The many “senas” mobilising in Uttar Pradesh

Posters of Mahakal Sena, Narayani Sena, Rashtriya Veer Gurjar Sena and Hindu Kranti Sena.
06 March, 2022

“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.”

The organisation is active in 50 districts of Uttar Pradesh, Singh told me. “Whoever has a nationalist ideology, irrespective of caste or creed, can be a member of Maharana Pratap Sena,” he said. “Ours is an apolitical organisation, which is why we are not with any party in the election. But we believe that one should vote only for nationalist thinking.”

Named after the mythical army of the Hindu deity Krishna, the Narayani Sena is another such organisation. It is an organisation of members of the Yadav community. According to its president, Manish Yadav, the sena is active in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Yadav told me that the sena was formed, in 2017, predominantly to fight for a temple to be formed at the Shahi Idgah at Mathura. Similar to the Babri Masjid dispute, right-wing Hindu organisations claim that the Shahi Idgah, an Islamic place of worship, is the real birthplace of Krishna. “It is a religious issue of ours,” he said. “We have no dispute with Muslims. But they are of different types: one of the nationalist ideology and one of the fundamentalist ideology. We are against the fundamentalist ideology.”

Ahead of the twenty-ninth anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, on 6 December 2021, the Narayani Sena and other organisations—including the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, the Srikrishna Janmabhumi Nirman Nyas and the Srikrishna Mukti Dal—issued a call to perform jalabhishek—a purification ceremony—inside the Shahi Idgah. On 6 December, the Narayani Sena wanted to hold a “Sankalp Yatra” from Mathura’s Vishram Ghat to the Krishna temple next to the Shahi Idgah to demand that the mosque be removed. In light of these calls, the district administration issued prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure across Mathura. “The BJP government stopped our march, detained our people,” Yadav told me.

The Narayani Sena is supporting the Samajwadi Party in the assembly elections—the Yadav community is considered the SP’s core voting bloc. “If the Samajwadi Party government is formed, we will discuss the Krishna-temple issue also,” Manish said. It is pertinent to note that the SP has never raised the issue of the Krishna temple on its own.

Apart from the temple dispute, the organisation also works towards protecting cows, Yadav told me. “Now, those who form the government in the name of cow themselves kill them with hunger and neglect,” he said. “We have held demonstrations for this and raised our voice for this.” He added that he considered members of the Narayani Sena descendants of Krishna, who was also a gau sevak—cow protector. Apart from this, Yadav said, the organisation also conducts weddings of orphaned and poor girls.

The Mahakal Sena is another such organisation. The word “Mahakal” is a reference to the Hindu deity Shiv. Karamveer, an organisation secretary of the sena, told me how he came to form the organisation. He became associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh when he was a twelfth-standard student in Haryana, about twenty years ago. “My mindset was of the Hindutva-Bajrangi type,” he told me. Around the turn of the millennium, he became a pracharak—full-time worker—with the Sangh and joined its militant wing, the Bajrang Dal. Karamveer also worked with the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a sister organisation of the RSS, and was greatly influenced by its former leader Pravin Togadia. “Not just me, all fanatic Hindu warriors of the country who worked for the religion were influenced by him,” Karamveer said. He later added, “But now he doesn’t have that charm.”

Karamveer said that, over time, he became “directly connected” with Togadia. When Togadia left the VHP in April 2018, Karamveer followed suit and left the Sangh. Two months later, Togadia formed his own organisation, the Antarashtriya Hindu Parishad, which appointed Karamveer as the organisation secretary of its Delhi unit. “I used to look after all of Togadia’s work and spent three years with him to build this organisation,” Karamveer told me.

“We worked tirelessly for many movements in Delhi regarding Hindus,” he said, adding that the organisation protested the demolition of a Hanuman temple in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk in early 2021. (The temple was razed based on directions by the Delhi High Court to remove unauthorised religious structures.) He said that the AHP also worked for the protection of cows. “We used to gherao police stations, work for Hindutva, protect our sisters and daughters—this is the standard resolution of a Hindu organisation.”

Karamveer claimed that he was making a name for himself as a Hindutva leader in Delhi, which prompted Togadia to remove him from the organisation. “I was forced to think,” he told me. “I left my home for him and what happened?” He went to Mathura, “stayed there for a few days and adopted the thinking of a monk.” There, a “guruji” asked him to go back to Delhi and form an organisation to work towards his cause.

In the summer of 2021, he set up the Mahakal Sena, which aims to bring together Hindus. “Love jihad, land jihad, protection of our sisters and daughters, our gau mata—we work for these things every day,” Karamveer said. “Love jihad” is described by Hindu communalists as a plot by Muslim men to lure young Hindu women into marriage and conversion to Islam. Similarly, land jihad is their theory that Muslims illegally encroach on land to change the demography of a region.

Karamveer claimed that his organisation has units in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. “No party is doing anything for Hindus. Everyone is politicking,” Karamveer said. The BJP, which brought with it a wave of Hindu-nationalist politics in 2014, was also not doing enough, he said. “They are not as sympathetic, but I will not call them traitors either.” Karamveer added, “When Hindus are united, they will protect cows, temples. And, if Hindus do not unite, they will keep getting hurt. When they become one, it will take no time to form a Hindu Rashtra.” The division of Hindus into castes had divided the entire political landscape, he said. “And this politics has created a threat to the Hindus.” However, the organisation does not have a social-justice or an anti-caste agenda—it simply wants Hindus to band together for the purpose of Hindutva.

The Purvanchal Sena is an anti-caste organisation, formed in the late 2000s, that works for the empowerment of Dalits and demands that a new state be carved out of eastern Uttar Pradesh and named after Buddha. The organisation is active in Gorakhpur—where its student wing, Asur, is especially popular—and a few other adjacent districts. The Purvanchal Sena also takes initiatives to teach judo and karate to women in villages. In the assembly elections, it is supporting the Bahujan Samaj Party. In 2011, the BSP had proposed splitting Uttar Pradesh into four smaller states: Purvanchal, Bundelkhand, Awadh Pradesh and Paschim Pradesh.

In its initial years, the Purvanchal Sena spoke about development for all, irrespective of caste. However, its president, Dhirendra Pratap, told me, several political factors forced the organisation to narrow its scope. “The section of the society that has everything does not provide any support.” He said that the organisation faced a dearth of resources. “A reason for this is also that, when you work with one caste, you get a lot of support,” Pratap said. “And when you talk about the whole society, you will not get support there.” He added that the RSS had a role to play in this phenomenon. “The Sangh’s work is such that it has handed a hero to every caste. Because of this, everyone is talking only about their own caste.” Pratap pointed out that “the media also does not want to make you a leader of the whole society. If you are from a Dalit or backward caste community, they will show you as a Dalit caste leader.”

Pratap told me that the organisation was initially named the Purvanchal Ambedkar Army. “Then, we felt that if we added Babasaheb’s name, it would not make it to the newspapers,” he said, adding that many Ambedkarite organisations hardly found a mention in the media. He was convinced that the same treatment would be given to his organisation as well, especially after a Brahmin journalist asked him to remove “Bharti”—commonly used by Dalits in Uttar Pradesh—as his last name. He subsequently changed his surname to Pratap, which is more commonly used by those from upper castes.

Gopal Nishad, the president of the Phoolan Sena, was the Congress’s candidate for the Mau assembly seat in the 2007 elections but failed to win. The lawyer told me that, in June 2008, he protested the arrest of the BSP minister Jamuna Prasad Nishad, who was charged with the murder of a police constable while demanding action following the alleged rape of a member of a backward-caste community. “All protests were happening under the banner of the Nishad community,” he said. “From that, programmes sympathising with him started all over the state.” Nishad said that, in response to his protests, a senior Congress leader called him and accused him of “casteism.” He dismissed the allegation and said, “There is a difficulty in my community. I am just fighting that.” But he felt insulted. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” he told me.

“Then I thought that there are always atrocities on our society,” Nishad said. “And these leaders do not stand against them. Neither do they voice our concerns.” It was then that he decided to form the Phoolan Sena. “After talking to our people, we decided to form an organisation that acts like a beehive—if anyone attacks us, everyone stings the culprit so that the community feels empowered.” He said that the Phoolan Sena works to increase the social and political participation of the Nishad community and is active in 22 districts of Purvanchal, or eastern Uttar Pradesh. Nishad said that the organisation “takes action against any injustice or atrocities in the society—we fight, raise our voice, protest.” He added, “Because of this, I am facing more than ten cases today. But I am undeterred.”

Nishad named the organisation after Phoolan Devi, the famous dacoit-turned-politician who was a member of the community. “We are descendants of Phoolan Devi, a brave woman who is known across the world,” he said. “She stood for fighting injustice and tyranny.” Referring to the word “sena,” Nishad said, “Only those who have a force can fight in a battle and win it.”

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Phoolan Sena had allied with several regional parties in Uttar Pradesh, including Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and Mukhtar Ansari’s Qaumi Ekta Dal. “I had an alliance with BJP in the 2017 assembly elections, but it betrayed me,” Nishad told me. The BJP reportedly announced him as its candidate from the Sagri assembly seat, but then gave the ticket to someone else. Nishad contested as an independent candidate and lost. He then joined hands with the SP in 2019, but that alliance did not work out either. “Now we will go as independents,” he told me. “We cannot win the game, but we will definitely ruin it for others.” In February, however, members of the Phoolan Sena posted on social media that they were supporting the BJP.

One organisation that made it to the news last year was the Kranti Sena. In August 2021, its members were booked for rioting and criminal intimidation after they protested the alleged “mehendi jihad” during the Hindu festivals of Teej and Karva Chauth in Muzaffarnagar. Without substantiating the charge, the Kranti Sena claimed that Muslim men seduce Hindu women on the pretext of applying mehendi during these festivals.

Rajesh Kashyap, the district general secretary of the Kranti Sena’s Muzaffarnagar unit, told me that the organisation was formed, in 2018, by former members of the Shiv Sena after the party formed a coalition government in Maharashtra with the Congress. Kashyap defined the sena’s aim as “Hindu seva” and said that it is active in 25 districts of Uttar Pradesh. “Whenever something happens with Hindus or gau mata, we all reach there with the administration,” he said. “We first try to make the administration intervene in these matters. We say, ‘If we get involved, then you will say that communal tension is happening.’ The administration supports us.” Kashyap added, “If a Muslim quarrels with a Hindu, some political parties will not talk about it at all. And then the same Hindu castes fight amongst themselves. So, everyone runs away. When no one is with them, the Kranti Sena stands with Hindu brothers.” He said he had personally also always had a Hindu ideology—in the 1990s, he was a member of the Hindu Shakti Dal and the district convener of the Bajrang Dal. “I went to jail thrice during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement,” he added.

The sena was putting its weight behind the BJP, Kashyap told me. “We are supporting Kapil Dev Agarwal, the BJP candidate, in Muzaffarnagar,” he said. “We want a nationalist government in which Hindus are safe. And right now, they are safe with the BJP.” Referring to the organisation’s name, Rajesh said, “A ‘committee’ or ‘upliftment programme’ does not invoke the sentiment that ‘sena’ does.” He said members of the sena were like soldiers—“We are always ready.” He added, “We believe that merely raising flags to protest does not work. Jhande se kaam na chale, toh usko utaar kar dande ko bhi tayyar karo”—If the flag doesn’t work, take it down and prepare the staff instead.