Belagavi: Sitting in a hall-turned-office attached to his residence in Azad Nagar of Karnataka’s Belagavi, Ramakant Konduskar speaks at length about the work his organisation had done during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We bought three old ambulances and provided free funeral services to 770 people who succumbed to Covid-19,” he claims. “We performed their last rites when family members couldn’t. We didn’t care what the religion of the deceased was.”
There is a swirling leather chair placed behind a large table in the room, which is filled with three long pieces of cushioned sofas. But the 49-year-old Konduskar, sporting a salt-and-pepper look, prefers the wooden chair with no cushions.
The benign facade, however, hides a grim reality, for Konduskar is the founder of the Sri Ram Sene Hindustan (SRSH), an offshoot of the infamous Hindu extremist outfit Sri Ram Sene. The SRSH is now in the news over the murder of a Muslim youth in Belagavi.
Members of the SRSH have been named as accused in the FIR for the alleged murder of 24-year-old Arbaz Aftab Mullah over an interfaith relationship with a Hindu girl. Mullah’s body was found on the railway tracks with his head decapitated and hands tied.
The Belagavi Police have also seized one of the ambulances that Konduskar has been talking about.
Konduskar denies the murder charge, instead focusing on his outfit’s ‘philanthropic work’.
He points to SRSH’s Facebook page, which still runs under the name of “srsbgm” — an abbreviated form of Sri Ram Sene Belgaum. The page has 10,834 likes, and 11,064 people have subscribed to it. It is buzzing with photos and videos of all the activities the organisation does in a day.
“Even today, we shifted a gaumata (cow) who was killed in an accident and buried her,” Konduskar tells ThePrint while showing photos of the unfortunate animal.
“This is what we do. We serve the cause of Hindus and Hindutva. We strive to protect our culture, religion and identity,” he adds. “We are against anti-nationals. Our models are our Lord Sri Ram, Shivaji Maharaj and Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Our workers are being targeted for upholding Hindutva. They have nothing to do with the murder.”
Konduskar further says that his workers, much like him, have no “bad habits”, so there’s no question of committing murder. He adds that many are “jealous” of the organisation’s growth, and are out to fix them.
But for all his defence, the 49-year-old makes no bones of the fact that his fairly new Hindutva vigilante outfit does indulge in moral policing of interfaith couples.
“Yes, we ask young people to not fall in love with people from other communities. We warn them that such interfaith relationships are not sustainable in the long run. Not just Hindus, even Muslim parents come to us seeking help,” Konduskar says.
His communal antecedents are no secret either. “Whenever there is a communal flare up anywhere in this belt, police put me in jail. I am never involved but always in custody,” Konduskar says, adding that appearing before courts is pretty much a daily affair for him — an inkling into the number of cases against him.
Bajrang Dal worker who rose through the ranks
Ramakant Konduskar began public life as a worker of the Bajrang Dal in 1998, along with Sri Ram Sene chief Pramod Muthalik.
He joined the Sri Ram Sene when Muthalik founded it, but in 2018, broke away to form his own vigilante Hindutva organisation. “There was unnecessary politics in the Sri Ram Sene in Belagavi and I split from it three years ago,” Konduskar says.
Since then, his outfit has steadily grown in prominence.
“People come to him for cases that even the police cannot solve,” says Sachin Patil, a SRSH member, making no secret of his admiration for ‘dada’. At least a dozen young men like Sachin Patil are lined up outside Konduskar’s residence when ThePrint visits.
As for the founder, he is proud of his organisation and its following. While he refuses to put a number to his claim, he says “we have more workers than any MLA or MP does”. The organisation, he says, now has workers in Belagavi, Bagalkot, Vijayapura and Yadgir districts. In all of these regions, the SRSH is competing with at least half a dozen Hindutva groups for supremacy.
Konduskar claims that it is this growing influence that has got his outfit implicated in Aftab Mullah’s murder.
“Whatever has happened, whoever it has happened to, is very bad. All communities feel for the victim, but this attempt to tie it to Hindutva activists is not acceptable,” he says.
“Our workers have been questioned but that is only on suspicion. Police should also look into who the victim is and his background. He was involved in the ganja trade and maybe someone there has done it,” he claims.
Sources in the know of the investigation, however, say even this angle was probed and a few acquaintances of Mullah were questioned, but were let go after no such connection was found.
“We too want the real culprits to be arrested. We don’t know who did it, but it wasn’t our workers,” Konduskar insists. He claims he didn’t know how many SRSH workers have been questioned by the police.
“Only Pundalik (Mutagekar)’s family members had called me that he had been taken away by the police,” he says, confirming that an ambulance too has been seized.
Ask if his organisation profits from moral policing, and Konduskar replies, “We never ever take money. We run on donations.”
Moral policing, extortion, all of it worsened by the pandemic
SRSH may call itself an offshoot outfit, but for the police as well as citizens in Belagavi, it is still the Sri Ram Sene.
“All the men who claim to be workers of this organisation are jobless vagabonds. Most times, it is people with criminal antecedents who join such organisations, since it gives them political support and immunity,” observes a senior police officer from Belagavi, who alleges that cops have been stopped from arresting workers of such organisations by politicians cutting across party lines in the past.
“Most often, they indulge in intimidation, threats and extortion and are always careful not to commit offences of severe nature but in this case, things have gone awry,” the officer says.
From his study of such vigilante groups in various districts, the officer explains their modus operandi. “They first start harassing couples in parks, public places etc and get media attention. Many times parents of youngsters who are in interfaith relationships approach these goons for help. More often than not, parents are even more than willing to pay them. They make money from one side to take up a case and extort money from the other side to settle the case,” the officer claims.
With the pandemic rendering many more youngsters jobless, the senior police officer says, many have joined these organisations as “workers” under the garb of protecting ideologies. “The law does not stop anyone from speaking, mingling with anyone irrespective of religion and caste, and hence, the parents know there is nothing illegal and police cannot do anything. So they end up approaching these organisations,” the officer says.
He adds that in many cases, if a complaint is filed against such organisations and workers, the girl in question is coerced into alleging that the boy was harassing or threatening her. “Now that is an offence. These vigilantes use that as a pretext to take law into their own hands,” the officer says.
Konduskar doesn’t deny that politicians approach him and his organisation come election time. “From union ministers to local MLAs, everybody comes here and sits exactly where you are sitting and asks me and my workers for help. But we won’t go asking them for any help,” he says.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)