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A serial kidnapper and his `mission'

Print edition : Dec 29, 2006 T+T-

Babu Bajrangi: "I don't believe in love marriage. We have to marry within our own community."-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Bajrang Dal activist Babu Bajrangi "rescues", by kidnapping, Patel girls who marry outside their community.

"If you rescue one girl, it is the same as saving 100 cows. One daughter equals 100 holy cows." - A pamphlet distributed by Babu Bajrangi's Navchetan Trust.

"I HAVE some masala for you," Babubhai Patel (alias Babu Bajrangi) told me excitedly when I called to arrange an interview with him. "There are three new girls with me." The "serial kidnapper of Gujarat" has never shied away from his mission. Every time I meet him, he brags about the girls he has "rescued", almost as if each one were a new conquest.

A small-time Bajrang Dal leader from Naroda in Ahmedabad, Babubhai has grown in notoriety over the years. He is a prime accused in the Naroda Patiya massacre, one of the goriest communal massacres of Gujarat 2002. Never punished for this crime, he remains free. As president of his Navchetan (New Awakening) Trust, he has made it his mission to "rescue" Patel girls who marry outside their community.

"In every house there is a live bomb that can erupt at any time. Do you know who that is? Our daughters," the Navchetan pamphlet proclaims. "Daughters are the honour of the family and the community, and to protect that is our Hindu duty and Hindu culture... . Come, and let's unite to save bombs... Jai Shree Ram." Babubhai claims to have distributed 10 lakh pamphlets all over Gujarat.

"I don't believe in love marriage. We have to marry within our own community. These girls go to college, make friends with some lafanga [loafer], roam with them on their bikes, fall in love, and then run off and get married," said Babubhai, pointing to the three girls sitting meekly by his side. "We bring them back and convince them that they are ruining their future. They stay with me for a while and then return to their parents."

"But why do they stay with you?" I ask.

"We give them shelter, make them understand, and when their mind is fresh, they go back home," he says.

I remind Babubhai that when we met two years ago he had described to me how he and his men thrashed the boys and took away the girls. "That was some time back. If I say that now, the media will be after me," he smiles. "I have a magic mantra that makes the girls come back. We do whatever it takes and somehow bring them. If it's a Musalman, we definitely use force even if the girl doesn't want to leave. Musalmans don't have a right to live in our country. How dare they marry our girls?"

But it is not Muslim boys who have filed a court case against Babubhai for abducting their wives, it is a group of four Hindu boys living in Maharashtra. Babubhai remains unperturbed by minor complications like police complaints. "Those who file cases against us are crazy. Even the Bombay High Court has dismissed their case," he laughs.

The High Court ordered a police inquiry, which found that the women had been kidnapped and forced to ask for divorce in court. Other girls, who had managed to escape Babubhai's clutches, also testified about how he captured, beat and abused girls and forced them to break their marriages. Those who were pregnant were forced to have abortions.

The police report said that Babu Bajrangi should be arrested and that further investigations should be made into all cases where girls had been kidnapped. However, the High Court ignored the investigation. It ruled that since the allegedly abducted wives had not substantiated their claims the court could not take any action and the matter should be settled in matrimonial courts.

Now the four boys - Ajay Nikam, Raju Medige, Abhijeet Sonawane and Prashant Samudre - are appealing for justice before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Babubhai continues on his kidnapping crusade. To date, he claims to have "saved" 706 girls.

Ajay Nikam's wife, Geeta, was number 561 on the list. She was kidnapped on November 30, 2004. Their romance could well be the script of a Bollywood film, but there is no happy ending.

The couple had known each other for five years. They had been married for one and a half years when Geeta was kidnapped.

"For most of that time, we kept our marriage a secret. Geeta was staying with her parents until she graduated. Then she ran away and came to live with me. Two months after that they abducted her," says Ajay. Geeta's mother said she was taking her to visit a doctor when she was abducted. The abductors took her to Gujarat. Geeta called Ajay and told him that she was in Gujarat and would call after 10 days. Ajay traced the call to a telephone booth in Naroda and followed her to Gujarat. Naroda is where Babu Bajrangi lives and operates from.

While walking on the street, Ajay was accosted by armed men who pushed him into a black Scorpio. "They told me they were from the crime branch. At that time I didn't know it was Babu Bajrangi," says Ajay. "They had sten guns, so I believed them. They took me to a construction site where Geeta was also present. They forced both of us to sign some papers. She told me, `If you love me, then sign the papers'. I realised the danger, and so I listened to her and signed."

When he returned to Mumbai, Ajay filed a case with the police. But the police did not do much. They did not even inform Ajay when the case came up in court. "Later, I found out and appealed for another hearing. At every stage, it seemed like the authorities were working against me. No matter how many complaints I sent, they took no action against the culprits," says Ajay.

In court, there was a huge crowd escorting Geeta. "She could not speak, so the judge called us to speak in his chamber," says Ajay. "There, she told me that the lives of both of us are under threat. Babu Bajrangi had forced her to sign the papers, and she was too scared to speak the truth in court."

When Geeta was sent back to Mumbai, she and Ajay tried to meet several times but her parents foiled all plans. At one point, she even attempted suicide.

"Now, I think they have got her married to someone in Thane," says Ajay. Raju's wife, Naval, is reportedly engaged to Babubhai's nephew.

After exhausting all avenues for justice, Ajay got in touch with the human rights activist Teesta Setalvad. She suggested he file a case in the Bombay High Court. Raju, Abhijeet and Prashant contacted Ajay when they read about him in the media. All had the same story to tell. The pattern of the kidnappings was terrifyingly similar. So were the girls' statements in court.

When the High Court ordered a police investigation, two girls who had escaped Babubhai's clutches told police investigators how Babubhai beat, threatened and forced them to sign divorce papers. One of them, Reema from Naroda, was taken to a small clinic and forced to undergo an abortion. The other, Bharati Patole, who was locked in Babubhai's home with Geeta and Naval, also gave details of the abuse and threats. Even today Patole's husband cannot even go to work because his life is in danger. Reema and her husband, Anthony, are reunited but have to live in hiding outside Gujarat.

Babubhai remains a free man, and hundreds of girls remain captive.

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