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Life in the Mathura cult camp

Ram Vriksh Yadav’s illegal settlement was virtually an independent republic where he had worked out every detail of the lives of his followers.

June 11, 2016 12:45 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:02 pm IST

Lying on a government hospital bed in Vrindavan with a fractured foot and nursing bruises, Bimla Devi, 38, recalls the time she spent at Jawahar Bagh, Mathura. Till June 2, before dinner was about to be served at 4 p.m. when police bulldozers broke through the walls of the park, members of the Swadhin Bharat Subhash Sena had led an orderly life. In the melee that followed Ms. Devi lost contact with her husband and her sister. She has no idea where they are now or if they are alive.

After her marriage Ms. Devi was unable to have a child and began falling ill frequently. That’s when disciples of Jai Gurudev spoke of his miracles and the power of his blessings. She became a follower in 2006. “Since then I have been his worshipper. When Babaji died in 2012, we were not allowed to see his dead body and were kicked out of his ashram. All of us demanded his death certificate from the DM (district magistrate) Mathura and that is how the protest at Jawahar Bagh began. Netaji had fearlessly fought for us,” she says.

It was Yadav’s fiery oratory that drew both her and her husband closer to him. She still was not able to bear children but six years into her childless marriage, she began looking after her sister’s children — Sunny Deol (10) and Rinkle (8) — as her own. All six of them — Ms. Devi, her husband, her sister, her sister’s husband and their children — lived in a single-room jhuggi . There were roughly 2,500 living similarly.

 

The beautiful pond-facing district horticulture officer’s (DHO) quarter inside the park was taken over by the messiah. He turned it into a full-fledged home with two ACs, heater, computer, toasters, mixer-grinder, bathrooms and even a treadmill. His followers lived in tents in the gardens and toilets covered with cloth for privacy — for this the park’s rainwater drainage channels were used.

A commune in a park Ram Vriksh Yadav, ‘Netaji’, as the children of the camp referred to him, had worked out every detail of the lives of the followers down to a T. Each morning, precisely at 8 a.m., Ms. Devi joined scores of other women to stand in queue for the daily prarthana (prayer). The men and women lined up separately in front of a stage. The morning prayers took place on a stage about 30 metres from the main gate. Led by an elderly person chosen by Yadav, the prayers lasted 20 minutes. The cult’s sky blue flag, with half of the Indian map drawn on a white globe, fluttered atop it. At prayer time the sprawling Jawahar Bagh reverberated with chants, more anthem than prayer — officials claim Yadav wanted to wrap it into a national anthem of his Azad Hind Sarkar. “ Sankalp hai shaheedo ka, deskbhakto ki manzil laksh, Swadhin Bharat ka jhanda lehrane laga... Jai Hind, Jai Subhash ,” Ms. Devi recalls the song.

Children and those part of various teams were awake by 6 a.m. for training. “While children did PT, the men busied themselves in physical activities and self-defence with sticks,” says Ms. Devi. Breakfast was ready to be served from 8.30 a.m. to 12 p.m. There was no lunch. Dinner was served from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Separate enclosures were built for men and women to eat their meals. The men laid out the mats on the ground to sit on. The women would serve food to women and men to men.

 

“Sometimes there would be khichdi and that was restricted to three servings. But usually breakfast meant three rotis and salt without any oil. But dinner used to be good. There used to be rice, dal and sabzi,” says Komal who had come to Mathura from Ludhiana to find her parents, Moti Lal Maurya (59) and Lakhi Devi (52) — both in Mathura jail now. Mr. Maurya had left his job as an LIC agent, their two-storey house and five children in Ludhiana in 2014 to stay at Jawahar Bagh.

Work was clearly defined. Women were responsible for sweeping and making rotis and rice, the men would guard the precincts, take care of maintenance work such as installing makeshift electricity poles. There was a team for supervising the canteen, one to maintain cleanliness and one for gardening.

To be allowed to stay in their “ashram” residents had to be disciplined and yes, there were rules. Nobody could go out of the gate without citing the reason, servings of food were fixed, plucking fruits from the orchard was meant only for a specific team and not the rest of the residents, photography inside the park was prohibited and littering, petty fights or even arguments among residents was punishable.

“Netaji would beat the hell out of a wrongdoer. Once two men were fighting over water, one of them was beaten with thick wooden sticks. On other occasions, he would punish by asking the person to pay for a day’s food of all the residents,” says Hazari Lal Gupta, a shopkeeper from Rewa district in Madhya Pradesh who had come to stay in Jawahar Bagh. One day when an inmate’s child killed a bird, he was asked to fund the ‘bhandara’ ration for the day.

In 1986, Mr. Gupta happened to be in Allahabad when Jai Gurudev was holding a week-long programme in the city. He attended it and became his bhakt (devotee). “From his talks I came to believe he was God. I visited Mathura for his darshan four times a year.” He then took part in Yadav’s ‘Vidhi sandesh satyagraha yatra’. They came to Mathura with the primary quest of knowing the fate of their guru, who was reported to have died. “In 2012, when they said Baba had died, we were not allowed to see his body and chased away with sticks. We were not allowed any hearing. Where have they hidden him? All we wanted to know was if he is alive, where is he? If he is dead, give us the death certificate as proof. We came to Mathura to just know the truth.”

Jawahar Bagh also had a homoeopathy clinic with two doctors and a van came every Friday for those who needed allopathic medicine.

Steady stream of visitors For the inhabitants of Jawahar Bagh, which until two years ago used to be a recreational park for the locals, visits by different lawyers were routine.

Mintu Singh explains it simply: Netaji was preparing for “the final battle”. Admitted to the District Government Hospital, Vrindavan, the 23-year-old is in pain. A bullet grazed his left cheek on June 2 when the police entered Jawahar Bagh. Mr. Singh is one of seven in the same government hospital in Vrindavan where Ms. Devi is admitted.

Then there were influential people who would come in red beacon cars to meet the cult leader. Whenever someone important came, Netaji would ask the women to prepare fresh bel (wood apple) sherbet plucked from the orchards. Many times Superintendent of Police Mukul Dwivedi, who died during the June 2 raid, had come. Activity in the orchard would increase at night with trucks carrying food supplies coming in, and trees being cut for different purposes.

For a week from March 14, Jawahar Bagh resembled a colony lit up for Diwali. It was celebration time as the Swadhin Bharat Subhash Sena had completed two years of their “satyagraha” here. Decorative lights were neatly laid out by the “satyagrahis” and Yadav had organised satsangs for six days. The seventh day was the gala ‘bhandara’, to which high-ranked officials and politicians were also invited.

Most inhabitants were farmers and peasants or did menial jobs, others ran kirana shops and came from Bihar, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and other cities of Uttar Pradesh. However, not everyone who came into Jawahar Bagh came for this cause. Yadav and his aides had promised employment and land pockets to some. “They would send pamphlets promising jobs. Then some people were made to stand at the railway stations and important bus stops to convince farmers who arrive in the city to join them,” says Sanjay Chaudhary, a resident of Jawahar Bagh Colony that shares its boundary wall with the park.

When the government cut off the electricity supply about two months ago, followers had erected bamboo poles for makeshift light poles which were powered by solar panels. Loudspeakers were fixed on trees on all sides of the park through which calls for prayer meets, food and exercises were made apart from special announcements.

It was only in January this year that Yadav began classes for children. For this the park’s decorative waterbody that had dried up became a classroom. The sides were painted black for use as writing boards. As well as to paint slogans such as ‘ Shaheedon ke gurudev Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose… Mera Netaji ka jhanda ferhana vishwa mein (Unfurl Netaji’s flag around the world).’ There was no set pattern for teaching. Anyone who was reasonably educated could teach. Classes went on till ten.

The followers’ unshakeable faith Mintu Singh also does not know where his family scattered after June 2. Eight of them — his parents and six siblings — came from Bareilly in 2014 to live with 2,500 other cult followers at Jawahar Bagh, located in the heart of Mathura and spread over 270 acres. But it would be a mistake to presume that Mr. Singh is devastated by the turn of events. He sits upright on his blood-stained bed and speaks with passion about his leader Ram Vriksh Yadav, the deceased self-styled god-man Jai Gurudev whom he and other cult members refer to as “bhagwan ji”, and how the ‘Azad Hind Sarkar’ is going to rule the country one day.

Nodding in agreement, six other patients in the ward, including Ms. Devi, chant “Jai Hind! Jai Subhas!”

sweta.goswami@thehindu.co.in

Corrections & Clarifications:

A previous version of this article mentioned Rewari as a district in Madhya Pradesh. The name of the district is Rewa. The correction has been carried out post publication.

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