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Bajrang Dal’s Origin As An Anti-Sikh Group
"It is not often that one sees evidence of well known Hindu Nationalist organizations being launched primarily to overtly and violently attack Sikhs..."
November 9, 2023 | 7.5 min. read | Analysis
When reading a US State Department report on India from April 2002, a curious sentence stuck out under the heading of Bajrang Dal.
“The youth wing of the BJP. Banned between December 1992 and June 1993, Bajrang Dal was originally formed in the 1980s to counter ‘Sikh terrorism,’ but has since then shifted to militant activism against the Muslim and Christian minorities.”
The same sentence is found in a UK Home Office report from 2006, although they state that the Bajrang Dal is the youth wing of the VHP, another organization under the Hindu Nationalist Sangh Parivar, which includes the RSS and their political body, the BJP.
Australia also uses the UK information in their refugee hearings.
It is not often that one sees evidence of well-known Hindu Nationalist organizations being launched primarily to overtly and violently attack Sikhs, which is why the origin of Bajrang Dal came as a surprise to me. It is a dark, somewhat hidden history of what has become a very powerful Hindu militant group.
The foundation date of the organization lends itself to cloaking its start, but a deeper dive, including into the advent of the trishul as a weapon of choice for the Bajrang Dal and other Hindu Nationalists, exposes the real story behind them.
Yet scholars of Hindu Nationalism disagree with the VHP about the date of formation.
Ashis Nandy says that Bajrang Dal was formed in July 1984, while Christopher Jaffrelot pins the date as May and June 1984, Philip Lutgendorf says June 1984, yet the Indian Gazette of 1993 says that in the April 1984 Dharam Sansad of VHP, a youth from Bajrang Dal came to “awaken the (Hindu) masses.” Dharam Sansad is a religious gathering and has been used to mobilize against other communities. All these dates make the US State Department's assertions more credible, as they align with the invasion of the Darbar Sahib Complex by the Indian government.
Since the date of formation is opaque and not exactly agreed upon, I tried to dig into available archives to try to find the origins and purpose of its formation. I came across information that allows me to concur with the US State Department that Bajrang Dal was indeed an Anti-Sikh wing of the Sangh formed with the aim of the elimination of Sikhs.
Sikhs were not only the centre of its purpose, but the Bajrang Dal’s etymology and earlier aesthetics during the initial formation phase have also been mimicked from the Sikh community.
“The formation of the Bajrang Dal coincides with the anti-Sikh wave that swept the country in 1983-84 after Operation Bluestar…Riding the anti-Sikh sentiments, the Bajrang Dal organised several trishul dhaaran functions throughout the country. The activists were given a knife-like trident to be slung across the shoulder—an answer to the kirpan…”
The Outlook comes to a critical conclusion in their piece.
“The Bajrang Dal has come of age during these 14 years. It has faced a ban and successfully managed to mushroom into an all-India organisation. Born to counter Sikh militancy, it has since identified new targets.”
Operation Bluestar, the invasion of the Darbar Sahib Complex by the Indian army, ushered in a new age of Anti-Sikh sentiments. The Indian Army, in the June 1984 issue of its official publication, Baat Cheet, asked Indians to report all Amritdhari, or initiated, Sikhs to authorities thereby officially singling Sikhs out for persecution.
Five months later, in November 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated for her attack on Sikhs. The 1984 Sikh Genocide, which was being planned by the Congress government of India, was unleashed. Bajrang Dal was part of the mobs that killed Sikhs around India. RSS ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh defended the massacre, as the RSS and its Hindu Nationalist affiliates took part. Rajiv Gandhi, who was the son of Indira Gandhi and a political rookie, was rewarded for this Genocide immediately with an unprecedented majority.
Khushwant Singh, a noted Sikh writer, in a debate in the Indian parliament, mentions the massacre of Sikhs by Hindu mobs in Yamunanagar, Haryana, from October 7-10, 1983. Inflammatory speeches were given at a meeting by a Hindu leader from Punjab, Virendra, on October 1 before the violence. Hindu Sammelan (Hindu Collective) members who took part in violence were led by a Congress politician. The mob also burnt the Guru Granth Sahib. It is not known if any investigation was held into this massacre.
Khushwant Singh specifically notes the usage of trishuls against Sikhs and that Yamunanagar had seen a large number of trishuls on sale. This is the first report that I was able to find of Hindus using trishuls as a weapon against Sikhs.
Accounts from the Sikh Genocide of 1984 also point towards trishuls being used to attack Sikhs, and Bajrang Dal activists participated in the killings. Harsh Sethi and Smitu Kothari, in their report on the Sikh Genocide of 1984, Lokayan Bulletin, report that the mob was armed with steel trishuls on the evening of October 31, 1984.
A BBC report about the Genocide also has a testimonial from an individual who was asked to partake in the killing of Sikhs.
“I was unfortunate to witness the carnage the Hindu mobs had inflicted on the Sikhs and their property,” Ramesh Patel shared with the BBC, recollecting about Delhi in November 1984, “I was approached by a militant Hindu Bajrang Dal activist who urged me to attack and kill Sikhs.”
The November 1985 issue of The Spokesman Weekly has a very chilling article on how Bajrang Dal had plastered posters in Lucknow on October 28, 1985, about eliminating Sikhs.
The poster is reproduced in part here:
"Unless we become awake while time is still there and till we do not completely efface from the sacred soil of India every Sikh man, woman and child and so long as we allow Giani Zail Singh and Sardar Buta Sigh to adorn their chairs of power, these demons shall eliminate the name of Hindus in India. This sacred mission is to be accomplished to the full by October 31, 1986, second death anniversary of Indira Gandhi's assassination. Not even a single Sikh child shall be able to escape from being thrown into sacrificial fire."
The Spokesman goes on to add:
Sikhs had been described as "demons" (rakshsas) and "evil carnate" (dusht) who are “bereft of brain and culture.” The grouse of these Hindu lunatics is that "Sikhs are making merry and enjoying life in the real sense, which has made their heads turn.”
On May 31, 1986, an India Today story reports how “In Punjab, sharpened trishuls have become standard wear for militant Hindu youths, united under the new battle cry of ‘Om’”
In a July 1986 story in The Forum Gazette, an article on the politics of “Trishul Culture” mentioned that multiple Hindu Nationalist paramilitary organizations were being formed to target Sikhs, with the political backing of Congress and the RSS-BJP. Trishuls, again made popular as a weapon of choice by Bajrang Dal, were becoming more commonplace in Delhi and elsewhere and were being used to terrorize Sikhs.
Violent wall posters, which made threats against Sikhs, also featured the trishul with “Hindu Manch” (Hindu Collective) written on top. However, no action was taken by the government to stop threats and violence against Sikhs.
A September 1986 story in the Spokesman Weekly also frames the growth of violent Hindu Nationalist paramilitary groups, like the Bajrang Dal, which is also quoted in the article, as one anchored in Anti-Sikh hate.
“Like the rest, this Sena owes its birth to the events in Punjab. It was in the aftermath of the riots in 1984 that its membership began to swell,” the report declares, as it interviewed what it called one of many Hindu Nationalist “private armies” targeting Sikhs at first and then other minority groups. Members of these groups were given trishuls as part of their initiation, a process made popular by the Bajrang Dal.
Another report in Spokesman Weekly, from December 21, 1992, says Bajrang Dal was the most virulent of the Hindu bodies threatening minorities of India. Its posters proclaimed to seek the decimation of all minorities. It described Sikhs as “demons” who must be obliterated as they were “stealing” prosperity from Hindus.
Tactics around trishul distribution that the Bajrang Dal started in the 1980s as a means to attack Sikhs continued well afterwards, including in other parts of India.
Nandini Sundar mentions in “Gujarat, the Making of a Tragedy” that the VHP and Bajrang Dal prepared for attacks for months by holding trishul distribution events and giving communal speeches.
Angana Chetterji, in “Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India's Present,” mentions trishul distribution events among Hindus in Orissa having the implicit support of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Naveen Patnaik refused opposition demands to list the trishul as a weapon or stop its distribution due to it being a Hindu religious emblem.
Gautam Navlakha, in a research article about the anti-Muslim massacres of 2002 in Gujarat, shared another chilling detail.
“In Gujarat's anti-Muslim carnage, in more than 50 percent of cases, the victims mention injury or death caused by 'trishul' by the VHP or Bajrang Dal activists.”
The Anti-Sikh origin of not only the Bajrang Dal but other Hindu Nationalist groups, and how the trishul became popular, is one Sikhs must not ignore.
It is a history I fell upon by accident.
My curiosity about the Bajrang Dal was piqued during the Farmers' Protest when I noticed how the organization mimicked many elements of Sikh identity.
For example, I recall a video of a Bajrang Dal member wearing a trishul cross-shouldered like a Kirpan. The Bajrang Dal’s name is also strikingly similar to Akali Dal, a political party which safeguards Sikh political interests. The VHP term Karseva is a term borrowed from the Sikhs’ Kar Seva, meaning volunteer work to build Sikh places of worship.
The reality is that the Bajrang Dal and its violent extremism continue to be supported by Hindu Nationalist actors across India to this day. The movement has become so powerful that even Indian Prime Minister Modi has come to its defence when Congress announced it wanted to ban it in Karnataka. Highlighting a deeper double standard that exists in the country, as minority communities like Sikhs are targeted repeatedly in India.
Karam Singh is an engineering graduate from one of the IITs and the University of Alberta, Edmonton. His interests outside of work are archiving and keeping tabs on Anti-Sikh hatred and disinformation.
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