Founder of the Rajputana Karni Sena Lokendra Singh Kalvi (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • To know why Karni Sena is doing what it is doing, you have to go back to September 1987, when the Rajputs of Rajasthan were the target of global outrage.

Karni Mata is a deity worshipped widely in Rajasthan as an incarnation of the goddess Durga. It is believed that the goddess was born in an ordinary household and married a man of the Charan (court bard) caste. However, the goddess left her conjugal house without consummating her marriage and wandered the deserts of Rajasthan for over 150 years, blessing kings and commoners alike. The goddess is particularly revered by the Rajput community and is the presiding deity of the royal houses of Jodhpur and Bikaner, thus occupying a prominent place in Rajput identity. This Rajput tradition of deification of the chaste, ascetic female form – whether it be Rani Padmini or the 18-year-old Roop Kanwar, who burned on a funeral pyre in 1987 – has often brought the community in direct conflict with a modern, liberal society that views these practices as not just anachronistic but also oppressive and patriarchal. The resulting fault lines have made the political careers of many an enterprising leader. In 1987, it was a young Rajput by the name of Kalyan Singh Kalvi.

In 2017, it is his son.

The story of Karni Sena is intimately tied up with the story of its founder and chief ideologue, Lokendra Singh Kalvi and his quest to preserve what he considers to be the cultural core of his community. To millions of anglophone Indians getting to know him for the first time among visuals of burning buses and vandalised theatres, Lokendra Singh Kalvi might come across as a regressive, ultraconservative fanatic.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

On the shoulders of giants – Roop Kanwar and the life and times of Kalyan Singh Kalvi

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Sixty-two-year-old Lokendra Singh Kalvi is the son and scion of Kalyan Singh Kalvi, erstwhile union minister for Energy in the short-lived Chandrashekar government that came to power at the centre in 1990. The family have been hereditary landlords in the village of Kalvi in Nagaur district, located in the Thar desert in Rajasthan.

Rajputs of Rajasthan have traditionally been opposed to the Congress, viewing the party as being responsible for eroding the power of the erstwhile royals. Thus, Kalyan Singh Kalvi built his political career on a platform that stood against the overwhelming Congress dominance of the 1970s and the 1980s. At the same time, he was locked in a power struggle against Bhairon Singh Shekhawat – the then CM of Rajasthan – for the leadership of the Rajput community.

The year 1987 was one of those landmark years in the history of Indian democracy that are remembered today as having decided the political and ideological course of our nation. Starting in the second week of September 1987, news channels began carrying reports on the story of Roop Kanwar, an 18-year-old Rajput woman in a remote hamlet in northern Rajasthan who had allegedly been forced to commit the mediaeval Rajput rite of Sati – where a widow burns herself on the funeral pyre of her husband.

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The Rajputs held that the act was performed voluntarily and in accordance with the community’s ancient customs and was thus outside the purview of the nation’s judiciary. Within the Rajput community, Roop Kanwar was immediately hailed as Sati Mata, a goddess worthy of being worshipped, just like Rani Padmini of Chittor. The incident garnered international attention, with even the New York Times giving it prime coverage, and soon became a major embarrassment for the government of Cambridge-educated Rajiv Gandhi.  The collective wrath of the enraged executive and the outraged judiciary fell upon the Rajput community – over a 100 Rajput men and women were rounded up and charged with abetting the ‘murder’ of Roop Kanwar. Among those who led the condemnation of the barbaric medieval ritual were Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the ‘Lion of Rajasthan’, and the widely accepted leader of the community till then.

A visibly wounded Rajput community withdrew to itself and closed ranks, shunning all contact with outsiders. The Rajputs felt that the Indian state had trespassed its mandate and encroached upon the religious and cultural rights of the community, while the media had unfairly portrayed them as barbarians. Abandoned by their own leader, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the community had no voice and no one to tell their side of their story.

It was at this moment that Kalyan Singh Kalvi stepped up and became the face of the much-vilified Rajputs. From addressing rallies to giving interviews to prominent national dailies, Kalyan Singh Kalvi articulated in a nuanced manner the hurt of the Rajput community, presenting it to a nation whose collective conscience had been outraged by what they viewed as a regressive practice that had no place in a modern democracy.  At the heart of Kalvi’s argument was the burning question of the rights of a community over its history, culture, and past and to what extent could these be subject to the law of the nation.

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Following Kalvi’s lead, many Rajput leaders finally came out in defence of the community and the agitation in defence of Roop Kanwar’s sati grew increasingly militant. Onkar Singh, a Rajput leader, and a former IAS officer, even publicly threatened that if the government continued to persecute them, the Rajputs would break away from Hinduism, like the Sikhs had done in neighbouring Punjab.

For Kalvi though, the bold move of defying the established progressive-liberal norms of the Indian state and the popular media paid rich political dividends. In a single stroke he not only dethroned Bhairon Singh Shekhawat as the preeminent leader of the Rajputs, but had also emerged as a leader of national renown in his own right. He was promptly rewarded with the presidentship of the Rajasthan unit of the Janata Dal.

As Kalvi’s clout grew, he became kingmaker, playing a key role in the ascent to Prime Ministership of a fellow Rajput, Chandra Shekhar Singh. The latter rewarded Kalvi with a cabinet portfolio – that of energy.  There were talks in political circles that Kalvi might be headed for even bigger things, perhaps even the prime ministership itself. However, just when Kalvi’s prolific career was about to reach its pinnacle, the leader passed away at a relatively young age of 58. In many ways, Kalyan Singh Kalvi was to the Janata Dal what Pramod Mahajan was later to be for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – a charismatic young leader marked for great things but lost to the cruel hands of fate in his prime.

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More importantly, Kalvi’s demise had two immediate consequences – Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was able to regain his position as the leader of the Rajput community (he was later to become the vice president of India), and a young Lokendra Singh Kalvi was to be left bereft of a political mentor just when he was beginning to test the political waters.

The young Lokendra Singh Kalvi repeatedly contested elections from multiple seats on BJP tickets but lost each time. He even tried his luck by going over first to the Congress and later to the BSP, but neither party gave him a ticket. Like his father before him, he needed burning, polarising issues to mobilise the community behind him.

He found these in the simmering caste cauldron of Rajasthan.

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Jat ki Beti, Jat ki Roti, Jat ka Note, Jat ka Vote , Sirf Jat Ko.

Caste matters in Rajasthan, perhaps more than in any other state in India. And Rajputs, despite being associated in popular imagination as the cultural and ethnic mascots of a Rajasthani identity, are far from the most numerous caste in Rajasthan.

Jats make up roughly 12 per cent of Rajasthan’s population and are the single largest community in the state, while Rajputs make up about 7 per cent. The other dominant communities include Gurjars, Bishnois, Meenas, Brahmins, Meghwals , Vaishyas, and Muslims. The political and social life of the state is organised around complex and ever-evolving alliances and counter alliances among these communities.

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For instance, the Bishnoi community, for whom the protection of all wildlife is a central tenet of their faith, has a history of antagonism with the Rajputs due to the latter’s custom of hunting wild animals. The Bishnois thus find natural allies in the Jats .

The Gurjars on the other hand have been ethnically and historically very close to the Rajputs. During the 7-8 centuries AD, Rajasthan was ruled by a dynasty known as the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty that successfully saw off a series of invasions of the Indian sub-continent by the earliest Arab invaders. By the 12th century, the Gurjaras found themselves reduced to being nomadic shepherds and placed lower down the caste hierarchy than the Rajputs, though the two communities maintained close links. It was for instance a common practice among noble Rajput families to feed a newly born Rajput child at the breast of a Gurjar woman, in the belief that it would infuse in the young prince some of the ferocity that was the hallmark of the Gurjars.

Both the Jats and the Gurjars, in turn, often find themselves at odds with the Meenas who are an indigenous tribe of Rajasthan.

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However, one equation that more or less remains unchanged through all these complex alliances is the rivalry between the Jats and the Rajputs. And for good reason.

Jats have typically laid claim to nearly a third of the 25 parliamentary seats from Rajasthan and 40 assembly seats in a house of 200 in keeping with their numbers. They play a decisive role in another 20 assembly seats.  However, despite their overwhelming numerical superiority, the state has never had a Jat chief minister. This fact has long been a sticking point with the Jat community and certain sections of the community lay the blame squarely on the Rajputs. The issue gains even more urgency for the Jat community given the fact that in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana, Jats remain firmly in control at all levels of the political machinery, in conformity with their numbers. The closest Jats of Rajasthan have come to having one of their own in the chief minister’s residence is Vasundhara Raje Scindia – a Maratha scion married into the Dholpur royal family – one of the only two Jat princely states in Rajasthan. (The other being Bharatpur). While Raje is fondly referred to as ‘Jat Bahu’, her relations with the Rajputs have been turbulent for the same reason.

These ancient caste rivalries of Rajasthan took a precipitous turn with the implementation of the Mandal commission’s recommendations and reservations in government jobs became the new battleground for old rivalries.

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In 1999, acceding to their long held demand, Jats were granted other backward class status in Rajasthan, thus raising the stakes in the bitter Jat-Rajput rivalry. As Gurjars and Meenas already had reservations, fears arose among the Rajput community of the complete erosion of their leftover clout. In 1952, when the first elections were held to the state assembly, there were 54 Rajputs MLAs in a house of 160 while only 12 Jats were elected. By 1998, the number of Jats had risen to 42 while the Rajput numbers had been reduced to half of what they’d been.

It was at this point that Lokendra Singh Kalvi saw his big moment and decided to jump into the fray, quitting the BJP and founding his own party – the Social Justice Front (Rajasthan Samajik Nyaya Manch) that advocated for reservation for economically backward Rajputs. The party decided to contest elections across Rajasthan on its own, convinced that Kalvi’s call for Rajput mobilisation would be rewarded. However, electoral success continued to evade Lokendra Singh Kalvi and his new venture ended in a debacle. He returned to the BJP, this time seeming to settle down for good in what appeared to be perennial political obscurity.

But the factious caste politics of Rajasthan soon threw up another opportunity, one that was too hard for an enterprising politician to resist. In 2006, Anandpal Singh, a gangster who had acquired a Robin Hood-like reputation in the Rajput community for standing up to Jat aggression, murdered two of his former accomplices, both of them Jats. The Jats, smarting under their own set of grievances against the Rajputs, soon mobilised in record numbers and a series of protests and demonstrations rocked the state. The state government, bowing to the Jat pressure, responded by rounding up a number of young Rajput men believed to be accomplices of Anandpal Singh’s gang. This sparked off resentment amongst the Rajputs who viewed it as systematic persecution by a state machinery increasingly dominated by Jats, Gurjars and Meenas owing to caste-based reservations.

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It was at this turbulent point in the state’s history that Lokendra Singh Kalvi founded the Sri Rajput Karni Sena to mobilise Rajputs against a system that had, in his view, become heavily antagonistic to them through decades-long process of social engineering. Thus, on 23 September 2006, the Karni Sena came into being with the avowed aim of ‘fighting political and social malice against the Rajputs’, and electing more Rajput legislators to the state assembly.

The organisation soon found itself embroiled in repeated controversies, first over protests against the film Jodhaa Akbar and later over turbulent campus politics in Rajasthan University.

The Rajasthan University (RU), located in Jaipur, in fact became a prominent recruiting ground for the incipient organisation. In many ways, the university is a perfect microcosm of the greater caste-based politics that rules the state. Jaipur is a bustling metropolis of over 5 million with its own metro service, an international airport, sprawling special economic zones and IT parks. At the same time, its crowded lanes, lined with artisanal wares produced by rural communities, camel-drawn carts, imposing castles, and the general chaos give off an indelible impression of a medieval town caught in a time warp.  At the Rajasthan University (RU) campus, middle class young men and women from the rural hinterland find themselves in a similar flux. Caught between the alien modernity of a strange metropolis and the familiar chaos of the past they left behind, they find comfort in the sense of belonging provided by caste-based organisations. Even the hostels in RU are caste-based. Thus, you have Rajput hostel, Jat hostel, Gurjar hostel, Meena hostel, Yadav hostel and Muslim hostel.

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Finding itself pitted against the much better organised Jat Mahasabha, the young Karni Sena soon jumped into the thick of action on campus when in 2009, it mobilised Rajput support over an incident involving a campus brawl between a Jat and a Rajput student. The issue had immediate repercussions outside the campus and forced the powers that be to take notice of the Karni Sena, and Lokendra Singh Kalvi.

Again, in August 2016, the Jaipur Development Authority sealed off the gates of the Rajmahal Palace, a property owned by the Kacchwaha Rajput royal family of Jaipur. The Karni Sena mobilised large scale Rajput protests, portraying the move of the ‘Jat Bahu’ Vasundhara Raje-led government as another instance of persecution of the Rajput community. The authorities eventually relented and the victory significantly bolstered the prestige of the Karni Sena within the Rajput community, and of Lokendra Singh Kalvi as the protector of Rajput interests.

From Roop Kanwar to Padmavati – a full circle for Kalvis of Nagaur

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With Padmavati, the life and political career of Lokendra Singh Kalvi appears to have come full circle. It was exactly 30 years ago that his father had taken a great gamble in championing a seemingly illiberal and unpopular cause, emerging in the end as an articulate conservative leader of not just the Rajput community but of the entire political right. Today, Lokendra Singh Kalvi and his organisation are making a similar statement against a state committed to affirmative action and an established modernising liberalism that seems to be encroaching upon what the community sees as its personal domain. For the Rajput community however, the issues involved are those of the protection of memories and rituals they hold sacred, and the extent to which other ethnic groups in a democratic state can appropriate these scared aspects of their culture for popular entertainment. Or so, the Karni Sena wants us to believe.

Whether Lokendra Singh Kalvi will be able to fashion out any credible political gains out of the chaos that he has unleashed remains to be seen. It is equally likely that the whole spectacle might just be the final display of fireworks before his stuttering political career finally sinks into the sea for good. For now, however, Lokendra Singh Kalvi remains the man of the moment.

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