A rebel who found his cause
The life of Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Punjab FC, who ignited a mini-revolution in Indian football during his journey from ‘Gangster Bajaj’ to ‘Reformed Ranjit’
“You don’t really hear it when they shut that door behind you. But trust me, it’s the loudest silence in the world.”
Ranjit Bajaj’s pupils have dilated to the extent where his brown eyes now appear wholly black. Below this coin-sized void and under his gaunt face, Bajaj’s neck is home to thick, protruding veins, and the speech emitting from his throat is shrill. It is the sound of a drowning man gasping for air—a metaphor quite appropriate to many of the situations Bajaj has found himself in during his 40-year existence.
This is the pitch Bajaj hits as he approaches the climax of a story. Any story. It could be about how his dogs ate their breakfast that morning, or about why he spent a few hundred hours over the last few weeks watching footage of Bhutanese strikers to make one hire for his football team, the 2017-18 I-League champions Minerva Punjab FC (renamed Punjab FC from this season on).
But at this specific moment, Bajaj is telling a tale deserving of this body language in a voice that is best described as a blend of a dot-matrix printer and Farhan Akhtar. All the while his palms grip and release the arms of the sofa and his feet curl and uncurl over the cushion. He isn’t narrating as much as vividly recalling, in his mind’s eye, the last time he was arrested by the police on an attempt-to-murder charge. The imagery has gotten all too real for him.
The cops. The handcuffs. The soundless latch on the wrought-iron door. The 65 days he spent in Ambala jail as an under-trial.
“It was at that moment, in the first minute of the first hour of my time in jail, that I decided that I wanted to change my life. I wanted to be born again,” Bajaj says, smacking a fist into his thigh. “And there, in that concrete dormitory with other convicts watching, I told myself, ‘Bro, when you are out of here—and you will be released soon because this is a false charge—you will set about achieving all that you ever dreamed of. Scuba dive, sky dive, climb Mt. Everest…
“But even in those wild and fantastic promises that one makes to feel better in jail, I never thought I would own and run a football team,” he says. “A team that won the nation’s top-flight competition in its second season, no less. That’s how crazy it has been.”
‘Crazy’ doesn’t quite cut to describe the life and times of Ranjit Bajaj, before or after his time in Central Jail, Ambala. He has, at different points in his life, been a student politician, a state-level goalkeeper, a bouncer at a nightclub, a sports-bar owner, a nine-to-five sales manager, an MTV Roadies contestant in its first season, a vice-president at a bank, an under-trial praying for bail in another jail, the liaison officer to the Pakistan cricket team, a coke-head, a reformed addict, a mountaineer, a deep-sea diver, an owner of a national record, an instructor to aspiring army cadets, the brains behind a car-recovery racket, the prodigal son of a family of government servants, a hands-on manager of a league-winning football club, the pride of his family, and a certified troublemaker in the corridors of the All India Football Federation
But the attempt-to-murder charge is an apt place to begin his story as it neatly splits his time on earth into two parts: From “Gangster Bajaj” to “Reformed Ranjit”, as he likes to put it.
“My so-called attempt at murder…” he says. “An attempt that saw no weapons involved and the so-called victim walking around the next day with no real bruises.”
This is a summer night in 2010, and a 32-year-old Bajaj has just exited Hotel North Park in Panchkula and entered the parking lot with two women—his girlfriend and her best friend.
“It was late and the bar in the hotel had shut, so there were some five boys drinking out of the dickie of a car—car-o-bar, as we call it in the north. And as we passed them, one of them passed seriously horrible comments on the girls,” he says, the old rage churning somewhere deep down. He bottles it up with a breath and continues.
“So, yeah, I beat the crap out of him!” Bajaj says, shrugging. “When I got home I found out from my father that the boy was the son of a sitting High Court judge of Punjab and Haryana, and they lived some ten houses away from us in Chandigarh.”
When the Haryana police arrived the next morning at his doorstep, armed with a report that stated that he “put a pistol in the victim’s mouth, cocked and fired, only for the victim to be saved because the gun misfired”, Bajaj decided to flee. He gave the cops the old back-door slip.
Why, I ask, if he was innocent?
“Because they were going to take me back to Panchkula!” He says, broadening his eyes and the second syllable until it became ‘Panch-kooolah’.
“That’s Haryana, where the boy’s father was a sitting judge. I wouldn’t have survived the night!”
To cut to the chase, quite literally, Bajaj was on the run for close to two months, shuttling between Agra and Udaipur before he decided to turn around in Mumbai and surrender. “I was tired of running and tired of being afraid too, mainly because I hadn’t done anything wrong. And my actions weren’t fair on my parents, who were retired IAS officers and much respected in our society. That’s why I went back to surrender, but they made it seem like I was nabbed.”
Any which way, after those two months in jail, Bajaj found that the case had been withdrawn.
“But that’s what has happened to all of the 27 cases against me in five states,” Bajaj says, twisting his hands in appeal. “None of them stuck. Once, long before this, I had spent 101 days in Burail jail in Chandigarh on a kidnapping charge, which was bullshit too. All I had done was lock a kleptomaniac up in a room in my house. And how did that end? The high court dismissed the FIR for being false.”
It is a lot to unpack, even for the man who has lived through it all, and Bajaj refills his cup with a fresh batch of strong, black coffee before carrying on.
“Still, in many ways, I am what I am today because of those days in Ambala jail. Even though the allegation proved to be false, I still stuck by my promise. I did flip my life around once I was a free man. Now everyday is the first day of my life.”
In one of those clichéd first days, he woke up as a certified PADI instructor. On another, in 2011, his swim in the glacial waters of Lake Pumori (situated below Mt. Everest) was recognised by the Limca Book of Records as the ‘highest altitude swim by an Indian.’
“That was a spur of the moment thing, while I was summiting the mountain,” he says. “But, bro, that’s the thing about me. I detest being mundane, which is why I have always pushed the limits, be it with the law, or my body or now (chuckling heavily) with the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
“Take any chapter from my life, it would be the biggest highlight of somebody else’s existence,” he says, flushing down all pretences of modesty like the coffee down his deeply veined throat.
BUNCH OF MISFITS
“The AIFF can’t use my past against me because I openly say I was a gangster. And my past has made me what I am today – a rebel in their eyes, a hero for north Indian football.”
If Bajaj’s life is akin to a twisting hurricane, then football is simply the flying cow. There are objects of more consequence in that swirl—like an uprooted house—but the whirling, still-mooing cow remains the most spectacular sight.
Bajaj says that while he nursed no large-scale ambition to own a football team, let alone a national-level one, he did decide during his time in jail that he would make playing top-level football his priority again. And he claims to have achieved that by representing Chandigarh (as a goalkeeper) in the Delhi edition of the Santosh Trophy at the ripe old age of 36; which would make the year 2014.
But there’s a catch: Delhi last hosted Santosh Trophy in 2004, where Chandigarh were held to two goalless draws and lost one game, which is in accordance with the rest of his claims; “I kept two clean sheets and conceded only one goal, which resulted in our only loss.” Even if we assume that he did keep goal for that edition of the tournament, it would make him a 26-year-old footballer and not 36, and more significantly, it would place the event well before he achieved his moment of epiphany.
This isn’t to say he is lying. With the same gusto, Bajaj also claimed that the first season of MTV Roadies, in which he was a contestant, was filmed in 2009, when it was actually 2003. But perhaps that’s the trade-off to participating in all that life has to offer—one’s timeline gets a bit murky.
Where there is little ambivalence is in Bajaj’s singular role in keeping football in Punjab alive. It started with a pipe-dream.
“My grandfather’s Minerva Academy had been running a local cricket club since the turn of the century. So, when I saw the football talent that was on display in my city, I decided to open a football wing. Just to see how far they could go if they had any sort of backing,” he says. “It was nothing big. We were mainly playing six-a-side games across Chandigarh.”
Minerva Academy Football Club were soon sweeping through the weekend tournaments, so Bajaj started sending the team to play six-a-side competitions across India. That triggered ambitions of first hiring enough players to start a full-fledged football club, and then entering the national league’s second division.
“I pored through the I-League rulebook and it said that to get into the second division, we needed to be state champions. But Chandigarh hadn’t had a state-level tournament in 14 years and the Chandigarh Football Association (CFA) was a defunct organisation with no office,” he says.
The CFA’s secretary would soon learn that it is close to impossible to break Bajaj’s resolve. If there wasn’t a state tournament, they would have to create one. If the association did not have money for it, Bajaj would give them some.
“I paid ~10,000 from my pocket to organise the tournament, and 46 clubs showed up,” Bajaj says.
Two of those clubs, Minerva Academy Football Club and Minerva Sharks, were Bajaj’s. They met each other in the final (MAFC, comprising the stronger players, beat the Sharks) and Bajaj was on his way to the national league.
“AIFF’s entry fee was ~3 lakh. And we calculated that the logistical expenses to play home and away would be at least ~40 lakh. At the very cheapest; buses instead of flights, dormitories instead of hotels,” he says. “I didn’t have that kind of money. But that wasn’t going to stop me. I borrowed heavily—from my mother’s provident fund and from friends.
“And there we were, a bunch of misfits, an accidental club, with an accidental owner and accidental players, taking on the likes of Mohammedan Sporting and Dempo SC.
“It was beautiful.”
In their very first appearance in I-League 2, in the 2015-16 season, the newly branded Minerva Punjab FC went unbeaten in the Western Conference and traversed their way through the integrated play-offs and made it to the big final, where they would meet five-time national champions, Goa’s Dempo. They lost 3-1, but as luck would have it, the newly-promoted Dempo, along with their fellow Goan clubs Salgaocar FC and Sporting Club de Goa, pulled out of the 2016-17 season of the I-League, all of them protesting against the AIFF’s plans to make the Indian Super League (ISL)—a privately-owned franchise tournament at that point—the country’s premier football league. Today, Bajaj is seen as the de facto leader-of-opposition to the ISL regime. But back then, he knew he would be foolish to pass up a golden opportunity.
“We were the runners-up to Dempo, and once they had pulled out of the I-League, Minerva should have rightfully been invited to participate in the top division,” says Bajaj. “But my relationship with the AIFF has never been easy. And they decided to fill Dempo’s void via corporate entry.”
There are many mythical stories on how Bajaj swayed the votes his way, but he claims it hinged solely on his presentation that road-mapped the revival of football in north India. And there are many apocryphal stories on how Bajaj inspired his men to win the I-League in only their second top-flight season in 2017-18. But the most incredulous tale must be heard from Bajaj himself. He calls it the ‘blood bath’. It happened before a match in Kolkata against Mohun Bagan.
“There were close to 65,000 spectators at the Salt Lake Stadium and we had never beaten Mohun Bagan before,” Bajaj says. “Forget having never played in front of so many people, some of my first-team players had never played under lights. And they were so nervous that some of them were actually shaking in the changing room, so I knew I had to do something dramatic to inspire them,” he says. Then he points at his forearm and says: “I made the team physio draw a quart of blood so I could bathe the players in it.”
The players stood in a line and Bajaj smeared palms of blood on each of their foreheads, reminding them that they were not footballers but gladiators.
“They actually transformed into warriors. They spontaneously started thumping their chests and roaring out war-cries!” he says. “Within 20 minutes we were two-nil up. That day we won more than just that match; we won the confidence to win the entire season.”
“I am living my only unfulfilled dream through you f***ers. When you get a star or a stripe, it will be like me getting a star or a stripe. You are going to be India’s finest. Make me proud.”
In a musty classroom inside Minerva Academy, young boys and girls rise in unison from behind their wooden desks as Bajaj passes them to take the podium. They are part of the latest batch of trainees in Minerva’s written-wing.
“How’s the josh?” Bajaj yells from his vantage point, his full-sleeved arms held behind his back as he paces back and forth.
“High, sir,” they respond as one.
Today is induction day and Bajaj soon has the students eating out of his hand: with tales covering everything from how he got into MTV Roadies without knowing how to ride a motorbike to climbing past frozen-to-death mountaineers on Everest. Names are liberally dropped—“Rannvijay Singh is a buddy, so is MS Dhoni”—and so are F-bombs. “I’ll effing toughen the eff out of you eff-ers!”
The school provides coaching for a range of entrance examinations for the armed forces and their academies.
“This academy was in neglect till I took over five years ago,” he tells me after we step out of the classroom and into a campus that has been in the family since his maternal grandfather, Lt.Col. Deol, established it in 1955.
It’s close to dusk and the campus is abuzz. Some of the students are on the volleyball court, others are talking in groups outside the dining hall. The ones in the red bibs are hoping to clear the National Defence Academy (NDA) exam, the blue bibs are here to train for the Service Selection Board (SSB) entrance; the ones without bibs are Bajaj’s beloved age-group footballers—all of them jostling for space in the many hostels sprinkled around this vast campus.
The sun has set when we enter the academy’s main office, where the co-owner of his football team, his wife, Henna, is working behind a desk cluttered with papers, files and the I-League trophy.
“I had to get the cup made because AIFF still hasn’t sent me a replica,” Bajaj says. “I got tired of reminding them daily and the wait was killing me, so I did what had to be done. It cost me ~80,000.”
The story of how he met Henna, like every Bajaj narration, is not without its fair share of twists and turns. “The PCO guy outside my college in Chandigarh told me that there is this girl who talks only about football on the phone conversations she makes from his booth,” he says, grinning. “So, the next time she was there, the PCO guy, who was my friend, called me.
“When I saw her I knew she was the one.”
Bajaj is chuckling aloud, but before the memories can carry him away he gathers himself.
“Henna, in fact, cured me of my biggest problem.”
Bajaj doesn’t drink—claims to never have—but took to coke when he was in university in England and continued using when he started his corporate life back in India. Soon enough, the habit and the long hours he kept began to take a toll on his health, so Bajaj checked himself into rehab only to promptly relapse soon after.
“When my fourth attempt at rehab failed, I told Henna, who was then working in Dubai, that I wanted to get clean with her help,” Bajaj says in a low voice. “She asked me to pack my bags and come to Dubai, where drugs are almost impossible to procure. So I did, locking myself up in a room in her flat. She remained very patient through the range of my mood swings as I went cold turkey.
“It worked. I have been clean for eleven years now.”
Darkness has crept over Chandigarh noisily, through the chirping of crickets. Bajaj’s working day is not yet over. He has to watch match footage to vet prospective players with his wife. Then he will induct two more batches into the Minerva training programme.
“Only then will I get to rest,” he says. “Would you like to see how?”
He leads me out of the office and into a backyard, where I half expect to see cartons stacked with energy drinks. Instead, the area is packed with dogs; lots and lots of stray dogs, all clambering for his attention as we walk into a shelter.
“There are 72 rescues here, and this is how I unwind,” he says, lowering himself on to his haunches in the central courtyard. There, amid the terrific howls and rattling of cages, Bajaj folds his legs and shuts his eyes, allowing the squeals of undivided affection to wash over him.