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The police killed a gangster in Malasar village of Churu district in Rajasthan on the night of 24 June 2017. By this time, Anand Pal Singh, widely known as “AP,” had been a wanted man in five states for over two years.
A crowd gathered in Sanvrad, Anand Pal’s village in central Rajasthan, swelling as news of his death spread. It started demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into what his family called a “fake encounter,” ordered by politicians. Reported to number a lakh at one point, the protestors were led by Shri Rajput Karni Sena, Rajput Sabha, and Shri Kshatriya Yuvak Sangh: organisations that are at the forefront of Rajput caste assertion in Rajasthan.
The family refused to accept Anand Pal’s body for three weeks in protest of the murder, and it had to be cremated by the police and local government authorities.
The protests soon turned violent. In parts of northern Rajasthan, the government suspended internet and messaging services, and imposed curfews. One person died and over 20 policemen were injured. Hundreds of young Rajputs were lodged in jail.
The waves of anger continued into election season the following year. The Rajput community is historically a major vote bank for the Bharatiya Janata Party, but this time it took up cudgels against Rajasthan’s incumbent Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government.  Only 10 out of the 26 Rajputs fielded by the BJP won their polls, and all but two Rajputs from Raje’s cabinet lost. The BJP’s chief rivals, the Indian National Congress, came to power.
But Anand Pal Singh was not even a Rajput—rather, he was barely considered a full-blooded one when he was alive. He was from a community called Rawna Rajput, who have historically occupied the fringes of Rajput culture as servants and service providers, kept at arm’s length and subjected to discrimination by their Rajput employers for centuries. In recent years, the cult of Anand Pal Singh has rewritten some of these caste equations. “The community that had not previously owned him made him a hero,” Avinash Kalla, a journalist who covered the 2018 polls, told me.
Ironically, Anand Pal’s co-option was based on the violence, both real and economic, that he managed to inflict on the Rajputs’ traditional caste rivals, the Jats. ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’—that is the sordid reality of caste mobility in Rajasthan, a state where caste relations have remained rigidly frozen in time. When a rare recalibration occurs, as it has in the case of Rawna Rajputs, it is on the terms of oppressor castes. It repeats the patterns of parochialism and violence that have stifled emancipation in a feudal culture.
I was in the eleventh standard when I first heard about Anand Pal. It was through the WhatsApp status of a school friend, who had posted a picture of the man wearing aviator sunglasses and holding an AK-47. I remember the caption clearly: “Sherdil Rajputana Tiger Anand Pal Singh Sanvrad.” His cult has come a long way since.
The Charm Of Power
orn on 31 May 1975, Anand Pal Singh was the third of five children. He was lovingly called ‘Pappu,’ and said to have made friends everywhere he went. Some neighbours I spoke to told me he was high-minded and could be cunning. “You couldn’t gauge anything from his face,” said a neighbour who saw Anand Pal grow up. “No matter how much pain he was in, he was good at keeping things to his heart.”
Pappu was no stranger to the deep-entrenched casteism of his birthplace. He had already experienced the iron grip with which Rajputs controlled social and political life in the interiors of Rajasthan. On his wedding day, some Rajputs stopped him from mounting the horse. He was not a “purebred” like them, they said, in explanation. He was only allowed on horseback after the intervention of his friend, a Jat student leader named Jeevan Ram Godara. Anand Pal was 17 years old.
“That incident was triggering. He realised that power and politics are needed to fight social barriers and live freely,” said a person close to Anand Pal’s family, requesting anonymity. “Iss case mein usko pehli baar rutbe ki khushbu aayi, jo phir sadabahar hogai.” He felt the charm of power for the first time in this incident and then it stayed with him forever.
After the wedding, Anand Pal earned a bachelor’s degree in education and began preparing for exams to fulfil his family’s dream of seeing him become a government teacher. He also started a cement agency in Ladnun, a small city in northern Rajasthan that is well-known for its Jain temples. But he’d grown keen on stepping into public life, and in 2000, stood for elections to the Panchayat Samiti of Ladnun. He became a member of the Samiti but lost the election to the post of pradhan, the council head, to Jagannath Burdak, son of Congress leader Harji Ram Burdak.
“He realised that power and politics are needed to fight social barriers and live freely.”
For years afterwards, locals claimed that Burdak Sr., anxious about Anand Pal’s growing influence and political potential, had framed him on a spurious charge. Khagendra Dadhich, a journalist based in Didwana, recounted the story for me. “Anand Pal had gone to the Block Development Office for some work. That’s where Burdak filed a complaint against him for obstructing public servants. He was put in jail on this charge, and tortured behind bars.” After his release, Dadhich told me, Anand Pal reportedly killed one of Burdak’s Jat aides. “He was arrested again, and tortured heavily in police remand.”
The torture was often cited to me as the turning point in Anand Pal’s life: the reason he began to consider a life of crime. In the early 2000s, he found his footing in illegal liquor trading in northeastern Rajasthan. Here again, he had bucked a caste norm. Until then, the trade was dominated by local strongmen, who were either Rajput or Jat.
“There are two ways to rise in this business,” a 56-year-old illegal liquor trader based in Churu, explained. “The first one is to rise step by step by only focusing on expanding your work and network. It already involves a lot of risks and it is time-consuming. The other one, which he chose, was crushing all opponents.”
Not only did he crush his opponents, he didn’t even spare those he once considered as friends. In June 2006, he rocked up to Didwana market in a black Bolero and allegedly gunned down a rival who was having tea with some associates. The rival was Jeevan Ram Godara, who had once defended him against the Rajputs at his wedding.
Larger Than Life
AP wanted to grow fast,” the bootlegger told me. Anand Pal’s motive for murdering Godara was, allegedly, revenge—both for caste and business. Godara, a Jat, had allegedly killed Madan Singh Rathore, a Rajput ex-army officer who was in the liquor trade. It wasn’t even the beginning of this deadly cycle for Anand Pal. In April 2006, he and his close associate Balbir Banuda had allegedly murdered a Jat Mahasabha leader named Gopal Fogawat in Sikar.
After these murders, the Rajput community of the Shekhawati belt began to look at Anand Pal as a saviour figure. They were willing to overlook Anand Pal’s Rawna origins and view him as a “Rajput gangster.” Children heard his name at the dinner table at home and in schoolyard conversations. He was Dada—elder brother—to young Rajput boys.
Anand Pal’s larger-than-life personality had a lot to do with it. He appeared at court hearings wearing leather jackets, flamboyant hats and aviator sunglasses. These videos, and those of him doing push-ups in jail, went viral on social media.
The Godara killing was followed by Anand Pal’s expansion of his business into land-grabbing and extortion. He often dropped cryptic hints in public about impending violence. On 20 July 2016, for instance, a post appeared on his Facebook page: “Coming soon, dhamaka.” An explosion. Two days later, he shot at a policeman called Ladu Ram with his AK-47.
The captions accompanying his pictures unabashedly embraced and often glorified a life of crime. “Yeh Facebook, WhatsApp humein kya famous karega, hum to uss din famous ho gaye jis din humaara janam jurm ke ghar me hua tha”—reads one of his captions. My popularity isn’t dependent on Facebook and WhatsApp. I became famous the day I was born in the house of crime.
Back then, one of my Rajput schoolmates, who was first charged in a police case at the age of 16,  had spent all his pocket money on a leather jacket, hat, and sunglasses. To pose like “AP Dada,” he also arranged for a weapon that looked like an AK-47. (He was suspended from school after that, and is currently facing four criminal cases.)
“Kuch toh thha yaar unmein,” he told me when I asked him recently what fascinated him about Anand Pal. There was something about him. “I wanted to become an IAS officer,” he said, “but his cult attracted me to him.” Shayad hawa aur mahaul mein bhi Dada hi thhe, he said—it was like Dada’s charisma was all around us.
Indeed, Rajput boys my age were heavily influenced by tales of Anand Pal’s attitude and derring-do. On social media, they frequently posted pictures of themselves brandishing arms. Their captions almost always included the name of Anand Pal, and a reference to his Robin Hood-like nature.
The Poor Cousins
Rawna Rajput is Rajput in dress, surname, custom and vocabulary—but not when it comes to social acceptance. They are, quite literally, the poor cousins.
“Earlier, princely rulers had many wives and co-wives, but the natural inheritor of their property was the eldest son alone, unlike today where all the children are the claimants,” Virendra Rawna, president of the Akhil Rajasthan Rawna Rajput Mahasabha, told me. “In such cases, the younger children and their descendants were left with almost nothing, and ended up working under the eldest brother. The Rajputs who didn’t get jagir, property or land gifted by kings, are Rawnas.”
The Rawnas became the kamdars—literally “servants”—of the Rajputs: they worked as heads of government departments, aides and advisors to the king, sergeants and servants. This division of labour crystallised into a class distinction, and Rawnas were deprived of the privileges claimed by Rajputs.
“We have been the victims of skewed history provided by historians who wrote according to their own opinions, or under the gunpoint of the Rajput rulers.”
One origin story in Rajasthan is that Rawnas are the descendants of illegitimate children Rajput men had with non-Rajput women. The women in such instances are given the title of Paswan. But this is a contested view. “Children of Paswans are known as that—children of Paswans,” lawyer Chandra Singh told me. “They were not Rawna Rajputs at all. These are just wrong ideas that have been exploited for decades to harass and defame the community.”
Writers of colonial history propagated distorted ideas about the community, Virendra Rawna said. “The main villain in our story is Colonel Tod,” he told me. Lieutenant-Colonel James Tod was an officer with the East India Company who wrote the influential nineteenth-century work Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. In Tod’s work, Virendra Rawna contended, different caste histories and descriptions were clubbed as one. Certain administrative posts, like that of the darogah—a head of department in a Rajput princely state—were incorrectly viewed from the lens of caste.
“These historians wrote according to their own opinions,” Rawna said, “or under the gunpoint of the Rajput rulers.”
As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, it was common for the families of Rajput brides to send young Rawna girls to the groom’s house. These girls were called daijwals, because they were offered as daija or dowry. The Rajput bride’s in-laws were then responsible for marrying off the Rawna girl and ensuring employment for her family at their house.
Growing up in a Rajput household, lessons on who belonged where came to me in bits and pieces. Jitendra Singh is the grandson of my grandmother’s daijwal, and the only friend I remember from my early childhood days.
Jitendra and his younger brother used to spend all day at our house in Bikaner in western Rajasthan. But they weren’t allowed to eat with me or enter my room. I was simply told “Ye darogon ke hain, barabar nahin aa sakta.” He is a darogah and can’t be equal to us. (Unsurprisingly, there is a hierarchy even within the list of colloquial—and usually contemptuous—titles for the community: “Rawna” is considered respectable; “darogah” is somewhere in the middle, but “gola” is an outright slur.  )
When I told Jitendra about this story, he narrated several instances of discrimination, even by people he considered friends. “One night, when I was drinking with my Rajput college friends,” Jitendra said, “I was ordered by one of them to clean the tables and make the beds for everyone.” Jitendra was taken aback: he had been actively hiding his caste from his friends. “When I responded in anger, he degraded me with casteist remarks. He said that as a Rawna, I was naturally their kamdar. I cried all week.”
“The first thing that props up a star criminal here is caste. The second is political patronage.”
When it comes to matters of employment and marriage, Rawnas often attempt to pass as Rajput. But caste is so deeply entrenched in Rajasthani society that this is far from easy. When two people who claim to be from Rajput communities meet socially for the first time, they go through a curious verbal exchange to establish credentials. It includes questions about family background, clan distribution and places of origin. If a person is unable to satisfy the other’s curiosity, they are assumed to be Rawna and treated accordingly.
All these everyday humiliations would have coloured the early part of Anand Pal’s life. But in passing over to the world of crime, he made a break from the caste label stuck to him at birth.
Rajasthan’s illegal liquor trade was also one of many battlefields for the state’s longrunning Rajput-Jat caste war. For many years, it had extended into the state’s politics. In 2006, when the gangster and bootlegger Dara Singh was killed in a police encounter, his Jat community demanded a CBI investigation and accused BJP minister Rajendra Singh Rathore of arranging it to favour the Rajput liquor mafia. In June 2016, a Rajput bootlegger Chatur Singh Sodha was gunned down by the Rajasthan police near Jaisalmer. The Rajputs, including a BJP MLA Chhotu Singh Bhati, took to the streets to demand a CBI inquiry.
“The first thing that props up a star criminal here is caste,” the Jhunjhunu-based senior journalist Vipin Mahamia said. “The second is political patronage.” Mahamia suggested that caste may be a smokescreen for politicians to maintain control of the liquor trade. He pointed out that many of Anand Pal’s associates and gang members were Jats. Many of his Jat rivals had Rajputs in their own gangs.
“The politicians wanted Anand Pal to rise,” Mahamia argued. “Chatur Sodha, Dara Singh—it is all the same story. We are the fools who go to the streets and yell for justice. But this cycle of propping up a hero and then discarding him is all planned.”
Patronage And Betrayal
n 2012, six years after the murder of Jeevan Ram Godara, Anand Pal and his associate Balbir Banuda were arrested by Rajasthan Police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad and Special Operations Group from a farmhouse on the outskirts of Jaipur.
They were moved from jail to jail across Rajasthan, and finally brought to Bikaner on 19 July 2014. Four days later, rivals from a Jat gang assassinated Balbir Banuda inside the jail. Anand Pal survived being shot at. Revenge was swift and brutal: he killed the Jat gangsters with stones and bricks. The caste war in jail made national headlines, and played a big part in Anand Pal’s legend spreading beyond the Shekhawati region.
On 3 September 2015, Anand Pal Singh was once again moved from prison in Ajmer for a court hearing in Didwana. Usually, no less than a hundred police officers escorted him. But on the day, conspicuously, the security detail had been whittled down to 15 men.
On the way back to Ajmer, Anand Pal offered laced sweets to the policemen, intoxicating them. His aides blocked the highway at Khokhar village near Parbatsar and opened fire at the armoured vehicle. The drugged police officers were unable to retaliate, and Anand Pal escaped with his two companions.
It was a cinematic escape,  and a major embarrassment for the state government, already facing accusations of political patronage to the mafia. Rumour was rife that a cabinet minister, known to be close to then chief minister Vasundhara Raje, had met Anand Pal in Bikaner jail.
Over the years, Anand Pal’s political alliances gave him immunity. “Surely, he was in touch with his political bosses during this time but smartly,” a serving police officer told me. “He needed them and was getting their work done from hideouts.”
The police officer said that tip-offs about Anand Pal’s whereabouts came from places in Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab. As the search for him intensified, a bunch of his properties were seized and more than 100 members of his gang were arrested.
His fugitive life was contributing to his popularity. “His fan pages were another headache, we got tired of tracking them and getting them deleted,” said the officer. “Those were mostly run by young school- and college-going students, who found him charismatic.”
Politicians from the BJP wanted to leverage this following, but without making Anand Pal the face, a family aide, who asked not to be named, alleged. “They wanted him to handle things from behind,” the aide said. But Anand Pal was not happy to drive from the backseat. In August 2016, still in hiding and with no plans to be physically present, he funded a rally in Jaipur in order to present himself as a leader.
“We got tired of tracking Anand Pal’s fan pages and getting them deleted. They were mostly run by school- and college-going students.”
“This didn’t go over well,” the aide said. “That day, it was decided that he will be assassinated.” Several police officials, journalists and even the bootlegger I spoke to, confirmed that Anand Pal’s desire for the political spotlight had contributed to his going out of favour.
“In the second half of 2016, I had met some top officials who were handling the case,” a Rawna Rajput community leader told me. “It became clear that he was to be assassinated soon; the green signal had come from the top. I talked to Anand Pal’s mother who was in touch with him and asked her to get him to surrender for his long life but they were in no mood for it.”
On 12 June 2017, Haryana police arrested Anand Pal’s brother Rupendra Pal and his aide Devendra from Sirsa in Haryana. At the time, director general of police Manoj Bhatt had told reporters that these two revealed Anand Pal’s hideout to be Shrawan Singh’s house in Malasar village of Churu district.
In the dead of night on 24 June, the Special Operations Group of the Rajasthan Police, an Emergency Response Team, commando troops of the Haryana Police and the Churu Police killed Anand Pal in an exchange of gunfire. The officials claimed that the gangster was repeatedly asked to surrender, but he responded with firing every time.
His family, for their part, suggested that he was always ready to surrender, but was denied police protection. His supporters believed that if he were caught alive, he would have given up identities of the politicians who had provided him cover and blessed his 2015 escape from jail.
Ram Lal Sharma, MLA and chief spokesperson for the BJP in Rajasthan told me that his party had nothing to do with the encounter. “The accusations of the involvement of the leaders are totally baseless,” he said. “All of it was totally done under the purview of state police. BJP works for the ‘chattis kaum’  and not any specific community or caste.”
A New Identity
It was our responsibility to get them justice,” Mahipal Singh Makrana, president of the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, told me. It was the old attitude: the overlords had to look after their kamdars. “We stood by them till the end, and that’s why I am being prosecuted by the CBI in the violence case there.” In connection with the protests after Anand Pal’s death, Makrana was one of 24 Rajput community leaders who were charged with offences like rioting, attempt to murder and use of criminal force against public servants.
“Our stance was clear from the beginning: he was a gangster and we don’t support his criminal activities,” Makrana said. “But the way he was killed was wrong and unlawful.” 
Anand Pal Singh’s death and cult have directly addressed his community’s identity crisis. The outpouring of Rajput solidarity has enabled the Rawnas to step out of the shadows of the Rajputs and claim equal standing.
Many Rawna Rajputs I spoke to said they have been openly presenting themselves as Rawnas after Anand Pal’s death. Many have changed their surnames, and said that their Rajput acquaintances have been treating them with a newfound respect.
“Our choices are being valued today, and we are being heard,” Virendra Rawna told me. “It’s been a change in the making since the 1990s when our organisation started its work, but certainly, his death has boosted it.”
The community’s demands are also being raised and discussed in the state assembly. In an assembly session in February 2021, Rawna Rajput MLA Jhabhar Singh Sankhla demanded that the community should be referred to as “Rawna Rajput” in government records: alternate names for them should be expunged from revenue records and other documents. A similar demand was also raised by MLA Madan Prajapat.
There are now a dozen Rawna Rajput organisations across Rajasthan, actively promoting the culture and history of the community. Most of these organisations were established after Anand Pal’s death.
The cult continues to thrive on social media, too. There are Facebook fan pages with names like “Anand Pal Singh ‘Tiger of Rajputana’” and “Youth Brigade of Anand Pal Singh.” On Instagram, his supporters now post reels, set to rousing music, of Anand Pal posing with arms.
This August, travelling through my state, I came across many hoardings and posters urging people to donate blood on the anniversary of Anand Pal’s death. In fact, similar camps are held throughout the year in his honour. The chief guest is often Anand Pal’s daughter Yogita, or his brother Manjeet Pal.
Both Yogita and Manjeet were star campaigners during the 2018 assembly elections. Their social media handles are bursting with photographs from public meetings and rallies. They attract huge crowds on the back of Anand Pal’s name. Yogita has even coined a greeting phrase with her father’s name, “Jai Shree Anand.”  Rajputs don’t hesitate to invite them to their events, accompany them, or share the stage with them.
The irony of the messaging is not lost on some. “They actually want to contest elections in the name of the gangster for which they are trying to transform his image from a gangster to a wise man,” a local from Sanvrad told me. “But a gangster will always be a gangster. Yes, Anand Pal’s death united the caste. We are grateful for that but we can’t vote for a criminal.”
Such voices remain in the minority for the moment. The enduring image of Anand Pal is of a man who earned the right to be treated as an equal to a Rajput. “The deadly protests made me realise that if he, being such a big shot, wasn’t ashamed of being Rawna, why should I be,” said Jitendra, who has now changed his surname.
“Because of AP, we are no longer kamdars, but Rawnas.”