July 05, 2020
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Cowboy Of The Faith

Nothing stirs on Bajrangi's ranch if he says no: not Parzania, not love

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Cowboy Of The Faith
Cowboy Of The Faith
In case you thought Narendra Modi is the only strongman in Gujarat, he isn't. If Parzania, a moving real-life account of the 2002 riots on celluloid, is not being screened in the state, it's because of another tough guy—who goes by the name of Babu Bajrangi. Maybe strongman would be too impressive an expression to use for a character like Bajrangi. The man is nothing more than a streetfighter with ideological pretensions—one who bullies, coerces and terrifies citizens into doing his bidding. He holds court in Ahmedabad, drops Modi's name at every opportunity and claims he is a Hanuman bhakt and the true defender of the Hindu faith.

Short, stocky and balding, 42-year-old Bajrangi's real name is Babubhai Rajabhai Patel. To a stranger, he may pass off as the neighbourhood trader, broker or LIC agent. But Bajrangi's first stab at fame was anything but small-scale: the Naroda-Patiya massacre, which he steered, left 89 people dead in the Ahmedabad suburb in the 2002 riots. Ever since, the man has emerged in a new "reformist" avatar. Belonging to the Kadva subsect of the Patel community, Bajrangi now claims to be a social worker—the polar opposite of the urbane, English-speaking activists whom he labels "anti-Hindu, Muslim sympathisers". He even runs an NGO, Navchetan Sangathan, and professes faith in RSS icons like K.B. Hedgewar and Guru Golwalkar. He is also a votary of akhand Bharat.

And his views—eerily enough, stick like a general's fiat—Rahul Dholakia, the director of Parzania, learned it the hard way. When the Gujarati filmmaker ran from pillar to post to get his film released in the state, he was bluntly told—by everyone including Gujarat Multiplex Owners Association president Manubhai Patel—that this primarily needed Bajrangi's consent.

Dholakia declined. He was prepared to screen his movie for Ahmedabad police chief J.J. Mahapatra. But Mahapatra told him he did not need to see the film to provide police protection wherever it would be screened. Meanwhile, Patel and his association of multiplex owners decided not to screen Parzania—without even seeing it. For Bajrangi, the cowardice of the theatre-owners, was just another sign of his Hindu prowess. "How can Parzania be ever shown (in Gujarat) without our approval?" he asked, when contacted by Outlook. "Things are settling down in Gujarat, all the communities are living peacefully. I won't allow anyone to rake up trouble."

At the time of going to press, not a single theatre owner in Gujarat was willing to risk screening the film. But with polls due later in the year, the Congress appears to have finally mustered the nerve to make Parzania an issue. The party says it will make arrangements to screen the film in select theatres in the state. Notes Bharat Solanki, state Congress chief: "It is for the people of Gujarat to decide whether they will see a film or not—and not for extra-constitutional authorities."

But Bajrangi is not the kind to backtrack. In fact, he says he loves confrontation when it comes to issues close to his heart. Social worker N.K. Acharya has filed a criminal case against him for blocking the release of Parzania. Acharya says Bajrangi is running a parallel government and the police does little to control him. The court has ordered the police to submit a report on this charge within a fortnight. Dholakia believes there's a larger conspiracy to prevent the screening of his film.

At the core of Bajrangi's ideology is an intense loathing of Muslims. Besides being accused of being a "mass murderer", he's also something of a moral policeman who specialises in "rescuing" Hindu girls from Muslim—and lately even Christian—boys. He just kidnaps women who marry outside their community to "save" them. He sounds almost shrill as he talks of his mission: "There is a ticking bomb in every home. It can explode any time. The live bombs are our girls—our most valuable possession—whom we neglect while we go chasing worldly riches. Girls spawn our next generation. Saving her from marauding Muslims is our prime religious duty. Saving one girl from going astray is equivalent to saving 100 cows."

Bajrangi claims his NGO has so far "saved" 918 girls. "Seventy per cent of them were rescued from the clutches of Muslims and Christians who had enticed them, spoilt them, even married them. We brought them back, kept them with us, made them understand things and rehabilitated them. You may not like me but even you come to me when your girls walk out on you," he says. And asks, "You want names?"

Dholakia seeks media help in Ahmedabad for Parzania’s release

But the man does not stop at Muslims or Christians. He has been known to forcibly bring back Kadva Patel girls who marry outside their subcaste and return them to the fold. There are allegations that his "kidnap" service comes at a high price. Three people have levelled charges and filed complaints with the police against Bajrangi for abducting their wives. The modus operandi is simple: the girl is kidnapped and sent back home while the boy is thrashed and forced to sign divorce papers.

Moral policing is as much a part of Bajrangi's bouquet of skills. Bajrangi's reign of terror often extends to colleges and universities. He was arrested on December 12 last year for beating up students of two colleges in Ahmedabad. He justifies his moral policing as a necessary act: "We send our children to school and colleges to study. Would any Indian parent be happy knowing that their daughter is strolling around involved in amorous play in the campus, gardens and restaurants? We have to prevent this decay, we'll do it, unmindful of the cost."

Bajrangi's theatrics do not always endear him to the saffron brotherhood. Sources in the VHP say there are suspicions that he's trying to build his own image at the cost of Hindu organisations. Top VHP functionary Praveen Togadia is believed to keep a hawk's eye on Bajrangi, who has been known to accuse the Parishad of not being militant enough. Modi may have no direct relationship with Bajrangi but that the CM allows the man to function freely speaks for itself. Modi himself may not be militant enough for Bajrangi, but the the BJP leader's aggressive style of functioning and the ruthless crushing of adversaries is believed to have impressed and influenced him in a big way.

Meanwhile, Bajrangi's ambition appears to be to set up what sounds like a Hindu terrorist organisation. "Our activists will do or die," he says, adding, "We will give a fitting reply to all enemies of the faith". A firebrand statement, even by hardcore Hindutva standards.

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