S.L. Vadhera was standing a few metres away from the samadhi (shrine) of his guru when police batons rained on him on September 24. The 71-year-old retired Army colonel is nursing a black eye sustained in the violent clash that broke out between the police and the followers of the Radhasoami Satsang Sabha at Dayalbagh Colony in Agra over the demolition of alleged illegal encroachment on public land. The conflict left nearly 30 people injured from both sides.
“I, like many others, had come for the Sunday satsang (prayer session) when district administration officials, along with policemen, entered Dayalbagh and began razing the gates constructed to save our fields from animals and anti-social elements. When residents resisted the attempt, policemen opened baton-charge,” said Mr. Vadhera.
However, the confrontation, according to the police, took place when bulldozers demolished a shooting range built by the Satsang Sabha on a piece of land meant for public park, according to the revenue records, and a gate on a public thoroughfare.
On September 23, revenue officials and police razed the constructions. However, the Radhasoami Satsang Sabha erected the gate again the same day. According to police, when the authorities reached the spot on Sunday again, the residents resorted to stone pelting and attacked the officials.
“If it was a peaceful satsang, as they claim, why were the young women carrying batons with spikes? The officials of Satsang were making provocative announcements from the loudspeaker and when the police tried to enter the area where demolition had to be carried out, the Satsangis [followers] used their women as shields who first attacked the police. We only retaliated with proportionate force,” said Suraj Kumar, Additional Superintendent of Police, Agra.
While the Satsang Sabha has moved the Allahabad High Court challenging the demolition proceedings, the Uttar Pradesh government, the district administration and Agra Police claimed in court that the Satsang Sabha was issued a notice and asked to present evidence of land ownership, which it failed to show. The court, on Wednesday, asked both the parties to maintain status quo till October 5.
Remains of the day
Nearly a week after the incident, the sprawling complex, spread out on a massive 1,400 acres of land, bears a tranquil look. Under a mulberry tree, lie the debris of what is now left of the samadhi of Mr. Vadhera’s guru, Mukund Bihari Lal, the seventh leader of the faith – Radha Soami – founded by Shiv Dayal Saheb in 1861.
The colony in Agra, developed over more than 100 years, includes a school, a college, a hospital, an engineering institution, parks and houses – all maintained by the Satsang Sabha. Around 3,000 families live within the colony. In Agra and nearby areas, the number of followers of the sect runs in lakhs, mostly from influential backgrounds. Lal, like most others associated with the Satsang, himself held prestigious government posts and had served as the Vice-Chancellor of Lucknow University. The eighth leader of the faith – Prem Saran Satsangi – is a scientist who now presides over the satsangs that Mr. Vadhera had gone to attend on Sunday.
“Men, women and children of all ages had gathered on the site for their regular prayers and work in the fields,” said Suresh Kumar, 51, who sustained injuries while saving a child amid baton blows.
Brushing aside allegations that a mob, including young women in army fatigues, was mobilised to attack the authorities, Mr. Kumar said, “Why would anyone bring their children to get them hurt?” he said, adding that the young women were part of an ongoing mahila sashaktikaran (women empowerment) programme. “They were undergoing training in self-defence and that is why they were practising with their lathis (batons),” he added.
The followers also alleged that it was the police who first used force and manhandled the women, children and the elderly. According to them, the administration was illegally demolishing properties on their land to appease the “builders’ lobby”. “There is a huge lobby of builders trying to encroach the Yamuna floodplains, and the Satsang Sabha is coming in their way as we have land that directly connects the floodplains to the city,” a senior member of the Satsang Sabha told The Hindu.
But this is not the first time when objections were raised against alleged encroachments by the Satsang Sabha. “But the followers come from highly influential sections of the society and they manage to ward off any action,” a villager from Khaspur who didn’t wish to be named told The Hindu. He added that the Satsang Sabha has blocked many public roads in the name of saving their fields.
While the incident garnered political support for the Satsang Sabha from various corners, including the Samajwadi Party, the BJP government in the State has maintained a deafening silence on the matter.
As multiple attempts by The Hindu for comment failed to elicit any response from the district administration and the police, a senior official, off the record, said, “No one will speak a word. With the election round the corner, anything can happen,” he said, referring to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.