“The army has great respect and honour in society,” Ramayana Patel, who heads the Sardar Sena’s Madhya Pradesh unit, told me while speaking about his organisation’s name. “When people think of ‘sena,’ their blood boils on its own. If we had named it ‘party’ or ‘institution,’ it would have been viewed with some other perspective. A feeling of fighting comes with sena.” The Sardar Sena is a sociopolitical organisation whose stated aim is to work for the welfare of Bahujan communities. Patel told me that the organisation is active in 40 districts of Uttar Pradesh and is also working in other states, including Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Bihar. “In the 2022 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, we are standing with our comrades in Apna Dal (Kamerawadi), which is a part of the alliance led by the Samajwadi Party,” he said. “Our national president, RS Patel, will also contest from the Chunar assembly constituency.”
There are several senas—armies—operating in Uttar Pradesh, among other states. These senas are sociopolitical organisations that claim to promote a certain ideology or protect the interests of specific castes or religions. While not all such senas support the Bharatiya Janata Party—or any political party—most of them were formed after the BJP came to power in 2014. The party brought with it an increased emphasis on the pride and importance of security forces. Its success appears to have demonstrated the political merits of the word “sena.” Conversations with representatives of these organisations revealed the motivations of these senas and how they have become another method of political engagement and mobilisation on the ground. Many of them told me that they are putting their weight behind different political parties in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.
The Sardar Sena is among these organisations. It was formed, on 31 December 2017 in Uttar Pradesh, because “backward castes and Dalits were facing atrocities and there was no organisation fighting for them,” Patel told me. He said the organisation was initially formed to represent the interests of the Kurmi community. “Sardar Patel was kept at the centre, so that a large section of Kurmi community stays with us,” he told me, referring to India’s first deputy prime minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, who belonged to the community. Kurmis, who are counted among the Other Backward Classes, still make up the Sardar Sena’s core base. Patel said that the organisation has been protesting about issues including social justice, farmers’ struggles and killings of backward-caste people. “In any incident, we first give a week’s time to the administration to take proper action,” he told me. “If they don’t, then the sena does its job.” He added, “All the great men of backward caste and Dalit communities are our icons—on their birth anniversaries, we distributed pamphlets and booklets about them as well.”
Like the Sardar Sena, many other senas aim to spread awareness about the history of their communities. The Rashtriya Veer Gurjar Sena is one of them. It was formed, in 2016, to increase the political awareness of the Gurjar community and protect its interests. According to the sena’s president, Sonu Gurjar, the organisation has held several protests for its biggest demand—to get a Gurjar regiment formed in the Indian Army. “From time to time, we distribute pamphlets on the birth anniversary of great men of our community and speak about our kings to make our youth acquainted with their history,” Gurjar said. “Our community has always fought for the country, whether it be against the Mughals or the British. Who does not know the name of Dhan Singh Kotwal, from the 1857 rebellion?” Dhan Singh, the police chief of Meerut—where the uprising began—had rallied the local population and freed hundreds of prisoners, who went on to join the rebels. “But we have always been maligned,” Gurjar added. “Our society endured the Criminal Tribes Act”—a colonial legislation that classified several tribes as hereditary habitual criminals—“for a long time.” He said that the organisation was active in nine states, including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
“The enthusiasm and pride that fills the heart after hearing the word army doesn’t come with any other name,” Gurjar said, explaining the organisation’s name. “Only an army knows how to fight for the society. An army protects our country. So, our community also thought on these lines, that we need an organisation that is like an army. And that is the Rashtriya Veer Gurjar Sena, which protects the interests and rights of the community, and is willing to do anything for it.”
In the upcoming elections, Gurjar said, the organisation would be supporting candidates from the community. “They can be from any party, but not the BJP,” he told me. He said that he had earlier been associated with the Hindu ideology and worked for the formation of the BJP government in 2014. “But, when the BJP came to power, we realised that our community has no status in the party we sacrificed so much for,” he said. “Then the people of our community thought that we should form an organisation to make people see the fight and power of Gurjars.”
Gurjar said that “the BJP had instilled communalism among us.” But, he added, a recent controversy regarding the ninth-century king Mihir Bhoj bridged the gap between Hindu and Muslim Gurjars. Both the Rajput and Gurjar communities claim Mihir Bhoj as their own. In September 2021, the state chief minister Adityanath, a Rajput, unveiled a statue of the king in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. Members of the Gurjar community protested that the plaque on the statue did not have the word “Gurjar” on it. “We and the Muslim Gurjars came together on the same stage for this,” Gurjar told me. “The movement of Mihir Bhoj has united our entire community.” He said that the Rashtriya Veer Gurjar Sena has put up boards of Mihir Bhoj in Gurjar-dominated villages as well.
The controversy regarding Mihir Bhoj is among the main reasons that the Rashtriya Veer Gurjar Sena is against the BJP. “The BJP has insulted our great man,” Gurjar said. “Gurjar society never forgets favour or humiliation.”
The Maharana Pratap Sena, an organisation of Thakurs, was similarly formed, in 2017, to promote Pratap Singh I, a sixteenth-century Rajput king celebrated by Hindu nationalists. “Maharana Pratap never compromised on his dedication towards India and towards Hindutva,” Bijendra Singh, the sena’s president, told me. Even though several important sites, including an airport, have been named after Pratap, Singh told me that the king had been sidelined and that “his historic work never got the attention it deserved.” He added that the sena had published a biography of Pratap. “Wherever we have a program, we give people a picture of his and his biography.” Singh claimed that the organisation has written many letters to the Uttar Pradesh government to take initiatives to promote Pratap. It aims to install an equestrian statue of the king in every district to inspire the youth. “Presently, such places of inspiration are in Sultanpur and Bahraich,” Singh said. The organisation was called a sena, he said, because Pratap’s “thinking was always like a soldier.”