When Saints Become Killers, or Killers Become Saints

A city both blessed and cursed by religious tradition, India’s Ayodhya was the locus of an enormous 1992 riot in which a Hindu mob 150,000 strong demolished a Muslim mosque to replace it with a temple to the god Rama. The communal strife which followed throughout India killed thousands of people. It is as if that gory moment had cursed the holy ground: the town’s Hindu religious establishment has ever since been rampant with violence and corruption, writes Brijesh Singh.

From Tehelka, an investigation into how organized crime took over the religious establishment in one of Hinduism’s holy cities:

February 1992. In the midst of a political storm stirred by the Ram Mandir movement [which sought to demolish the Babri Mosque], Mahant Lal Das, the then chief priest of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple inside the Babri Masjid complex in Ayodhya was murdered. The search began for a new mahant[chief priest], one with a clean reputation and free of any criminal charges or political motives. It was after much difficulty that Satyendra Das was appointed the new mahant.

21 July 2013. In a land dispute, the supporters of two mahants – Bhavnath Das, national president of the Samajwadi Party’s Sant Sabha, and Hari Shankar Das Pehelwan, a BJP supporter – opened fire at each other. One man was killed and a dozen injured.

These two incidents, separated by two decades, represent the sinister reality of Ayodhya. With bloody clashes over land disputes, murder of mahants and rape of minors, the “holy city” has turned into a living hell. According to RKS Rathore, a former SSP of Ayodhya, many sadhus [Hindu holy men] are involved in criminal activities.

Most of the 7,000 temples and maths [shrines]in Ayodhya have become centres of crime. Over the past few years, more than 250 sadhus have been booked for crimes, including murder; some have been killed in police encounters. For instance, Mahant Harinarayan Das, who was killed in an encounter near Gonda last year, had several criminal charges against him, including murder. Mahant Ram Prakash Das was shot dead by the police in 1995.

According to police sources, more than 200 sadhus have been killed in Ayodhya in the past decade. A few days ago, the chief priest of the famous Hanuman Garhi temple, Hari Shankar Das, was shot six times by one of his disciples. Last year, the then mahant Ramesh Das and a priest alleged that some sadhus were planning to murder him. And a few days later, another priest of the temple, Gauri Shankar Das, alleged that his guru Ramagya Das’ killer, Mahant Tribhuvan Das, wanted him dead too.

The mahants of some temples are accused of illegally taking over the property of other temples, murdering their chief priests or expelling them by force. Many of Ayodhya’s “saints” are busy accumulating property, fighting legal battles and arranging for bodyguards.

“Tribhuvan Das, Hanuman Garhi temple’s former chief priest, was the first to allow criminals into Ayodhya in order to establish his supremacy in the area,” says Vairagi Sadhu Ramanand. “Das set up his own math after he was expelled from Hanuman Garhi because of his criminal activities.” Adds another priest of the Hanuman Garhi temple, Gauri Shankar Das, “Tribhuvan is behind the murder of more than 100 sadhus.”

Arjun Das, the mahant of Ramcharitmanas Bhavan, alleges that all of Tribhuvan’s disciples have criminal background. “He made many disciples when he was in jail. They came to Ayodhya looking for him after being released,” he says. “Tribhuvan’s temple became a haven for criminals from Bihar.” Despite being accused in a number of criminal cases, Tribhuvan is still thriving in Ayodhya.

Several mahants of the Hanuman Garhi temple have been targets of violent attacks. In 1984, Hari Bhajan Das was shot dead by his own disciples. In 1992, Deen Bandhu Das was attacked several times and forced to relinquish his position and lead a life of anonymity in Ayodhya. In 1995, Sadhu Naveen Das and his four accomplices murdered Mahant Ramagya Das in the temple premises. In 2005, two Naga sadhus hurled bombs at each other. In 2010, sadhus Bajrang Das and Harbhajan Das were shot dead by an unknown assailant. The next year, Mahant Prahlad Das was shot dead by a gang of sadhus. Also known as “goonda baba”, Prahlad Das had a number of charges against him, including murder, and the Faizabad district administration had slapped the Goondas Act on him.

The head of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, Nritya Gopal Das, is also accused of criminal activities. “This man is not a saint, but a land-grabber and a goon,” says a mahant on the condition of anonymity. “If he likes a piece of land, you have two options: either give him the land or die.”

ayodhya221Ram Praidi Ayodhya. Photo CC: Ramnath Bhat.

In her book, Portraits from Ayodhya, Scharada Dubey narrates a chilling incident: “A retired government servant had a house in the Pramod Van area of Ayodhya. Nritya Gopal Das saw the house and liked it. He sent his emissaries several times to make offers for the property. But the owner refused to part with his house. He was fatally knifed in the street by unknown men, and his grieving family had to subsequently shift to a neighbouring state.”

Dubey narrates another incident that took place at the Bindu Sarovar temple: “Triveni Das, the mahant, had an altercation with Nritya Gopal Das over some internal matter. When he was going for a bath in the Sarayu river, at 4 am one morning, he was run over by a truck and succumbed to his injuries.”

Nritya Gopal Das’ land-grabbing tactics was on display in 1990 when he illegally took over the Marwadi Dharamshala in Ayodhya. Sadhu Prem Shankar Das, who witnessed the incident, recounts, “The dharamshala was home to around 70-80 students from the nearby villages. One day, when they were at college, a mob of armed sadhus barged into the premises and occupied it. They gathered the students’ belongings at one spot and set them on fire.” An FIR was filed against Nritya Gopal Das and others under Sections 347, 348 and 436 of the IPC.

However, Gopal Das too has been the target of violence. In May 2001, he was seriously injured when country-made bombs were flung at him and his disciples. Initially, he blamed the ISI for this attack, but it was discovered later that the crime had been triggered by a property dispute. Gopal Das had used his influence to get the then mahant of Rama Vallabh temple, Devram Das Vedanti, removed from his post, and the disgruntled former priest sought revenge by attacking him.

Vedanti’s record is no less notorious. In 1995, the police arrested him with a minor girl from a hotel at Bhagalpur, Bihar. Vedanti was accused of kidnapping the girl and a Spanish pistol was also recovered from him.

Why do sadhus take to crime?

The main reason is greed for the title of mahant. “Many disciples are so impatient to get to the top that they cannot wait ununtil the mahant is dead. They are ready to kill them,” says Sadhu Ram Narayan Das. Sheetla Singh, editor of the daily Jan Morcha, says many mahants have got their title after murdering their gurus. For instance, the mahant of Janaki Ghat Bada Sthan, Janmejai Sharan, was accused of the murder of his predecessor, Maithili Sharan Das. “Honour comes with money and power. Sadhus want all of it. And they want it fast,” says Singh.

A few years ago, when the mahant of Mumukshu Bhavan, Swami Sudarshanacharya, went missing from the temple, one of his disciples, Jitendra Pandey became the new mahant. A month later, Pandey fled with jewellery and cash from the temple. Another month passed and then Sudarshanacharya’s brother started some construction work at the temple. When a sewer tank was opened, it was found filled with mud. Suspecting foul play, the police was informed. The bodies of Sudarshanacharya and a female disciple were recovered from the tank, chopped into pieces. Pandey was arrested later. “He confessed to having hired some goons to get the mahant murdered. The disciple was murdered because she had witnessed the crime,” says the current mahant, Ramchandra Acharya, who was a co-disciple along with Pandey. “Jitendra was impatient to be the mahant and feared that Sudarshanacharya might choose me as his successor.”

Another reason why sadhus are drawn to crime is their greed for another temple’s property. For instance, a gang of sadhus prevented the mahant of Rang Nivas Mandir from entering the temple premises and occupied it. Now, the ousted mahant lives in penury.

Usually, a mahant decides who would succeed him. In other cases, a committee of sadhus from different maths and temples elect the next mahant. That’s where lobbying comes into play. “A friend of mine was a priest in a temple. His guru passed away without appointing a successor and so a four-member selection committee was set up,” shares a local contractor. “My friend told me that he wanted to be themahant even though there were other more deserving disciples. Two of the committee members were against him. I bought a new Nokia handset and approached one of them. I told him, ‘Only five sets of this model are in the market. I especially ordered the sixth one from abroad for you.’ When I told him my friend wanted to be the mahant, he asked me to bring him a still newer version next time I came to see him. Finally, my friend was elected the Mahant with three votes against one.”

Locals claim any sadhu can become a mahant by paying the right price. “The highest bidder gets the title,” says Mahant Yugal Kishore Shastri.

ayodhya321Bharata pleads with Rama to return to Ayodhya. Photo CC: San Diego Museum of Art.

Rivalry between various ashrams is another factor leading to crimes. “‘My god and my temple are more authentic than yours.’ That’s the mindset at work,” says Raghuvar Sharan, a sadhu.

Why criminals become sadhus

The holy city has its share of criminals-turned- sadhus. “Several criminals have turned into sadhus and settled in Ayodhya,” says Mahant Gyan Das of Hanuman Garhi temple. “Their appearance may have changed but not their actions.” Take the case of Kamdev Singh, a notorious gangster from Begusarai, Bihar, who had been accused of murdering several communist activists. Before he was killed in an encounter with the police in 1983, he was in Ayodhya for a long time in the garb of a sadhu.

“Kamdev started a trend. Many criminals followed in his footsteps and sought refuge in Ayodhya,” says a police officer. “They took advantage of the fact that the police don’t raid maths and no questions are asked there about their antecedents.” After Kamdev’s death, many of his gang members arrived in Ayodhya dressed as sadhus. Ram Kripal Das, an expert bombmaker, was one of them. He became the disciple of Mahant Lakshman Das and was involved in numerous cases of murder, extortion and land-grabbing before being killed in 1996. “He made crime a lucrative business in Ayodhya,” says Sadhu Ramsubhag Das.

In the past few years, the sadhus have also been accused of harbouring criminals. “Sriprakash Shukla had a reward of Rs 2 lakh on his head. He stayed in a math in Ayodhya after killing BSP leader Birendra Pratap Sahi, and again after killing a police officer,” says a senior police officer posted in Faizabad. Sources reveal that he killed Mahant Ram Kripal Das on the orders of another mahant in 1996.

Sadhus as moneylenders

Moneylending is a flourishing activity in Ayodhya, with the involvement of the priests of several temples, especially Hanuman Garhi. “The maths and temples generate huge revenue, but there is hardly any expenditure. So the sadhus started lending money on interest,” says Ranjit Verma, a lawyer. “There was a time when these sadhus did not even have slippers on their feet. But today crores of rupees are lying in their backyard.”

Moneylending has also promoted crime with instances of sadhus harassing the debtors, taking over their property, and in some cases, even murdering them.

ayodhya421“The Exiles Take Leave: Rama, Lakshmana and Sita with King Dasharatha”. Photo CC: San Diego Museum of Art.

Sadhus and politics

“After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, money poured into Ayodhya and so did the criminals,” says Sadhu Harinarayan Das. Many sadhus in Ayodhya hold the VHP responsible for the criminalisation of the city. They allege that the VHP often intervenes in property disputes or tussles over the position ofmahant, in favour of one of the parties. Locals point out several instances where the outfit used muscle power or money to install its own men as mahants.

The ‘holy’ arms race

“There is a race among the sadhus for weapons and gunmen. Many of them have licensed pistols, though there is a greater demand for illegal weapons,” says a police officer. An intelligence officer claims that since the police do not search the temples, they have become the safest places to hide firearms. Many sadhus trade in illegal arms. Weapons are smuggled from Munger in Bihar and sold here. Some time ago, the local police arrested three sadhus with a US-made revolver and other modern firearms. MahantJagdish Das was recently arrested for forging his address to get a gun licence.

Sadhus also compete over the number of gun-toting security men under their command. “Why would a sadhu need a gunman?” asks Mahant Sant Ramdas. “It’s just a status symbol.”

Sadhus, alcohol and sex

“Despite the sale of liquor and narcotics being strictly prohibited in Ayodhya, sadhus enjoying a drink by the Sarayu is a common sight,” says Sant Premnarayan Das. Demand for liquor has shot up in recent years where both the peddlers and the customers are mostly saffron-clad men. DIG (Bareilly) RKS Rathore recalls how a bootlegger he once caught turned out to be a sadhu.

There are many sadhus who claim to be celibate but have wives and children. “There are very few sadhus here who strictly adhere to these principles. Most of them are married men with children. Many have mistresses,” a sadhu told Tehelka on condition of anonymity. Ranjit Verma points at the case of Bada Sthan Sadhu Raghuvar, who had two wives despite being an outspoken proponent of celibacy. In 1991, Hanuman Garhi’s Ram Sharan Das, who was charged with several murders, was killed in a police encounter while visiting a mistress at a hospital. Moreover, over the past few years, along with increasing wealth, Ayodhya has also witnessed a rise in prostitution, claims Yugal Kishore.

Matrimony has become a prime reason why some disciples hold a grudge against the gurus. “Earlier, themahants used to remain celibate and their successor was chosen from among their disciples,” says Sadhu Hariprasad. “But today all sadhus and mahants are getting married. After their deaths, their children succeed them as mahants instead of the disciples.”

When murders started taking place for the position of mahant, it was thought that if the charge of the temple is handed down to a family member, the murders would stop. So, the mahants decided to appoint their own relatives as successors. This has severed the ties of gurus with their disciples.

There are also charges of child abuse by sadhus in Ayodhya. In December 2008, the police arrested Sita Bhavan Mandir’s Mahant Ganga Ram for raping the 8-year-old son of a rickshaw puller. The rickshaw puller alleged that the mahant used to take his son into his room on the pretext of giving him prasad.

ayodhya521“Offering to the river Ganges”. Photo CC: Andre Mellagi

Sadhus and the land mafia

Most members of the land mafia in Ayodhya belong to the sadhu community. “Shankar Das sold the temple he had seized from his guru,” says Bimla Sharan. Ayodhya has a number of such cases. The gangs eye the property of temples and maths spread across the country worth crores of rupees. The property of most of Ayodhya’s temples is not allotted to any person, but to the god worshipped there. Therefore, the mahant becomes the de facto owner of the property. “Buying and selling of temples is rampant in Ayodhya,” says Krishna Pratap. According to Ranjit Verma, 90 percent of the cases in Faizabad’s civil court are from Ayodhya. “And 99 percent of these involve holy men,” says Verma. “Most of the cases are related to disputes over mahantship and property. Almost half the temples and maths are implicated in some legal battle or the other.”

Divided by caste

Caste plays a significant role in the rivalry among sadhus. Bhumihars, Thakurs, Brahmins and Yadavs all make such different groups. A sadhu hailing from one caste tries to undermine those belonging to the others. Factionalism arising from caste divisions is witnessed in many temples, including Nau temple, Badhai temple, Vishwakarma temple, Sant Ravidas temple, Halwai temple, Dhobi temple and Chitragupta temple.

So who will clean up the mess?

ayodhya621” Sri Ram’s return to Ayodhya by Pushpak Vimaan @Iskon Temple, New Delhi

Even as Ayodhya reels under a growing crime rate, neither is the community of sadhus interested in expelling the black sheep among them, nor does the administration seem keen to take any steps to control crime. Many administrative officials believe that their tenure is too short to clean up the mess created by the sadhus. Even if a clean-up were attempted, one would have to deal with political pressure, among other things. What can the officials do then? When Tehelka posed the question to a police officer posted in Faizabad, he replied, “Leave them alone. Let them fight and kill each other.”

There are yet others who are making easy money out of the situation. They allow the goons to have their way in return for a “convenience fee”. “Everyone knows they have a lot of money. This is why the police turns a blind eye to the crimes, for a suitable price,” says a police officer. “I know at least one fellow officer who made crores of rupees in Ayodhya by taking money from the sadhus.”

Mumukshu Bhavan’s Mahant Ramacharya Das recounts that the police asked him for money in lieu of their support when there was a controversy over his appointment as the mahant. “Anyone who is ready to pay the right amount gets the administration’s support,” he alleges.

The consequences are quite alarming. Ever since the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid controversy, the city has become a political cauldron. A standing committee meeting is held after every three months in which Central and state government officials discuss the security arrangements at the Ram Janmabhoomi premises. “After the terror attack near Ram Janmabhoomi in 2005, I tabled a proposal that we should immediately start a verification procedure to identify the sadhus residing in Ayodhya. What if a terrorist is living under cover as a sadhu? But no steps were taken in this direction,” says a senior official who has participated in many of these meetings.

However, Faizabad SSP KB Singh claims that the police is seriously considering carrying out a verification drive among the sadhus.

Hanuman Garhi’s Mahant Gyan Das believes that registration of sadhus would be a welcome step, but he is not very hopeful that the city can be rid of criminals in the near future. “The criminal elements are far stronger than the genuine sadhus,” he rues. “They have money and political backing. Who can take them on?” Clearly, Ayodhya’s future as a holy city depends on how zealously the administration takes steps to confront the criminality that has taken root among many of the “holy men”. As yet, there is little sign that any such effort is on the anvil.

Brijesh Singh

  • nkrivosh

    wow, seems like a place to stay away from. It is cursed for sure.