The Monkey God's Army
Click here to see a slide show of photographs from Dharavi and Mumbai.
Babalu's boss in the Bajrang Dal—a man so lofty that Babalu is unlikely to meet him—lives a two-hour train ride from Dharavi in a tidy housing complex in what's called New Bombay. His name is Shankar Gaykar, and he is the head of the Bajrang Dal for both Goa and Maharastra states, which, he says, comprise about 2,500 shakhas, or cells. He sat on a couch next to his aging mother one evening and shouted into his cell phone. Gaykar owns a pharmaceutical company, and his workers were threatening to strike.
"Workers all over the world are bad," he said as he hung up and apologized for the lengthy call. One hundred and twenty of his 200 workers are Bajrang Dalis, he said, but they were not the ones who made trouble. His smile revealed teeth as white as a fresh-painted fence, and he wore a gold watch and matching ring. On the wall behind his head hung an airbrushed poster of the epic hero Shivaji in the act of killing his Muslim enemy Abdul Khan.
Gaykar is a black belt as well as an archery master. He claimed to be the head of RSS military training for the whole of India. He has been attacked twice by Islamic terrorists, he said, his car riddled with bullets. Now he lives under 24-hour protection by two armed guards the state provides.
"I walk out every day as if it is my last," he said, shaking his head and glancing at his little mother.
The Bajrang Dal was founded in 1984 and began as the security wing of the RSS movement. "It was just a spontaneous movement of young people," Gaykar said, smiling again. They took the name "army" to pay tribute to and to protect Lord Ram, as the Monkey God did in the Hindu epic TheRamayana.
Gaykar joined the RSS at age 20. "In the RSS, I learned Hindu culture, national pride, and patriotism," he said. "When I started, there were very few shakhas." In fact, he said, as a young leader, he was instrumental in their massive recruitment drive. To bring tribal people into the organization, he spent five years in the tribal district of Kolhapur as an RSS missionary.
"I invited all the tribals of that area to come and learn about Hindu culture," he said. "The tribal people are poor, and I tried to help them solve their problems—like providing security for their villages."
"Security" seemed to be a euphemism for arming villagers for communal violence.
"There is no place left in my states where the Bajrang Dal does not exist," he said as his wife appeared with plates of sweet melon and laddoos, fried balls of grain.
As he took bites, Gaykar said, "I started the Cow Protection Movement." Also, he claimed to have started the movement against the painter M.F. Husain, a leading Indian artist and also a Muslim, who painted a naked portrait of the Hindu goddess Saraswati in the late 1990s.
"So we burned down his studio," Gaykar said, shrugging.
Gaykar went on, "Husain left for Europe and has since apologized. He is the first person whose apology I will not accept. Saraswati is our mother, and he insulted her. I can't forgive this."
He also claimed to be responsible for the RSS's attempt to ban Valentine's Day in India. Apparently, he'd been the first to suggest that the Bajrang Dalis—who rough up those who dare to be seen with their sweeties on Feb. 14—patrol the streets. The Bajrang Dal's job was to ward off the corruption of the West. Yet, despite his general distaste for the West, Gaykar said that the RSS and America share a common enemy: Islamic terrorism.
"Terrorism is the biggest problem in the entire world—and the tribal conversion to Christianity," he added quickly. "The biggest problem is that Hindu security is being threatened. That's our first priority. That's why, in a crisis, we need every worker to guard the borders of India."
But no one gave them explicit instructions to do so, Gaykar was quick to add.
"The Bajrang Dal is just like the fingers on a body. If there's pain, we know to go there. We do our duty." The Bajrang Dal also does not seek attention for its good deeds, he said. "If I save my mother's life, there is no need to publicize it. I have the same feeling for Mother India."
He added, "We are not against Muslims and Christians, we're against anyone who brings violence to this country."
That's why it was impossible, he claimed, for the Bajrang Dal to have had a role in the violence in Gujarat—or anywhere else for that matter. "There's not a single example that we've ever participated in any rioting," he said. "We've never been an instrument in breaking law and order."
But retribution seemed to be different.
"We believe in teaching lessons. If someone insults my god, I'll teach him. If someone attacks us, we also attack them. Islamic terrorists are afraid of the Bajrang Dal because we are the only ones fighting them."
As he spoke, a man walked through the room, stooping under an enormous sack of laundry. The man was dressed in rags. Gaykar barked something at him, then his small silver cell phone starting ringing again and he reached for it, shifting his belly over his khaki pants and speaking briefly.
When asked if poor boys join the Bajrang Dal to get jobs like the ones he provides, Gaykar said, "Who is rich in the Bajrang Dal? None of us are rich. I have built this house, but I am still paying off my father's loans. I'm not rich! This is a big conspiracy."
Gaykar sniffed and said that man who'd just left was practically family, so, clearly, he had no issues with lower-caste people.
"He can come in and ask for food," Gaykar said. Of course, there was also the matter of laundry.
Gaykar's mother, who'd been sitting silently for more than an hour, nodded tersely.
Her son gestured to her and said, "My mother has also said that she's given birth to me to fight these people."
Eliza Griswold, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is a poet and author of New York Times best-seller The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Islam and Christianity.