Ground Zero - In-depth reportage from The Hindu

Life in the Mathura cult camp

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.

Life in the Mathura cult camp

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.

Life in the Mathura cult camp

“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!”

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.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 10:00:36 AM |

In This Series
A new fault line in post-war Sri Lanka
Changing the stripes of conservation
A drop in an ocean of debt: how farmers have benefited from Rythu Bandhu
Telangana’s ‘villages of widows’
The sinking island of Kerala
Punjab’s burning problem
In Kolar, a parched land in a sea of sewage
Crimes against women in Haryana: as they rise, men push them back
Ground Zero | Kerala floods replay the catastrophe that hit the ancient sea port Muziris in 1341
Ravaged by a caterpillar: on the armyworm invasion in India
Out of joint: Documenting the repercussions from Johnson & Johnson's faulty hip implants
Punjab’s new addicts: on the rise of female drug addicts
Kerala floods rescue: A chopper, a boat, and a prayer
Indian bull frog: the Andamans’ new colonisers
In the city of refugees: Rohingya camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar
Nipah virus: Anatomy of an outbreak
A cure for medical malpractice
Ground Zero: Cauvery, a river in distress
A piece of Jharkhand in Kerala
Red Earth and fine dust: political choices in the 'Republic of Bellary'
Shivani Reddy, SpiceJet
Women who fly
Voting against alcohol
The champions of clean air
The silent sufferers: on Maharashtra farmer suicides
For here or to go? Existential question for Indians pursuing the American dream
Eyes to the island: Car Nicobar's victory over hyperendemic trachoma
In Odisha, schools are the dropouts
The ghosts of Adichanallur: Artefacts that suggest an ancient Tamil civilisation of great sophistication
The lost Jews of Churachandpur
The alien fruit that took over Karnataka
Rohingya prefer to travel by boat from Myanmar to Bangladesh as the the land border, though open, is manned by trigger-happy Myanmar soldiers. A Bangladeshi man helps Rohingya Muslim refugees disembark from a boat on the Bangladeshi shoreline of the Naf river after crossing the border from Myanmar, in Teknaf
Rohingya's hope floats on a boat
The parivartan brotherhood: How three young men have queered the pitch for the BJP in Gujarat
The flaming fields of Punjab
Chronicles of a carnage foretold
Bihar floods: when home is a highway
Kala-azar: The disease that just won’t go away
The cyber con 'artists' of Jharkhand's Jamtara district
Maximum support, maximum price
A spike in the footprints of time
How genetics is settling the Aryan migration debate
Toiling for a toilet
The Sasikala web: how a maze of shell companies link up to her, her family and friends
Forced out of the forest
How Bidar beat back the drought
Betrayed by their own blood
Agents of death: female foeticide in Maharashtra
The long healing of 1971
The Andhra flavour in Gujarat’s fish
Unabated practice: “To date, the police have arrested 12 people who conducted the sex determination tests.” Swaranjali and Pranjali, the daughters of Swati Jamdade who died following a botched-up abortion in Mhaisal village, with their paternal grandmother Padmini Patangrao Jamdade in Manerajuri village.
No country for baby girls
They came, they fought, they stayed
Ear to the ground
Betraying the oath: the rot in India's medical education system
The groundwater beneath their feet
Reluctant mothers
Encounter killings of another kind
The ground beneath their feat
The hyena has the last laugh
The sisterhood of wrestlers
The ‘witches’ of Jharkhand
A leap into the digital world
The empowerment diaries
Students leaving after finishing their school exams in Srinagar.
The class must go on
In search of the new red corridor - glimpses
In search of a new red corridor
The marriage vows between Bhatkal and Karachi
Border town blues
The warp and woof of demonetisation
Escape from nowhere: Undertrials under fire
“Two huge bottle palm trees and a coconut tree overshadow the 140-year-old house... In the middle stands a pink bicycle... with a faded black Rexin school bag on the rear carrier. ‘It was her last day of school when she had parked her bicycle with the bag there,’” says Moitree Chakravarty, Navaruna’s mother.”
Waiting for Navaruna
In Telangana, a farewell to arms
The bane of a bumper crop
Nayeemuddin’s grave besides his brother’s grave on the premises of the dargah close to his house in Bhongir town of Nalgonda district. Inset: A file photo of Nayeemuddin
From a revolutionary to a renegade
Serial killer: “When he was finally arrested on August 11, one of the first things senior police officers noted about Pol was his eerily confident, almost supercilious nature.” Santosh Pol being investigated in Wai town, Satara district. — Photo: Prashant Nakwe
Pol plot unmasked
The race to light up the last village
Samantha with her mother, Patricia Tavis. Photo: Special Arrangement
Desperately seeking Mariyamma
After ban, in a state of low spirits
FEEDING DRIVE: A woman of Tala Nagada village gives her child with ‘Energy Dense Nutrient Rich Food’ distributed by the government health department to the villagers of Nagada hills in Jajpur district. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout
The lost tribe of Odisha
The Supreme Court on Friday refused to entertain a plea for Governor’s rule in the strife-ridden State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Behind the rage in south Kashmir
The fisherfolk weaving hammocks, swings, and other products at a community centre on the beach in Kovvada village of Srikakulam district. Photo: K.R. Deepak
The coast isn’t clear for India’s nuclear power quest
Mystery of the missing twenty-one
A child being vaccinated at a Primary Health Centre near Malappuram town. The district’s immunisation rate is 84 per cent, one point lower than the State average. Photo: K.K. Mustafah
The fallacies of the faithful
The battle lines are drawn in Punjab. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar.
Can the Aam Aadmi Party win Punjab?
Capital project: The making of Amaravati
Enemies of the States?
You are reading
Life in the Mathura cult camp
Next Story