The affable manner of forty-year-old Sharan Pampwell, the Mangalore-based leader of the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka, belies his exceptional business acumen. Like a good entrepreneur – obeying the laws of demand and supply – he has put to good use the anxiety felt by local businessmen as a direct result of the Bajrang Dal’s activities. He offers them protection by using the foot soldiers of the very same Hindutva outfit he represents.
“We strictly follow the rules of business,” Sharan tells me as I sit down with him to understand the economics of his politics. “Businessmen are prepared to work with us because we offer them security services at a very reasonable rate.” Politics may once have been the sole reason for the existence of the Bajrang Dal – an aggressive youth brigade of the VHP, in turn an offshoot of the RSS – but in Mangalore, where this organisation is very active today, it is a convincing profit motive that seems to drive its activities.
It works like this: first, the demand is created through the Bajrang Dal’s agitational activities, which range from vigilantism to hooliganism to vandalism.
This creates a sense of insecurity among owners of malls, shops and apartments. Then Eshwari Manpower Solutions Limited, a company owned by Sharan, offers security guards to the terrified businessmen so their fears are assuaged. The manpower for both these activities is drawn from the same pool. “All the supervisors and the majority of the security guards who work for the company are Bajrang Dal karyakartas,” says Sharan. “As the leader of the Bajrang Dal in this city, it is my duty to secure a livelihood for the karyakartas. But I don’t turn away anyone who comes to me for a job. There is enough demand for security guards in the city. Some of our guards are even Muslims.”
Sharan Pampwell has had a meteoric rise in the Bajrang Dal since joining the organisation in 2005. In 2011 he became the convener of the Mangalore division, and in 2014 was given the same designation in the south Karnataka region. In the Bajrang Dal’s organisational structure, the state of Karnataka is divided into two units, north and south, each with its own convener. While in northern Karnataka the Bajrang Dal is weak, in the south it is hyperactive, perhaps far more than in any other part of the country.
With Eshwari Manpower Solutions Limited requiring constant business opportunities, the Bajrang Dal considers its agitational activities crucial to its economic gains under Sharan’s leadership. “I started this business soon after I was made the convener of the Mangalore division. Now I have the security contracts of three malls – City Centre, Forum Fiza and Big Bazar – apart from several shops and apartments in the city,” he said. City Centre at KS Rao Road and Forum Fiza at Pandeshwar are among the largest malls in Mangalore. Big Bazar, located in the Lal Bagh area of the city, is another important shopping complex.
Interestingly, most of the shops in City Centre and Forum Fiza belong to Muslims, the community that is the main target of the Bajrang Dal’s attacks in Mangalore, as in other parts of the country. In Mangalore, however, the anti-Muslim basis of the Bajrang Dal’s politics gives way to communal harmony the moment the Hindutva outfit doubles up as a business firm with minorities as clients.
Sharan tacitly admits this as he demonstrates his entrepreneurial shrewdness.
“We are getting a lot of business from Muslim shopkeepers and mall owners. That is primarily because they have faith in us and in our company.” He maintains silence about the secret of his success among minorities – the fear factor that compels Muslim businessmen to opt for Eshwari Manpower’s security services. “Given the kind of activities they [Bajrang Dal members] indulge in, this is the best way to do your business peacefully,” says a Muslim shop owner in City Centre. “In a city like Mangalore, if you don’t outsource your security to them, you become extremely vulnerable. In the end, it is not a bad deal either. You do not just get security guards from them but also an assurance that you will be spared from any Hindutva activity. After all, one attack is enough to bring down your business.”
The transformation of the Bajrang Dal into a protection racket is not necessarily the natural progression of street-level Hindutva politics. It has been possible in Mangalore because of the widespread perception among businessmen and ordinary citizens that appealing to the police for protection is futile. When the state is unable to rein in troublemakers and the government’s law and order machinery appears overwhelmed by them, perhaps the only option is to cooperate with the perpetrators of criminal culture.
The Bajrang Dal’s approach to politics in Mangalore – small scale, local and business-oriented – makes obvious sense for any organisation which has as its main stock of activists unemployed youth from economically weaker sections of society. It is equally obvious why employment via the Bajrang Dal protection racket appeals to those who have struggled – and failed – to secure a livelihood in a highly competitive market.
However, when the Bajrang Dal was set up in 1984 by the VHP as its “militant youth wing”, its original objective was to increase Hindu mobilisation for the Ayodhya movement, which the VHP had adopted as its central campaign barely a few months earlier. The epithet “bajrang” (meaning strong and sturdy), which is associated with the name of Hanuman, the monkey god who led Rama’s armies into battle, was chosen to emphasise the muscle power of the members of this organisation.
Excerpted with permission from Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva, Dhirendra K Jha.