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right, said Bajrang Dal started as a “militant” wing of the VHP — an aggressive force for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
“As an organisation it was more militant and used quasi-violent means. (The group’s first convener) Vinay Katiyar was the key person then. They were presented as the Hanuman force of the Ram army. The imagery of (Lord) Hanuman was used and the organisation was portrayed as the political Hanuman in the Ram temple movement,” said Mukhopadhyay.
“Strong” and “sturdy” men were roped in for the rath yatra. The VHP urged young men to be part of it and provide security cover to the sadhus. An initiation ceremony, called Diksha Samaroh, was also organised to recruit members.
“When the VHP decided to start the Ram-Janaki Yatra, certain anti-Hindu and anti-social elements threatened the VHP and asked us not to organise the yatra. The Uttar Pradesh government refused to provide a security cover to the rath and the participants. It is then that a call was made to the youth to protect the rath. It was like a relay — in every district, new teams of youth used to take over,” said Bajrang Dal national convener Sohan Singh Solanki.
“Right from its involvement in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the shila poojan, Ram Jyoti Yatra and then the Kar Seva of 1992, Bajrang Dal was at the forefront of all activities,” he added.
According to Mukhopadhyay, after the Babri Masjid demolition on 6 December 1992, the “entire purpose of the agitation was complete as it became quite clear that Indian politics would not reach a consensus on rebuilding the mosque despite P.V. Narasimha Rao promising to do so”.
The Bajrang Dal then remained in a limbo for a while as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) too realised that it had to take on a more centrist approach as L.K. Advani paved the way for Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The VHP and Bajrang Dal returned to prominence after 1997 as they took up the cause of alleged forced conversions — a form of which is now in motion in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
“The Bajrang Dal was often used whenever the Sangh Parivar did not wish to formally take a position on an issue and join a controversial activity,” said Mukhopadhyay.
In 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his sons were burned alive by a mob in a village in Orissa (now Odisha). Staines, who was working there with leprosy patients, was accused by Right-leaning groups of indulging in forcible conversion of Hindus. The Christian community had then accused the Bajrang Dal of Staines’ murder.
The group has maintained that it was not involved, citing the Wadhwa commission report that didn’t find any link between the man convicted of the murders, Dara Singh, and the Bajrang Dal.
What it does now
According to the VHP website, Bajrang Dal undertakes “agitational activities” to generate public opinion and expansion of the organisation.
These agitations can be for issues such as renovation of religious places, cow protection, eradication of social evils like dowry and untouchability, and to protest insults hurled at Hindu traditions and beliefs.
As part of its organisational activities, Bajrang Dal also holds weekly meets, initiation ceremonies, training camps and exercises regularly.
It celebrates various events including Akhand Bharat Sankalp Diwas on 14 August, coinciding with Pakistan’s Independence Day, Balopasana Diwas (Hanuman Jayanti), and Shourya Diwas on 6 December, the date of the Babri demolition.
The group also protests against “vulgarity and obscenity displayed on the television advertisements and through beauty contests and opposition to illegal infiltration”.
Senior VHP members say the Bajrang Dal actively participates in “welfare” work.
“Whether it is carrying out welfare measures for the Hindu samaj, doing our bit during natural calamities like earthquakes, providing all kinds of help during Kanwar Yatra… We provided all the help we could during the lockdown too. We run skill training centres across the country,” said VHP joint general secretary Surendra Jain, who was earlier the national convenor of Bajrang Dal.
Bajrang Dal accepts male youth in the age group of 14-35 as its members.
Solanki said the group’s membership increased from 32 lakh in 2012 to 40 lakh in 2016 and around 55 lakh in 2020. “We carry out registration and membership drives every four years. This year, due to Covid-19, it has not been done officially, but (the membership) is estimated to be around 55 lakh,” he added.
Bajrang Dal’s methods and its criticism
Asked about the criticism that Bajrang Dal faces over its methods, Jain said the VHP is not worried.
“We know what we are doing. In 1996, when the Amarnath Yatra was on the verge of being stopped due to threats being made by Kashmiri Islamic Jihad terrorists, no one was willing to come forward to take on the terrorists. The monks then asked Bajrang Dal to take on the challenge. A total of 51,000 youth of the Bajrang Dal came forward, another 50,000 people joined in and the yatra crossed over a lakh,” he said.
“Bajrang Dal has always been against those who carry out anti-Hindu activities,” said Balraj Dungar, who was the group’s convener in western Uttar Pradesh earlier.
“As far as ‘love jihad’ is concerned, Bajrang Dal has always played a pivotal role,” said Dungar. “Bajrang Dal never stops a legal wedding. But there are many who hide their real identity and try to dupe innocent Hindu girls… So our job is to protect the Hindu girls.”
Jain also denied charges of violence in the Staines case. “These are criticisms for the sake of criticism. The commission had clearly said that there was no link between Bajrang Dal and Dara Singh.”
He added that everyone from the intelligentsia to the common public is with the Bajrang Dal. “There are certain vested interests just like Wall Street Journal, but we are not paper tigers. We are strengthening day by day,” he said.
However, Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said, “The way Bajrang Dal has been let loose… we can’t have Bajrang Dal deciding on what rule of law should prevail. The idea is simply to polarise and I think soon the court will have to take some action and intervene as this is in sharp contrast to our Constitution as well as the law.”
Mukhopadhyay said organisations like Bajrang Dal look to create fear of the imaginary ‘other’ and thrive on that.
“The aim of organisations like Bajrang Dal is to claim there is an Islamic conspiracy in every sector to prevent the growth of India and the need to stop those people,” he said.
“Bajrang Dal and outfits like them thrive on controversies like the one involving Facebook, as then they can go to their core constituency and allege that the secular, Left, liberal lobby, Pakistan and now even China, are indulging in activities that are anti-India,” he added.
Views are personal.