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Bajrang Dal and Making of the Deeper State

Friday 9 June 2023, by Christophe Jaffrelot

During the Karnataka election campaign, the Congress committed itself to banning organisations such as the Bajrang Dal if they indulged in illegal activities. This promise is very important given the growing role of Hindu vigilantes, who are often part of the Sangh Parivar.

Vigilantism is inherent in the mission that the RSS assigned to itself from its inception. K B Hedgewar’s aim was, indeed, to defend the Hindus by endowing them with physical strength in order to resist other groups seen as posing a threat to them, starting with the Muslims. But the RSS only very rarely resorted to the use of force itself, preferring to rely on persuasion and outsourcing coercion through violence to some of its affiliates, including the Bajrang Dal.

The Bajrang Dal was created in 1984 as the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s youth wing in the context of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. As early as the 1990s, it set up training camps at which its activists were put through gruelling physical exercises. Although guns made their first appearance in the Bajrang Dal in the 1980s, the outfit places greater importance on bladed and other melee weapons. Its preferred instrument is the trishul (trident), a weapon associated with Shiva.

What did Bajrang Dal use this strike force against? It targeted artists first. In 1996, Bajrang Dal activists attacked M F Husain’s gallery in Ahmedabad and in 1998 they ransacked his apartment in Bombay in protest against his painting, “Sita Rescued”, which depicted the famous scene in the Ramayana where Sita is freed from Ravana’s clutches — allegedly because she was too scantily clad. Husain left the country a few years later and died far from his homeland. In 2000, Deepa Mehta was also a victim of this cultural policing when she made a film on the life of Hindu widows in Varanasi in the 1930s, when these women were condemned to enforced celibacy and begging. The VHP president immediately declared that the film insulted “ancient Indian culture and traditions”. The set built on the banks of the Ganges was ransacked by the Bajrang Dal and Mehta had to move away from UP.

However, minorities have been the main casualties of vigilante groups, which started to work with the police in BJP-ruled states, including Gujarat in the 2000s and many others subsequently. This is well illustrated by the division of labour between vigilantes and the police in the context of the cow protection movement, especially in states where the BJP has passed “beef ban” laws. There, vigilantes patrol the highways and check trucks likely to carry bovines. When the driver happens to be a Muslim, they hand him over to the police — there are also instances of lynching.

The collaboration between the vigilante groups and the police finds expression in a very material way: The former often use the van or the pick-ups of the latter. More importantly, they work in tandem with specific segments of the police like the Haryana “Cow Protection Task Force”, that was established by the Khattar government in 2021, along with the Gau Seva Aayog, which is in charge of cow protection and dominated by RSS leaders.

In other words, Hindu nationalists stand at the interface of a continuum: At one end, officials, including from the government and police, represent the legal order, whereas at the other end, Hindu vigilantes implement their plans at the grass roots level. Their activities may be illegal, but they are seen as legitimate as they appear as the footsoldiers of Hinduism, and benefit from highly placed protection and patronage. Those at the top endow the movement with a façade of respectability, while those in charge of the dirty work epitomise what I call the “deeper” state.

The deep state is made of members of the security apparatus who are not accountable to society. The “deeper” state is made of the activists who crisscross society at the very local level and perform cultural policing of society. Proud of defending their religion, they get a new self-esteem — and some money — in the process. They report to little known leaders who may not be elected, but whose influence embraces politicians with a mandate as well as them.

In BJP-ruled states, RSS leaders control the government as well as the network of local activists, including Hindu vigilantes, making “their” state so deep that it penetrates society, not only via shakhas but also more intrusive branches of the Bajrang Dal, the Durga Vahini or the Gau Raksha Dal.

In today’s India, minorities are the main targets of these vigilante groups, but there are others. The Bajrang Dal, for instance, tries to control the matrimonial market too, not only to avoid inter religious marriages in the name of anti “love jihad” activism, but also inter-caste marriages (one of the priorities of Babu Bajrangi in Gujarat in the 2000s). Parents who are anxious to dissuade their daughters and sons from contracting such marriages turn to the Bajrang Dal or other groups for fixing such issues.

In the end, Hindu vigilantes add one societal layer to the usual power structure, with the blessings of the state: They enforce a Hindu view of society that is not legal, but that the police (and sometimes the judiciary) endorse because of its alignment with the orthodox — and therefore dominant — view of society. Will this making of a deeper state continue after the BJP loses power in Karnataka and elsewhere? Will political change translate into change at the grass roots — or has the Sangh Parivar taken over society? These questions arise from the very debates within the Karnataka Congress, whose government may not, in the end, fulfil this promise in its election manifesto.