The Iowa-based institutions of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi have confirmed that at least 130 Indian religious scholars known as “Vedic pandits,” who arrived in the U.S. to pursue programmes of religious learning, have gone missing in recent years. One of institutions’ officials, however, described some media reports alleging ill-treatment of the pandits as “replete with falsehoods” and “defamatory.”

In an email to The Hindu, William Goldstein, Dean of Global Development and General Counsel to the Maharishi University of Management, based in Fairfield, Iowa, said that the Global Country of World Peace (GCWP), the U.S. organisation sponsoring the pandits’ R-1 visas and their stay in this country, had not received any prior communication from the scholars before they went “absent without official leave.”

It appears that although the transfer programme began in 2006, the bulk of those missing disappeared only in the last few months and there were relatively few absconding in the first seven years of the programme.

Mr. Goldstein said that while they did not know for sure what the pandits were doing after their departure from the Vedic city, he suspected that many of them were “working on simple jobs in restaurants as the ones who have returned or the few we have information or seem to have followed that pattern.”

He added that it could be that “someone is misinforming them about the financial opportunities and the legal implications, and their prime motive appears to be to generate more money for their families,” and there could be an “organised ‘racket’ brokering the operation.”

Commenting on a report in the Chicago-based newspaper Hi India that pandits who were recruited in India were sometimes as young as 19 years old and that they were held in “makeshift trailer homes guarded by round-the-clock guards,” Mr. Goldstein said that report had “ignored several pages of information provided to them” and was “very injurious to the reputation of GCWP...”

However, Mr. Goldstein concurred that the passports of the missing pandits had been handed over, not to the Indian Consulate General in nearby Chicago or to local law enforcement, but to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authority, as it was a possible violation of federal immigration law.

Although The Hindu also reached out to the Consulate General of India in Chicago and to ICE, neither had provided a response by the time this report went to press.

Quoting unnamed pandits, the Hi India report hinted at other forms of possible ill-treatment of the scholars from India, suggesting that when the management of the Vedic City discovered that some pandits were “desperate to leave the U.S., a mock travel plan is chalked out and the pandits are taken in a van to Chicago’s O’Hare airport and dropped at the entry gate. After asking them to wait till the aircraft arrives while the van driver goes around and comes back in a short while.”

The report also quoted one pandit who was about to flee, saying, “Some of the strong-willed pandits ran away from the airport for better prospects and the rest of them were picked up by the driver and taken back to the Vedic City.”

Mr. Goldstein, however, refuted this claim, explaining, “Every pandit who goes to O’Hare gets on the flight to India that day, except those who go AWOL. Recently, we have been often purchasing the tickets once in Chicago, when we know in advance there are seats on the flight. This is because the past practice of buying non-refundable tickets in advance of driving to Chicago was costing us money for those pandits who went AWOL before getting on the flight.”

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