Seen primarily as the coming together of a bunch of unemployed Rajput youths at its inception in 2006, Karni Sena has emerged as the community’s face in Rajasthan today. But the organisation has splintered. Among them the most prominent are Shree Rajput Karni Sena, with its patron Lokendra Singh Kalvi; Shree Rashtriya Rajput Karni Sena Samiti, led by Ajeet Singh Mamdoli; and Shree Raastriya Rajput Karni Sena, led by its president Sukhdev Singh Gogamedi. These outfits have led various protests on issues involving Rajputs. Of late, they are at the forefront of the agitation against ‘Padmaavat.’

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The outfits, with college students from Shekhawati as their core followers, have presented a united face but there are major differences among them due to the vaulting political ambitions of their leaders. In trying to upstage the other, all of them are trying to draw youngsters into their fold to strengthen their base.

“Kalvi was associated with Congress in 2008. Mamdoli wanted Kalvi to get him a Congress ticket and this is how they separated,” said Narayan Singh Divrala, a district president of Shree Rajput Karni Sena, which claims to have over two lakh members.

In January 2017, Karni Sena sprang into national consciousness when some Shree Rajput Karni Sena members assaulted film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali during the shooting of ‘Padmaavat’.

The same year, when a gangster, Anandpal Singh, was shot by Rajasthan police, Karni Sena held a ‘Shradhanjali Sabha’. Singh’s encounter became a rallying point for Rajput outfits. He had become a cult figure among many Rajput and Ravana Rajput youths who saw him as a defender of Rajputs against the “rival” Jat community. The gathering ended on a violent note as railway tracks were uprooted, public property damaged and a person allegedly killed in police firing.

“At least 14 Rajput leaders are named in the CBI FIR,” said a senior CBI officer. Karni Sena first made news in 2006, when Kalvi started protesting against Ashutosh Gowarikar’s ‘Jodha Akbar’ for “distorting history”.

The film could not be released in Rajasthan. They hit the headlines again in 2013 with threats to disrupt Congress’s ‘Chintan Shivir’ in Jaipur over their demand for quota. Despite the negative publicity, they have continued the stir against ‘Padmaavat’.

Now, Bhansali has asked them to watch the film. “We have agreed… provided he allows six historians nominated by us to watch it first,” Kalvi said.

The Karni Sena has grown slowly but steadily since 2006 when it came into existence with the support of both the BJP and the more silent Congress legislators in Rajasthan. Seen initially as just a fringe group, it has expanded to become a voice for the Rajput community in Rajasthan—or at least is propped as such— supporting the feudal erstwhile rulers of the state to opposing movies like Jodhaa Akbar and now Padmavati with mobilisation and violence.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath beat his Rajasthan colleague to it by demanding the release of Padmavati be pushed back. Vasundhara Raje followed three days ago with a letter to Information Minister Smriti Irani urging her not to allow the release of the film on law and order grounds.

Silence for the BJP government these days spells acquiescence, and from Jaipur to New Delhi there has been not a word on the antics of the Karni Sena that has vandalised the sets during the shooting of Padmavati, and now created enough of a stir to stop its release.

In fact this agitation comes along with an incident earlier this year when the Karni Sena gave a call for shrandhjali sabha in gangster Anand Pal’s village in Rajasthan after he was killed in an encounter. The police was surrounded, the vehicle of Nagaur Superintendent of Police was set on fire, a woman police officer had to disguise herself to escape, and the police was at the receiving end of a major assault.

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The Karni Sena, according to local activists and journalists, has the full support of the state government and the BJP at the moment. With the state elections likely to be held next year, CM Raje and clearly the party top brass sees an opportunity in the current fracas and the Karni Sena. In the process the organisation has acquired a mantle of invincibility, being seen as above the law and hence powerful.

The reasons for the BJP support are three, all related to the elections:

1. The Rajputs are a strong community in Rajasthan, well knit and vocal, The Karni Sena has been playing on their sentiments, and now with the Padmavati stir hopes to consolidate the community with the BJP standing to gain from the current environment in the state;

2. Raje and the BJP were reported to be on a weak wicket because of the lack of development in the state, the farmers unrest, but by vigorously stirring the Padmavati pot, the Karni Sena has also used the Alauddin Khilji narrative for an anti-Muslim campaign, in a bid to polarise the issue in and outside the state. And thereby extend the influence to other non-Muslim communities as well;

3. The caste hierarchy is also being re-established in the process with the Rajputs dominant. The BJP hopes to gain with this, as this community has an influence in a majority of Assembly seats in Rajasthan. Besides the Karni Sena also addresses the Rajasthan feudals who are supportive;

The Rajputs enjoy considerable clout, and the BJP as in Uttar Pradesh has developed an overarching strategy of supporting and working closely with caste based organisations. In UP a case in point was the Apna Dal, a party representing the backward Kurmi caste that has a good presence in several parts of the state that worked to the BJP’s advantage. The Karni Dal is expected clearly to harness the Rajput vote for the BJP, in alliance or directly remains to be seen. It is not a political party, and remains an organisation that has emerged through a culture of protest and violence to be accepted as a voice for the Rajput community in UP by both the BJP, and the Congress whose local Rajput leaders are taking care not to oppose it.

Meanwhile the All India Democratic Women’s Association has issued a strong statement condemning “the threats and acts of violence unleashed by right wing vigilante groups like the Sri Rajput Karni Sena which has prevented the release of the film ‘Padmavati’ on the scheduled date. The parallel system of ‘goonda raj’ being perpetrated by such extra constitutional groups has been exacerbated by the felicity with which several constitutionally elected State governments have succumbed to these pressures.”

The statement further pointed out, the current actions of the Karni Sena and the support that they have received from elected MLAs and Ministers of the BJP underline the extent to which the ruling dispensation is willing to compromise with anti-women and upper caste organisations in an attempt to expand their domination in current politics. In the process they have unleashed a vicious attack on the film maker and the actors who have participated in the making of the film; portraying the ‘working woman’ (in this case the actress) as “bad and characterless” against the fictitious virtuous woman (i.e. Padmavati).

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While doing this they have indulged in serious character assassination of the heroine, threatened to chop off her nose, and also handed out death threats to the cast and production crew of the film. The AIDWA condemns these forces and demands that the Central government should take stringent action against them.

The entire controversy is being used by the ruling party to deflect attention from its failures in the wake of the upcoming elections. It must be noted that these protests come at a time when the workers and the farmers of the nation have risen up in revolt against the neo-liberal policies of the Central and State governments. The underlying objective is to preserve the upper caste Hindu ‘vote bank’ that is the foundation of the communal polarisation that the BJP wants to ensure at the time of elections. It is worth noting that the Karni Sena has already reminded the BJP that it is an important ‘vote bank’ that the BJP cannot choose to ignore.”