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Grenades, Cheap Gas, and a Godman: The Cult That Went to War With Police in India

At least 29 people were killed last week when police in India ousted members of a religious sect from a public park where they had built a secretive mini-state.
Photo par Rajat Gupta/EPA

They draw their inspiration from a World War II-era Nazi collaborator and, until recently, maintained a secretive mini-state in the heart of a major city in northern India, complete with its own judicial system, army, and jails. They want dirt cheap gasoline and a new currency to replace the rupee. They also want to eliminate the Indian electoral processes — but it's not clear what they would propose as a replacement.


They are the Azad Bharat Vidhik Vaicharik Kranti Satyagrahi, or the Free India Legal Ideas Revolutionary Protesters, a cultish religious sect that made international headlines recently after police ousted 3,000 members from a large public park they had been occupying in the town of Mathura in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The park occupation began as a protest in 2014, and the group simply never left. Instead, they created their own pseudo-government and amassed a large stockpile of weapons.

The eviction last Thursday sparked clashes that left at least 29 people dead, including two police officers. Around 40 people were injured, and authorities took hundreds into custody. Sect members attacked the police with swords, grenades, and guns, triggering a firefight that involved several large explosions caused by canisters of cooking gas detonating. The dead included Ram Vriksh Yadav, the sect's most recent leader.

But before the melee, the sect issued a list of demands that, while often bizarre, reflected growing disgust among the broader public with India's ruling elites.

The aftermath of clashes between police and members of a cultish religious sect in Mathura, India. (Photo by Rajat Gupta/EPA)

Karine Schomer, a former South Asian Studies professor at University of California, Berkeley who is a now a business consultant to Indian and American corporations, said Indian politicians face incredibly thorny challenges in managing the anger of religious groups like Azad Bharat.

"Religion in India, like here in the US, is something that you touch at your own peril. Religion is sacred," she said. "A lot of things are left to ride because it's religion. There is a fear of coming down too hard too soon because it's all so volatile. The government often really doesn't know what to do before it gets too big."


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Many of the protesters in Mathura are part of Yadav caste, a group of farmers a few notches above India's lowest "untouchable" caste. Yadavs resent the affirmative action programs India has adopted for the untouchables, as well as the big companies that have pushed Yadavs and others off their land to make way for the industrial developments that are transforming India into an economic powerhouse.

India's poor complain about being left behind as the country's economy booms, and they often see their leaders as out-of-touch elites who have forgotten about their plight.

And sometimes they are right.

'There is a fear of coming down too hard too soon because it's all so volatile. The government often really doesn't know what to do before it gets too big.'

The member of parliament who represents Mathura, the Bollywood actress Hema Malini, came under withering criticism for tweeting about her upcoming film while her constituents were dying in the streets. Later, she offered condolences to the families who lost loved ones in the fight, and said she was unaware that the clashes were happening.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was meeting a group of Indian ambassadors when the shooting started. He blamed the police for the bloodshed.

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"There were some lapses. Police should have gone with full preparation and after holding talks, but there was no information that they would be having so much arms and ammunition," Akhilesh told the Economic Times.

That explanation failed to impress Yadav's political rivals, who pointed out that the cultists had occupied the park for the last two years. The chief minister had even given the protesters a 48-hour ultimatum in April to kick them out, though he failed to take action when the deadline passed.

"The ruling party first had over 280 acres of land captured by these criminals," said Shrikant Sharma, a leader in the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, speaking to The Times of India.

The sect occupying the park was formerly led by Baba Jai Gurudev, a colorful figure who reportedly owned vast tracts of land and more than 250 luxury cars when he died in 2012, purportedly at the age of 116.

Jai Gurudev espoused an egalitarian spiritual philosophy called "sant mat," which refutes the hierarchy of India's invidious traditional caste system. He styled himself as a "sant," or a holy man in that tradition. Schomer said Jai Gurudev was a "godman," an Indian term that is equivalent to a televangelist in the United States.

"Who is a sant? There's no papacy, so you are godman if you say you are a godman," Schomer said. "You are a sant if people think you are a sant. Think of it as many modern educated Indians do: There's a huge godman racket. Their form of recruitment of followers is to appeal to a combination of some spiritual themes and ideas and to a lot of resentment of the modern world and the fact that they have genuine social grievances."


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Gurudev claimed to be inspired by Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian nationalist who worked with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to overthrow the British Raj. Many of Gurudev's followers have embraced Bose's contested legacy — he is revered by some for his anti-colonial crusade — by taking a stance against India's liberal Congress Party, which is now in the opposition but dominated Indian politics for much of the period after the British departed in the late 1940s.

The demands issued by the evicted protesters in Mathura included a request for the government to make public documents related to Bose's death, which Schomer said reflects the group's belief in conspiracy theories about how Bose left Indian politics.

"There is a belief that he didn't die in a plane crash off Taiwan in 1945 but that he went off to Russia and died in Russia and that the Congress government wanted to hide this," said Schomer.

'Ideas that were previously considered fringe and kept in check have been allowed to surface.'

That wasn't the only unusual demand issued by the protesters. They also wanted to replace the rupee, India's currency, with the "Azad Hind Fauj," an allusion to the Indian government in exile that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan established in Singapore during World War II.

The sect members also sought to do away with India's electoral system, and asked the government to slash fuel prices to 1.5 cents for around 13 gallons. The latter request dovetailed with their occupation of the park, which they said was in the spirit of "dharna," a type of non-violent sit-in designed to force an offending party, especially a debtor, to comply with justice or pay what he or she owes.


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It's unclear how the cult amassed such a huge cache of weapons without attracting the attention of authorities, especially since the park where the clashes occurred is located next to several police and government buildings. Yadav, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, said police were not "fully prepared" for the operation, and transferred two top police officials out of Mathura after the dust settled following the clashes last week.

In many ways, Modi's tenure as prime minister has exacerbated the situation with religious extremism in India. Elected in 2014 on a pro-business platform, Modi has come under fire for allying himself with Hindu nationalists who have made wild claims, like how ancient Indians invented spaceships. He's also been criticized for being slow to condemn the lynching of Muslims falsely accused of eating beef, which is forbidden because Hindus consider cows sacred. Even before he was elected, Modi was accused of not doing enough as governor to stop anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002 that left more than 1,000 people dead.

Modi's pro-Hindu rule has created a climate where religious tensions are on the rise, according to Schomer.

"It has created an atmosphere in which ideas that were previously considered fringe and kept in check have been allowed to surface," she said.

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr