“You are in Warrior territory,” reads a big sign on the Tau Devi Lal Stadium grounds, reminding every passer-by of who the boss around these parts is.

In Panchkula, the locals don’t need a reminder, nor do those in the Indian football fraternity. In the span of three to four years, Minerva Punjab have disrupted the ecosystem, first by winning the junior leagues and then finally capturing the big one, the I-League, this season.

At the centre of it all, and for what feels like an eternity, always in the news for good or bad reasons, is one man.

When they did finally get over the line against Churchill Brothers on the last day of the league, a full-blown blast, a rager if you will, was being planned.

Henna Singh, director of Minerva Punjab, had joked at the time that it “wouldn’t be a normal party, but a huge one as with all things Minerva”. Indeed, anything in the land of Ranjit Bajaj is hardly that – normal, things are always a bit nuts, a bit over the top.

Strained relationship

Unfortunately for Bajaj, his relationship with the All India Football Federation is strained, and has been so for a couple of years now – hardly a favourable position to be in the business of football.

Indeed, nobody has polarised and split opinions as much as Bajaj has in the recent past. Insiders talk of a football-loving, victory-obsessed, heavy-handed, near-dictatorial man, while social media is full of love for a goofy, larger-than-life, tailor-made-for-the-internet-era personality.

The truth? Bajaj is extreme, with a bit of both sprinkled in.

Started in 1955, Minerva, the defence academy, which shares its name with the club, coaches hundreds of aspirants annually for the armed forces. In fact, the army and nationalism are prominent in the branding of the club as evidenced by the warrior tag.

Bajaj, currently, is embroiled in his biggest battle till date. On Monday, the AIFF’s disciplinary committee banned him for a year from all football activity and also fined him Rs 10 lakh after finding him guilty of making racist remarks.

A report by the committee stated that Bajaj hurled racist abuses against referee Pynskhemhame Mawthoh, who is from the North East region of India, in an Under-18 youth league match against Aizawl.

Bajaj, 38, refutes all these allegations, insisting that these charges have cropped up due to him pursuing a complaint of theft. “We always gather our cell phones in one place before the match,” he said. “Before we left, the room was locked and we handed over the keys to the match commissioner. We came back and found 20 phones and cash missing. It was then that I approached the commissioner.

He added, “It’s not until I filed an FIR the next day that they took the complaint seriously. And why should we have a referee from the North East in an Aizawl match? When they come to Punjab, we don’t have referees from the state. The AIFF, they expect me to toe the line in case of these practices. I won’t.”

Born to two senior officers in the Chandigarh administration, Bajaj insists that he has always been “the rebellious one”, standing against authority. “Much of this bad-boy image comes from my past. That’s the reason these cases come up. When you have parents like mine, every mistake you do gets highlighted, sometimes carried in the paper.”

Assault and kidnap charges have been levelled against him in the past. Bajaj doesn’t deny that he was hot-headed back in the day but then asks, “I was in school, in college. Who doesn’t make a mistake at that age? I was being made an example of, because of my background.”

A participant in the first season of reality show MTV Roadies, Bajaj says he was infamous, not famous then. “That was the first season. I didn’t have the best reputation. I met Henna some years later, she came to all my matches and knew so much about football. It was a long courtship and I became calmer after I married her,” he said, chuckling.

The report filed by AIFF, however, spoke of a fourth offence by Minerva’s maverick owner and spoke of him in less than kind terms. “Bajaj acted like a criminal indulging in series of hooliganism, abusing the match officials in filthy languages, threatening them openly, making racist remarks against the match officials. Certainly, none of these can be equated with an educated guardian of a sports club,” the report stated.

Bajaj denies these claims and states his intentions of taking AIFF to court, again. “Which three offences are they talking about? The committee didn’t give me a chance to present my side of things, just pronounced me guilty. I have taken the federation to court before. They just want me to keep quiet.

“Seventy percent of my team come from the [North East] region. I have good friends from the North East. My coach is from there. No one, who knows me, can accuse me, of being racist.”

Earlier this season, Bajaj was accused of hurling abuses at an official during the Administrator’s Challenge Cup All-India Football Tournament in Chandigarh. Bajaj says, “They asked me to go to the stands but banned the opposite team for five years following my complaint.”

Is this a sign of a win-at-all-costs mentality or aggressiveness? A Minerva insider says, “He will motivate you, urge you to go for the win, but if you don’t give it your all, he’s likely to be displeased.”

The stories of Bajaj’s temper are infamous. Coaches have come and gone. Tolm Coal, once in charge of youth development at the Indian national team, didn’t last a month. Juan Luiz Herrera was let go after poor performances in pre-season friendlies, but sources indicate that a clause in the coach’s contract, which stated that he had to pay Minerva 25% of his next employment contract in India, caused differences as Herrera refused to agree to this term.

Any coach who comes to the club has to deal with the club’s ambition, but also Bajaj’s over-enthusiastic involvement in the team. Very few in the Indian football scenario are as involved as Bajaj, sitting in the dugout and often shouting orders from the sidelines.

An AIFF official claims Bajaj is not as loving towards his players, especially the younger ones, as he claims. “He has a track record of being borderline abusive towards the kids, and there are also several contract forgery cases that we have received,” the official said. Stories surrounding Bajaj include one of him allegedly forcing several of his players into an ice bath at half-time due to a poor first-half performance.

This isn’t Bajaj’s first run-in with one of AIFF’s committees. The Player Status Sub-Committee has earlier ruled against Minerva in several cases. Eight contractual dispute cases, that of Arnab Das Sharma, Germanpreet Singh, Victor Amobi, Amarjeet Mishra, Shubham Sarangi, Ravi Kumar, Givson Singh and Vikram Singh, were brought before the player status sub-committee.

Unquestionable passion

Bajaj’s passion for the game is unquestionable, according to players both former and current. He has a knack of being in multiple roles, as a team manager, motivator, even going to the extent of cleaning ice baths for his players.

One of the first things that the team did after winning the I-League was to hoist Bajaj onto their shoulders and throw him high up into the air. At the start of the season, after a campaign when they had finished ninth in the I-League, Bajaj had explicitly told his players that he wanted to win the title.

“His belief is endless,” says one of Minerva’s players, on condition of anonymity. “The good thing is he backs himself against the strong teams, [and] he backs us to pull it off.” Many a time, a fan has written to Bajaj on social media and asked him for a Minerva shirt, and gone on to receive it.

For all his flaws, Bajaj remains one of Indian football’s most approachable characters and one of its most dedicated ones. Before hiring Chencho Gyeltshen, Bajaj reportedly looked at over 300 hours of footage before settling in on the Bhutanese sensation.

While Minerva advertises itself as the “only Indian club” to produce Under-17 World Cup players, an epic tug-of-war behind the scenes for the squad members has ensued. Six Minerva players were picked up after a match between the club and India U-17 coach Luis Norton de Matos’s team in Goa in February 2017, which the latter lost 1-0.

The former claimed a crucial victory, while the AIFF sought to paint a different picture, downplaying the fixture eight months prior to a home World Cup. Once the players were picked up, the AIFF, in a letter written by General Secretary Kushal Das, promised to return them to Minerva, only to hold onto them for the I-League season.

When asked why he allowed the AIFF to retain the players, Bajaj says, “They were going to get game time while remaining Minerva players. It was a win-win situation for me. I gave the players to the AIFF in good faith. Now, if I can’t get youth compensation for my players and AIFF does under the new rules, I am not going to sit by.”

A few more of his players have been sought for the junior squads, taking the tally of Minervans to represent the country’s teams to 39, claims Bajaj. “If they are taken to the AIFF Elite Academy and AIFF gets compensated for it, then that’s not done.”

AIFF's letter to Minerva Punjab asking for their players.
AIFF's letter to Minerva Punjab asking for their players.

This season, Minerva raced into a healthy lead in the I-League but were pulled back in the second half of the season as off-field distractions did not help. Bajaj claimed that his players were approached with offers of money to fix matches and reported it to AIFF. He also made this public on Twitter.

Towards the end of the season, he pointed fingers towards rival clubs, accusing them of making unethical approaches towards his players and the coach.

“Three days before the last game, they call up my coach [Wangkhem Khogen Singh] and tell him Santosh Kashyap has his job. Tell me if this is right,” asks Bajaj. He wasn’t about to let it slide, though. Bajaj signed the released East Bengal midfielder Bazie Armand to prove a point. “Of course, I wanted to show them that, ‘See, the player that you released is winning the league with me.’ To tell you the truth, Bazou was really good for us.”

Bajaj thinks a lot of angst between him and the AIFF is due to the impending merger of the I-League and Indian Super League. “Last year, Aizawl’s victory scuppered their plans. This year, it was us. I just want to see one league, with promotion and relegation. It doesn’t matter which league we start in, as long as it’s open. The criteria shouldn’t be money, we have already shown that,” says Bajaj.

At first, the match-fixing claims were dismissed by other clubs as attention-seeking behaviour till the AIFF took cognisance of the incident and registered a complaint.

Days after winning the league, Bajaj claimed he was about to pull out of the Super Cup. While Kushal Das said this move would bring the tournament into disrepute, Bajaj insists this was the only way to deal with AIFF.

“I didn’t want to become another Aizawl,” he said. “They owed me a lot of money and we had to pay our players their salaries for another month. Within three days, the entire amount that was due to us was transferred.”

Aizawl, the previous I-League champions, had earlier this season claimed that they were due Rs 57 lakh and refused to pay a fine imposed on them by the AIFF.

One thing is for sure – this feud is long from over. Bajaj is determined to give as good as he gets. He is after all “the rebellious one”.