Maharana Pratap Jayanti was just a game
When, on 17 May, we reached Saharanpur, the 13th-day rites had just been performed for the Rajput youth who had died on 5 May 2017 due to asphyxia (according to post-mortem report) while Dalit homes were being attacked in Shabirpur village. The local Rajputs say that Rajput Regiment is their response to the Bhim Army, founded by the Dalits to assert their self-respect. One of the well-known faces present at the 13th-day ceremony was Sher Singh Rana. Rana was also the chief guest at the programme held in Shimlana village on Maharana Pratap Jayanti. It was after the programme had ended that a group of Rajput youths from among the audience went to the nearby Shabirpur village and indulged in arson. It was this group that spread the rumour that Dalits had murdered two-three Rajputs in Shabirpur, whereas the reality was that only one youth, who was injured during the attack, had died of asphyxia on reaching a hospital. A few days earlier, tension had gripped Shabirpur after Dalits decided to install a statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar in the village. Against this backdrop, it is not difficult to guess why Rajputs had gathered in large numbers in Shimlana.
According to Karmaveer, a resident of Shabirpur, before the Rajput youths ran amok on 5 May, Rana had attended a meeting of Rajput Regiment in Nanauta block. The meeting began at 8am and when it ended, he, along with block president Chandni Rana and her husband Surendra Rana, left for the Maharana Pratap Jayanti function in Shimlana.
While we could confirm Rana’s presence at the Maharana Pratap Jayanti function, he himself said he was not present in Shabirpur when things took a violent turn. However, he admitted that Rajput youths carried out the acts of violence. Nagendra Prasad Singh, the district magistrate, also said that Rana was not in the village at the time of the violence. Rana admitted that he had attended a meeting held in the village in memory of the Rajput youth who was killed in the incident but he denied knowledge about the decisions taken at the meeting. He said that he was offered presidentship of Karni Sena, an organization of the Rajputs, but he had declined. According to him, he had nothing to do with the formation of any Rajput organization.
About a year ago, a violent clash between the Dalits and the Rajputs had erupted over attempts to remove a signboard reading “Ambedkar Nagar” and “The Great Chamar” in Ghadkauli village, in Saharanpur district. The police had also become involved. A statue of Ambedkar in the village was smeared with paint. At a meeting on 16 May, the Rajput Regiment announced that if the villagers themselves didn’t remove the signboard or Rajputs would remove it. Residents of Ghadkauli said that Rana was present when this announcement was made but he denied any knowledge about it and insisted that he was not present at the meeting. The district magistrate Nagendra Prasad Singh said that he was aware of the entity called the Rajput Regiment and its issuing a threat to remove the signboard. He said that the administration was keeping a close watch on the developments.
Retracing Rana’s steps
Let us begin with Rana’s background. He was born on 17 May 1979 in Roorkee, a town (now in Uttarakhand), about 40 kilometres from Saharanpur. He is the eldest of his three brothers. According to him, his grandfather owned 7,000 bighas of land but by the time it had been passed on to his father Surendra Singh Rana, the family’s landholding had considerably shrunk. He felt poverty closing in on him. But the times changed and the price of land went up. Today, he has a huge house with upper-middle-class features, in a busy locality of Roorkee. The house is his sole source of income. There are around 60 shops on the ground floor of the house, which are collectively known as the Sher Singh Rana market. Rana said that he earns Rs400000-500000 a month as rent from the shops and if he wished, he could “stop serving society and religion” and lead a rich man’s life.
On 25 July 2001, when the monsoon session of Parliament was under way, Rana murdered MP Phoolan Devi at her home. He escaped from New Delhi’s Tihar Jail in 2004 but was rearrested from Kolkata in 2006. At the time, he had claimed that in the intervening two years he had managed to bring back the remains of Prithiviraj Chouhan, the “last [12th century AD] Rajput ruler of the whole of India”, from Afghanistan, where Chouhan was buried next to Mohammed Ghouri’s grave. On account of this “achievement”, he projected himself as the “pride of Rajputs”. He ended up spending the next ten years in Tihar before being bailed out by the Delhi High Court on 24 October 2016.
Phoolan Devi had emerged as a Robin Hood of the Dalit-OBCs by forming a gang of dacoits in the Chambal. She had gunned down 22 Rajputs in Behmai village, Uttar Pradesh, allegedly to avenge her rape and atrocities of Rajputs against Dalit and OBC castes. The Rajputs had reacted angrily to the massacre, forcing V.P. Singh, the then Rajput chief minister of the state, to resign. Later, Phoolan Devi joined politics and was elected twice to the Lok Sabha. When Sher Singh Rana killed her, she was the Samajwadi Party MP from Mirzapur. Rana surrendered to the police in Dehradun, taking responsibility for the murder. Rajputs saw Phoolan’s murder as a revenge for Behmai.
As the murderer of Phoolan Devi and the one who had brought the so-called remains of Prithviraj Chouhan to India, the Rajputs gave a hearty welcome to Rana on his release from jail. Since then, he has been invited to many conventions of Rajputs all over the country. That he was the chief guest at the Maharana Pratap Jayanti function in Shimlana shows that he is emerging as a role model for the Rajput youths who are increasingly uncomfortable with their waning influence as feudal lords. Rana “scripted” the attack on film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s unit on 27 January 2017. At the “Jauhar Samman Samaroh” that the Karni Sena had organized on 24 December 2016, chief guest Rana had said from the dais that “if Bhansali does not stop shooting, he will have to face slaps”.
Rajput Regiment sets Shabirpur ablaze
Rana looks and behaves like a perfect gentleman. However, there is a certain pattern to his working that leads to some ungentlemanly conduct on the part of other Rajputs. He makes an announcement, others execute what he announced. Then he admits to his role and publicizes it. Before murdering Phoolan Devi, he had developed proximity to Uma Kashyap, the president of the Roorkee unit of the Phoolan Devi’s outfit, Eklavya Sena. Through Kashyap, he gained access to Phoolan Devi’s residence in Delhi and became close to her husband Ummed Singh. Two days after the murder, he held a press conference in Dehradun and admitted to murdering Phoolan and surrendered. Of course, he backtracked from the admission in court. When he was being taken to the Tihar jail after his surrender, he announced that Tihar wouldn’t be able to keep him for long. On 17 January 2004, he escaped from Tihar. The police kept looking for him in Haridwar, Roorkee and Dehradun while he roamed in Ranchi, Gaya and Patna and even gave interviews to the media. He went to Kolkata and then Bangladesh. He got a passport made and then obtained the visa to travel to Kabul and Ghazni in Afghanistan. He returned from Afghanistan claiming that he had brought back the remains of Prithiviraj Chouhan. He even had a video made of him digging up Chouhan’s remains from near the grave of Mohammed Ghouri and released the video. He was rearrested in 2006 in Kolkata, although he claimed he had surrendered. More recently, he threatened Bhansali at a function of the Karni Sena and within the next couple of weeks, the Karni Sena attacked Bhansali’s unit shooting for the film Padmavati.
Rana’s take on his activities
The FORWARD Press team interviewed Rana at his Roorkee residence. In this on-camera interview that lasted more than an hour, he gave so long-winding, embellished answers to our questions that we were taken aback. He never dismissed any of our questions but never gave a straight answer either. The man seems to be an expert in building his image. In every interview he asks one question – and he asked us too – “When even terrorists have the right to lead their lives in peace, why don’t I?” He says, “I am not a criminal. There are two-three criminal cases pending against me. I am innocent and I am contesting the cases.” Speaking about his activities, he says, “Since my release on bail, I am being invited to 10-15 conventions of Rajputs in different parts of the country every month. On the day of the Shabirpur incident, I was on the dais at a function held in Shimlana to celebrate Maharana Pratap’s birth anniversary. There we heard rumours that a youth had been killed. Someone said he had been shot. I kept on telling those on the dais that we should visit the hospital to see him. There were hundreds of people in the meeting. They began leaving in groups of 10-20. I went to the hospital to see the youth but he had already died.”
Rana has views on everything – from nationalism to Rajput pride to atrocities against Dalits to reservations and its misuse to naxalism to terrorism. His nationalism is of the savarna Hindu brand. About reservations, he says the facility should be available to only one generation. About Muslims, he asks why they are the cause for tension the world over. About Rajputs, he avers that they should get educated and get more jobs. He says, “Even if reservations are abolished, the Rajputs won’t benefit. Brahmins, Banias, Kayasthas, etc are already dominating government jobs and if reservations are withdrawn, they will be the chief beneficiaries. If Rajputs don’t acquire education, they will get nothing.”
Film based on Rana’s book
A biopic based on Rana’s book, Jail Diary: From Tihar to Kabul, Kandahar, is on the anvil. According to Sher Singh, Anurag Kashyap will direct the film. The film’s cast is yet to be decided.
The growing caste tension in Saharanpur, the Rajput Regiment’s coming into existence to counter Bhim Army and the growing activities of Sher Singh Rana do not augur well. A natural question is whether there is any similarity between Rana and late Brahmeshwar Mukhiya, the supremo of the Ranvir Sena who scripted many a massacre of Dalits. Is western UP on the verge of a Bihar-like caste war and will Sher Singh lead the Rajputs into it? Rana is using the media and other means of communication deftly to build his image. He is working in both the social and political fields. While only time will answer these questions, his growing activities give rise to many apprehensions. That the government machinery also shares these apprehensions is evident when the district magistrate says, “We are keeping a close eye on him. If he gets involved in any unwarranted activities, he will face the music.”