In Ayodhya, which is one of the most lawless towns in India, disciples are killing their gurus to usurp precious temple land
Dhirendra K Jha | 28 Feb, 2013
In Ayodhya, which is one of the most lawless towns in India, disciples are killing their gurus to usurp precious temple land
The moment had almost come. His hands were inert, his eyes unable to see at all. His jaws seemed locked, his mouth and nostrils crushed under the suffocating weight of his assailant. A searing pain ran through his body as he made one last attempt to breathe. Then, as Ram Asare Das recounts, “Just when it seemed futile to struggle anymore, Lord Hanuman appeared before me with all His dazzle. I clung to Him and begged Him to save me. At that very moment, I felt a surge of energy in my hands and legs, and with a sudden force I freed myself from that deadly clutch. I jumped out of my bed and started shouting and running away from the temple.”
How Ram Asare Das gained the strength to fight off his assailant that night two years ago remains obscure, but heavenly benevolence is a force he devoutly believes in. A 90-year-old Naga Vairagi (militant ascetic), he has led a wanderer’s life ever since he left the Chauburji temple, located in Ayodhya’s Ramkot locality on a 7.5 acre campus with property worth crores of rupees. He has not returned even once to the ashram he had ruled for decades as its Mahant. If he goes back to his old temple, he fears, he will be killed by a former disciple who has taken over as Mahant—Brijmohan Das, president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in Ayodhya.
“About three years ago, Brijmohan Das asked me to give him power-of-attorney so that he could look after [legal] cases of the temple,” says Ram Asare Das, “But he misled me to sign papers registering the Mahantship of the temple in his name. For one year, he did not say anything, and then he started telling me that I had no right to stay there and must leave, which after the attempt on my life that night, I decided to.”
Brijmohan Das, who has now secured complete control over the temple and all its property, denies having tried to strangle his guru or having taken over his Mahantship through deception. “During his last days in the temple, my guru had started playing into the hands of the land mafia of Ayodhya and he wanted to sell all the property of the temple. I did not allow this and that is why he is levelling all kinds of charges against me,” he alleges. “Protecting the Hindu religion is my prime duty. If I cannot do this, I have no right to live in Ayodhya.”
Whatever the truth, Ram Asare Das could count himself among the luckier Mahants of Ayodhya, where murders for Mahantship are now common. Temples and akharas here have vast tracts of landed property, mostly donated by the Nawabs of Awadh and other princely states of the colonial era. Today, the town reeks of some violent conspiracy or the other hatched by disciples against their gurus, or by guru-brothers (disciples of the same guru) against those who possess what they covet. In fact, it would be hard to find a temple in Ayodhya where Mahantship is not entangled in some sort of dispute. These bids for control are usually that much more violent if property is involved.
Outsiders, especially lay devotees, are known to have a soft spot for the town, believed to be the birthplace of Lord Rama. Alas, they know little of the bloody succession battles at temples and ashrams, cases of which are so frequent that it would seem law-and-order holds no meaning for the town’s so-called Sadhu Samaj. ‘Might is right’ seems to be the rule in force, and violence is so widespread that it has become part of the local folklore. Thus goes a popular verse:
Charan dabaa ke sant bane hain,/ gardan dabaa Mahant;/ Parampara sab bhool gaye hain, / bhool gayen hain granth; / De doh inko bhi kuchh gyaan, / dharaa par ek baar tum phir aao, / Hey Rama.
(Became sadhu by messaging the feet, and Mahant by choking the throat; They have forgotten tradition and the scriptures; Enlighten them, come down to Earth one more time, O Rama.)
Aydhya’s sadhus agree that it all began around the mid-1980s. That is, around the time when the VHP, as an arm of the Sangh Parivar, began its mass mobilisation for the construction of a temple for Lord Rama at the site of the Babri Masjid, which was eventually demolished. “Over the past three decades, such incidents have increased enormously. Earlier elder Mahants used to be respected, but ever since the Rama temple movement was revived around the middle of the 1980s, the Mahants of Ayodhya have had to live in constant fear. Mahantship has now become a business,” says Ram Asare Das. “Not just my former temple, the VHP has been instrumental in getting its own men installed as Mahants in several other temples of Ayodhya.”
Locals say the revival of the Ramjanmabhoomi issue resulted in a rapidly rising influx of religious tourists. Most temples started getting converted into dharamshalas for their stay, and real estate prices shot up as demand rose. “There was also a change in the nature of religious tourism,” says Haridayal Mishra, a local sadhu who is close to Ayodhya’s Ramanandi Vairagi ascetics who hold him in esteem for his astrological skills. “Earlier, Ayodhya used to attract traditional devotees who had old relationships with their gurus and temples. But once the temple issue began heating up politically, tourists who had no past association with the town or its temples began visiting in large numbers.” Nor were they simple devotees, he says, and their money and aggression swayed sections of Ayodhya’s Sadhu Samaj away from their ascetic ideals. With the old ethos in decline, property and power came to be worshipped in ways that spelt pelf and violence.
Also, co-opting Ayodhya’s Mahants was crucial to the VHP’s scheme of things. As the Parishad calls itself an organisation of sadhus, it needed to present itself politically as their representative voice, particularly of the ascetics in Lord Rama’s town of birth. Some Mahants threw in their lot with the Sangh agenda, and many of those who did not were overthrown by ambitious sadhus who saw an opportunity for advancement in all this. Even now, as the VHP tightens its hold, so difficult is it for Mahants to stay aloof that only those with their own band of armed goons feel safe. “The VHP has trained sadhus here to achieve anything through crime,” says Raghunandan Das, Mahant of Satsang Ashram at Swargdwar in Ayodhya. “The dignity that Ayodhya’s sadhus have lost because of the VHP’s direct or indirect interference in determining successions at local temples can never be retrieved.”
It is well known how the Ramjanmabhoomi movement communalised the body politic of India’s Hindi belt, but its impact on the internal dynamics of Ayodhya’s Sadhu Samaj has never been a subject of serious research. The VHP’s role in creating a killing field in the town has escaped public scrutiny. The kind of insecurity and crime wrought by the movement can be gauged by how deeply it has penetrated this lawless town. “Almost 90 per cent of cases in Ayodhya are of this very nature,” says Ranjit Lal Varma, an advocate in Faizabad, the district that houses the holy town. “Crimes committed for Mahantship are merely a reflection of what has been happening here for quite some time. Most temples have become shelters for criminals, who after committing crimes in other parts of the country, hide here in the garb of sadhus. After 10-15 years, if they succeed in becoming Mahants (with or without the help of their political masters), they stay back. Else, they return to their native places and start a new life, assured that their old cases have gone into cold storage.”
This new class of pseudo-ascetic sadhus, many of them in the guise of Vairagis, appear to have had no qualms playing along as pawns of the Sangh to gain the privileges of property control. The covert nexus is kept off the paper record, but ascetics privy to the tacit links are clear about its existence. What has enabled these machinations—of the VHP or otherwise—is the nature of the land attached to the temples. Legally, all temple land in Ayodhya is classified as ‘devottar’ (or endowed): that is, ‘owned’ by the presiding deities of these temples, with Mahants as managers of the property. Since title ownership is in no living person’s name, mere possession of property amounts to control. It also complicates transfers. “Under the Property Dissipation Act of UP, the Commissioner of every division is empowered to grant on merit permission for the sale of endowed land,” says Varma, “But that law is never followed. In reality, the land endowed in the deity’s name is sold and purchased frequently on the ground that it would benefit the endowment and temple.”
Hanumangarhi, a Hanuman temple complex that houses over 500 Naga Vairagis, has started playing a pivotal role in this fratricidal war of sadhus for lucrative temples and their coveted mahantships. “In most disputes over Mahantship, some faction or the other of Hanumangarhi Nagas is involved either directly or indirectly,” says Haridayal Mishra.
Hanumangarhi’s Nagas are not wanderers, by and large, and regard their fortress-like temple as their base. They are Ramanandi Vairagi ascetics. That is, they are Rama bhakts of the Acharya Ramananda tradition; the term ‘vairagi’ in Naga parlance refers to militant ascetics of the Vaishnav sect—Vishnu/avatar worshippers (as opposed to ‘sanyasis’ of the Shaivite sect—Shiva devotees). Hanumangarhi, the ‘baithak’ (seat of power) of the Nirvani Akhara, one of the three main Ramanandi Vairagi akharas, has a major advantage: it has a vast group of Vairagis who act in gangs and consider most of Ayodhya’s devotional property their own. It is with their help that a section of the Nirvani Akhara oversees its interests in the local economy of Ayodhya and in its subsidiary temples in the town (and even other parts of North India). They are active in moneylending, renting out temple property and running other forms of business. But they also jostle and fight among themselves for positions of financial control of these activities. “Technically, Hanumangarhi, with all its possessions, is run by a panchayati system, but in reality, might is right here,” says Balram Das, a resident of Hanumangarhi. His guru, Harishankar Das, one of the two most influential Nagas of Hanumangarhi (the other being Gyan Das), had survived an attempt on his life about four years ago. “They pumped six bullets into my body, but I survived,” says Harishankar Das, who is known locally as ‘bade pehalwan’ (big hefty one). He believes that the attempt on his life was the work of a sadhu.
Such incidents are almost routine in the Hanuman temple complex. In fact, so bad is it that the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court, expressing concern over Hanumangarhi’s tangle of property-related litigations, recently asked the UP government to appoint a senior bureaucrat as an administrator of Hanumangarhi. The court also directed the government to consider whether a trust can be created for it on the pattern of the Kashi-Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. For the moment, though, Hanumangarhi’s Nagas have obtained a ‘stay’ on the High Court’s order from the Supreme Court.
Notwithstanding the moves to rein in Hanumangarhi’s unruly Nagas, the rest of Ayodhya is living out the same awful reality of a town turning on itself.
Not all stories, however, end in a loss of mahantship to a VHP-allied conspirator. Instances of victims who survive such attacks getting a helping hand—though usually at a price—are also heard of in Ayodhya. Eighty-year-old Ramrup Das, after transferring Mahantship of the Rang Niwas temple to his disciple Raghunath Das, had moved to Samastipur in Bihar to look after the temple’s land there. On 9 February this year, Raghunath Das passed away without appointing a successor. “After his death, Manmohan Das of Hanumangarhi took occupation of the temple illegally,” says Ramrup Das, who rushed to Ayodhya on hearing of his disciple’s death.
Manmohan Das, who is also a prominent BJP leader of the town, claims that the temple belongs to him because Raghunath Das, before shifting to Rang Niwas, was a disciple of his guru Satyanarayan Das of Hanumangarhi, and in this capacity, they were guru-brothers. And since Raghunath Das did not officially pass on the Mahantship to anyone, he argues, it should naturally go to his guru-brother.
Ramrup Das asserts that since he is still alive, he is the one whom the temple’s Mahantship should revert to. To stake his claim, he reached Ayodhya on 17 February, but found he could not enter the Rang Niwas complex, fortified as it was with Nagas of Hanumangarhi. During all this, he came in touch with Arjun Das, a sadhu who was well-versed in Hindu scriptures and was looking to set up base in a temple. “Ramrup Das asked me for help. I told him that it would require money, which I would use [for his purpose] provided I got some stake in the property,” says Arjun Das, who became a disciple of Ramrup Das the very next day, and in whose name the octogenarian registered Mahantship within hours.
Manmohan Das, meanwhile, has handed the temple over to Rajkumar Das, a VHP-aligned ascetic who has several murder charges against him. It is now a legal battle.
Yugal Bihari Das, a senior Naga Vairagi of Hanumangarhi, was relatively unlucky. When he was ousted, he could not get anyone to fight on his behalf. About a decade ago, while he was away from Ayodhya, his disciple Ramagya Das declared him dead, organised a bhandara (community feast) in honour of the ‘departed soul’ and took over his Asthan (seat) in Hanumangarhi.
After his return, Yugal Bihari Das spent years trying to convince other sadhus as well as local officials that he was alive, but to no effect. Frustrated by everyone’s acceptance of the exaggerated news of his death, he recently left Ayodhya for good and is said to be living somewhere in Bihar.
There are many such holy men who want to quit Ayodhya. The town has become so lawless that non-aligned Mahants who get thrown out of their temples have begun taking it as a fait accompli. Many ousted Mahants have moved to makeshift huts in a desolate corner of Ayodhya called Vasudev Ghat Manja on the banks of the Saryu River.
In one such hut lives Chitrakoti Baba, who till about a decade ago was the Mahant of Ayodhya’s famous Chitrakoti Asthan. Since his ouster, he has taken a vow of silence. He speaks to no one and rarely ever emerges from his modest dwelling. And if anyone tries to talk to him, he turns abusive.