Dhirendra K Jha spent a substantial part of 2015 and 2016 studying eight Hindu rightwing organisations across India for their connections with the BJP, and wrote about it in his new book Shadow Armies: Fringe Organisations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva. This is his account of why and how he selected the organisations, what he learnt about them, and the surprising theme that repeated itself across the country.
Every time an obscure organisation leads a mob to ban a book, murder a dairy farmer or stop a movie from being made because they hurt Hindu sentiments, they are dismissed by the RSS and the BJP as fringe organisations. The crimes are usually not punished. Even if criminal charges are filed and cases reach the court, they are eventually thwarted. Although there is no equivalent of a paper trail linking the organizations, they all seemed to be on the same page: they believe and work towards a Hindu India.
It made me curious. Could these organisations be legitimately called the shadow armies of the RSS and the BJP? Even if a number of them were not direct offshoots of the RSS, were all of them motivated by a single strategy? How did they arise? What were their histories? I decided to select four that were not part of the Sangh family and four that were born of the Sangh and explore their stories.
The beginnings of this project lie in the Karnataka government’s announcement in July 2015 of the link that existed in the murders of the rationalists MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar. The country was in a ferment. Writers and artists were returning their state awards in droves, protesting the inaction of the government. Who had triggered this churning? Sanatan Sanstha, the organisation accused of having commissioned these killings, seemed the obvious first chapter in my journey.
The repeated electoral success experienced by of the Mahant of the Goraknath Temple made his organisation, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a body of interest. Right from its inception, the HYV ran toxic campaigns projecting Muslims as enemies of Hindus, creating fear by stressing on love jihad, beef-eating, the deliberate Muslim disrespect of Hindu rituals and nation symbols etc. The HYV was not founded or managed by the RSS, but it gave me a clear view of the kind of connections that organisations like the HYV had with the RSS and the BJP. Yogi Adityanath, the moving spirit behind the HYV, was a BJP MP multiple times and is now the chief minister of the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. The highest members of these organisations tended to have a foot firmly planted in the RSS or the BJP.
While the Bajrang Dal had a clear line of descent from the RSS via the VHP and had been integral to the Ramjanmabhoomi campaign and the demolition of Babri Masjid, the Sri Ram Sene, a group that splintered from the Bajrang Dal, had a more chequered history. A group of mid-level activists of the Bajrang Dal split from it to form the Sri Ram Sene because they found that only Brahmins and Brahminical upper castes could hold top positions. The Sangh saw the backward castes merely as useful foot soldiers.
Given Kerala’s historically progressive politics and its left governments, I wanted to investigate the RSS’s attempt and strategies to get a foothold in the state through the Hindu Aikya Vedi. A similar interest led me to study the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat and Hindutva presence in Punjab. The exposure of a Hindu terror network by the Maharastra Anti-Terrorism and the involvement of Lt Col Shrikant Purohit brought to light the mysterious organisation revived by him, Abhinav Bharat, and the Bhonsala Military School that he was associated with.
I had expected these organisations to be recruiting and training centres for their fellow pan-Indian Hindutva organisations (such as the BJP) that officially practise politics. But when I travelled and talked to people I began to see that these were not only feeders for the RSS and the BJP and their larger agendas. These organisations were also shaped by the needs and anxieties of the people of their regions.
I met fascinating characters some of whom were intelligent, some dumb, and a few even criminals looking for political cover, but they were all full of vitality and vigour and quite aware of what they were doing. Take, for instance, Sharan Pampwell. The Bajrang Dal leader in Karnataka organised agitations against and issued threats to Muslim shopkeepers, businessmen and mall owners. He also ran a firm that provided security. If the minority shopkeepers and businessmen accepted his security guards — who were the agitators in the first place — they could buy peace. It was a business model. ‘We strictly follow the rules of business,’ he told me.
The one generalisation I feel confident to make, the one theme that repeats itself across organisations and regions is that the leaders and top functionaries of these bodies are Brahmins or upper castes while the foot soldiers are, as a rule, young men of lower castes. The lack of jobs and the prospect of a share in power and prosperity seduces them to abandon their own legacies of resistance and struggles against the Brahmanical Hinduism that had kept them oppressed for centuries.
The irony is that the young men from backward or lower castes who constitute a significant portion of the foot soldiers of these shadow armies are rarely able to recognise that Hindutva, to which they have dedicated their energies, is nothing but Brahminism. Blinded by their surging Hindu religiosity and hatred for the ‘other’, they simply cannot see how the Hindutva they are working for ultimately seeks to revive the historical domination of the Brahmins and other upper castes.
Occasionally, the truth becomes visible. For instance, when caste hierarchies affect the distribution of power even at the local level. Sometimes this leads to the revolt of backward caste leaders and cadres (as in the case of the Sri Ram Sene), but the rebels hardly ever look for an ideological alternative.
The triumph of Hindutva, following the BJP’s striking victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and in many of the state polls thereafter, has resulted in brahminism trying to recolonize the spaces it had been forced to vacate due to social reform movements and anti-brahminical struggles. My profiles of these organisations ended up illustrating how the shadow world of Hindutva, with its reliance on violence, hate speech and even terror, has contributed to these electoral triumphs as well as to the brahminical agenda underpinning the overall Hindu nationalist project.
Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva by Dhirendra K Jha is available in bookstores and on Juggernaut