Mathura clashes

Deadly devotion

Print edition : July 08, 2016

Burnt vehicles at Jawahar Bagh following clashes between the followers of Ram Vriksh Yadav and the police. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The residence of District Horticultural Officer Mukesh Kumar destroyed in the fire. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Ram Vriksh Yadav, the head of the Swadheen Bharat Vidhik Satyagrah.

A vehicle bearing posters of Subhas Chandra Bose and questions asking whether he was dead or had been kidnapped. Ram Vriksh Yadav and his followers believed that their spiritual guru, Jai Gurudev, was Bose himself and had been kidnapped by a rival faction. Photo: Divya Trivedi

The clash between the members of a cult and the police in Mathura may be yet another case of cults gaining influence and power over gullible masses and thriving under political patronage.

LIKE most pilgrimage centres in north India, the lure of Mathura, barely a couple of hours drive from Delhi, is its languor and decadence. Its teeming thoroughfares where cattle and traffic jostle for space and its claim to fame as the birthplace of Krishna attract a motley crowd of travellers and pilgrims. It is not unusual for some of them to stay put in a place like that. But ever since Ram Vriksh Yadav and the members of his Swadheen Bharat Vidhik Satyagrah (SBVS) moved in to Jawahar Bagh, a 280-acre lush green haven in the heart of the town, two years ago, natives of the pilgrim town in Uttar Pradesh have been wary.

Ram Vriksh Yadav came to Mathura on January 11, 2014, with a handful of followers from Sagar in Madhya Pradesh for a two-day protest under the banner of the SBVS. Their ostensible aim was to get from the District Magistrate a copy of the death certificate of their spiritual leader Jai Gurudev, who they believed was not dead but had been kidnapped by a rival faction within the cult led by Pankaj Yadav. Jai Gurudev claimed himself to be the legendary freedom fighter Subas Chandra Bose. “It was not Jai Gurudev who was cremated. It was a putla [life-size replica],” claimed a member of the SBVS. (He reportedly died at the age of 116 in 2012.) The group was supposed to head to Jantar Mantar in Delhi later to continue the protest. But they never left. The park became a camp for thousands of his followers as a cult began to grow around him, and they soaked up his outrageous teachings. On June 2, a police team that reached Jawahar Bagh to evict the trespassers was caught off guard as men atop trees fired at its members and those on the ground attacked them with lathis and bricks. In the clashes that followed, Ram Vriksh Yadav and 25 cult members were killed. Superintendent of Police (City) Mukul Dwivedi and Station House Officer Farah Santosh Yadav also died in the operation. The police had acted on the order of the Allahabad High Court given in a public interest litigation (PIL) petition filed by Advocate Vijay Pal Tomar, who claims he is with the Rashtriya Lok Dal, on May 20, 2015.

Even as the operation was on, the entire park was set on fire, which the police and the survivors accused each other of doing. Trees were burnt and a chain of cooking gas cylinders burst, destroying everything inside. As the fires went out, the remains of a self-sufficient colony that the cult members had built emerged from the waste and destruction. According to the police, 47 guns, six rifles and hundreds of hand grenades were recovered from the camp. More than 360 people were arrested, including women and old people. Several children who had been in the camp were sent to a shelter in Ferozabad.

Vijay Pal Tomar told Frontline: “The cult members used to say openly that ‘nobody’s grandfather’s grandfather can do anything to us. We have the support of Shivpal Singh Yadav.’” Shivpal is the younger brother of the Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Minister in charge of the Public Works Department in the State.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national president Amit Shah accused Shivpal Singh Yadav of protecting the Jawahar Bagh encroachers.

The Samajwadi Party denied the allegations as baseless. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav announced a compensation of Rs.20 lakh each for the families of the policemen who were killed in the operation and ordered a judicial inquiry into the matter after the Supreme Court rejected an appeal filed by BJP spokesperson Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Besides, District Magistrate Rajesh Kumar and Senior Superintendent of Police Rakesh Kumar Singh were summarily transferred.

Meanwhile, Mathura was trying to come to terms with what happened. Jawahar Bagh, located on prime land in close proximity to the court, the police station, the army cantonment, the Collectorate, and the jail, officially came under the State Horticultural Department. After Ram Vriksh Yadav and his group took over the park, they slowly turned into a self-sufficient colony, with a market, grain-crushing machinery, vehicles (cars, vans, bikes), a school, a community kitchen offering three meals a day, hutments, flush toilets and bathing enclosures coming up under blue tarpaulin roofs. The pipelines and drainage system of the park were diverted for drinking and washing purposes in the colony.

Prayers were held in the mornings, ending with Jai Hind, Jai Subhas. For an hour daily, Ram Vriksh would use loudspeakers to make a speech from a podium invoking the ideals of Jai Gurudev. He vowed to lead a national movement for economic freedom and demanded that the Indian currency be replaced with gold coins. He advocated the setting up of an Azad Hind Sarkar with the army of Subhas Bose leading it and made demands of doing away with the electoral processes for appointing the President and the Prime Minister.

According to Pramod Kumar, District Agricultural Officer, he filed Right to Information (RTI) applications in almost all government departments in the State seeking answers for bizarre questions like “Who is the ruler of the chair you are sitting on? Give proof of your citizenship? Who rules the Parliament? Who rules the judiciary?” “We returned them by saying there was no information available,” Pramod Kumar told Frontline.

Other officials claimed that Ram Vriksh Yadav had started selling off 200 yards each inside the park to the encroachers and had already collected money for the registration. Vijay Pal Tomar said the real estate value of the park would be around Rs.5,000 crore. But his followers refuted it. One of them said: “We have homes and farms back home. We do not need any land. They are false charges to frame us.” When Frontline spoke to some of them, they appeared confused. Each of them gave different reasons for being a part of Ram Vriksh’s entourage. Many had lived full lives back in their villages as farmers, labourers or shopkeepers and joined the cult of Jai Gurudev in their old age. When his “disciple” Ram Vriksh moved to the park, they followed him as they too believed that Jai Gurudev was still alive. Many of them claimed they did not know there were weapons in the camp.

Jawahar Bagh housed the residences of some seven employees of the Horticulture Department, including that of District Horticultural Officer Mukesh Kumar. According to Kishan Singh, an employee, they were not allowed to get too close to the camp. When officers of the Horticultural Department came to harvest the potatoes that were grown on the premises, they were beaten up and made to flee. The employees said that on March 15 they were beaten up and evicted from their quarters and that their homes were looted. They did not go back to their quarters after that.

Mukesh Kumar, too, left the premises fearing for the safety of his wife and children. “I think they wanted me to stay there, perhaps to use me as a hostage in case of a police crackdown, so I left as quietly as I could,” he said.

Over the past two years, around 15 first information reports (FIRs) were registered with the police against the cult’s activities. Officials said their seniors in the department were apprised of the cult’s growing tentacles inside the park. “Several letters were sent to the district headquarters when government schemes and missions were stopped by Ram Vriksh inside the park. Farmers were beaten up and two of them sustained serious head injuries. Once when the City Magistrate arrived with the thana chief [station officer], they were beaten up so badly that they spent a few months in the Agra Hospital. Field officers on a visit were surrounded by more than a hundred people and beaten up. A woman among them was almost stripped. Even the police were chased away. Often officers were held hostage for hours. I too was locked in for some hours and intimidated by them. My files were strewn around. There is not a single officer here who has not been threatened, abused, humiliated or beaten up,” said B.S. Bhaskar, Horticultural Department Officer, whose office is situated inside the park.

According to the employees and officers of the park, Ram Vriksh was an arrogant, rude and dictatorial person who picked a fight at the drop of a hat.

Armed guards were stationed at all the entry points of the park to restrict outsiders. Truckloads of vegetables and rations used to arrive in the evenings, no one seemed to know from where, raising eyebrows over the outside support for the cult. Later, gate passes were issued to people who came to buy stuff which was sold apparently at half the rates inside. As the population exploded close to 3,000, gate passes were also issued to “residents” to keep a tab on them.

Finally, on May 20, 2015, Vijay Pal Tomar filed his PIL petition in the Allahabad High Court for the preservation of the public park and asking for the eviction of the trespassers. In its order, the court noted the trail of letters over two years written by Tomar to the authorities about the unauthorised activities in the park which had evoked no action from them. He had even listed the damage to the property, including some 3,000 trees burnt for firewood. In the two years, the park suffered a loss of Rs.60 lakh, including the annual revenue collected from selling fruits from its trees, said Mukesh Kumar.

On April 27, 2015, the Commissioner of Agra Division sent a letter to the Collector and the Senior Superintendent of Police regarding the unlawful possession of the park, assaults on employees and the damage to property. Then came Tomar’s PIL. When there was still no action, Tomar moved a contempt of court petition on which an order was passed on January 22 this year. When the government cut off electricity and water supply in the park, Ram Vriksh approached the court. When the court rejected his plea, he went in for solar panels in the park.

A couple of days before the eviction drive, police teams did a reconnaissance of the park and made announcements on loudspeakers asking the encroachers to leave. A group of non-governmental organisations too marched outside it demanding their eviction. But on June 2, when Mukul Dwivedi broke a portion of the wall to enter the park, men were already stationed atop trees with guns. He was beaten to death and Farah Santosh Yadav was shot dead. After that it was complete mayhem. Many sustained serious injuries from iron rods and rubber pellets, especially on their legs. While survivors maintain that it was police action that killed the 25 people, the police said many of them were burnt to death in the fire set by the illegal occupants themselves.

The survivors refute the police claims. “Do you think anybody would burn their own homes? It was the police who burnt it all down,” one of them said. Some of them admitted that it may be a few miscreants from their side or infiltrators from Jai Gurudev’s ashram who could have set the whole camp afire.

Additional Director General (Law & Order) Daljit Singh Chaudhary told Frontline that the police had information that over a period of time the group had been getting themselves armed. “All the weapons recovered from the site were countrymade which can be obtained locally. There is no question of arms imports,” he said rubbishing media reports that the weapons were “Made in USA”. He categorically denied having found a rocket launcher as had been claimed by some media groups. All the henchmen of Ram Vriksh have been arrested, except for one, Rakesh Gupta, who is absconding, he said, adding that all the arrested would be booked under the National Security Act.

The Jai Gurudev cult

The Jai Gurudev cult has not been without controversies. Jai Gurudev, formerly known as Tulsidas, was born to a landed family in Uttar Pradesh. He left home in search of God after the death of his parents in his childhood. Ghurelal Sharma of Chirauli village of Aligarh district took the young Tulsidas under his wing. According to his disciples, he fasted for 12 hours a day and within a short span realised God. He claimed to be Subhas Chandra Bose himself and launched the Doordarshi Party, but gaining a foothold in electoral politics was a tall order for it.

Ironically for a god-man who preached that “relatives, friends, land, property would be left here and the soul would be dealt with according to our good or bad actions”, Gurudev amassed a lot of wealth. The story of how he became so wealthy remains a mystery.

Pankaj, Ram Vriksh and Umashankar Tiwari, the trusted followers of Jai Gurudev, were at loggerheads to be the sole legatees of his empire, comprising, amongst other things, a sprawling ashram, a gaushala (cattle shed) with 1,000 cows, a hospital, a college and a petrol pump. The Jai Gurudev temple on the Delhi-Mathura Highway, a bad replica of the Taj Mahal, advocates vegetarianism and admonishes “Mullahs, Maulvis and Imams” to follow the “correct path” as sermonised by “Mohammad Saab, Islam and Khuda”. Posters in several areas of the temple ask “persons taking meat, fish, egg and wine… not to put in money” in the charity box.

The entry to the ashram is guarded by armed security personnel. “Earlier there were no restrictions on entry. But ever since the ‘terrorist attack’ in Jawahar Bagh, there is a state of fear inside, and we have been asked not to allow anybody in,” said a guard. When asked about Pankaj, he said he was on a long “tour” of the country. Umashankar was persuaded to settle on the outskirts of Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh.

Local community members, farmers and the Uttar Pradesh State Industrial Development Corporation (UPSIDC) have accused Gurudev and his followers of land-grabbing. The UPSIDC has filed 16 cases against it in a Mathura court for encroaching on hundreds of acres of industrial land. There are 23 complaints from farmers too for usurping their land.

“But the cases are going nowhere and it is anybody’s guess as to why,” said Dr Lalit Mohan Sharma, a local resident, “but this is not about any one cult or one political party, all of them are guilty of it.”

Several charges of cult leaders and self-proclaimed god-men and women indulging in unscrupulous activities and corruption have emerged over the years. It seems as if the path to realisation is through political patronage and corruption.