Power struggles leading to unsaintly behaviour here

Ahmedabad, India - The feud brewing between two Swaminayaran sects turned into a bloody confrontation on Monday in Gadhada, an important pilgrimage centre for Swaminarayan followers in Bhavnagar. Sadhus, who take a vow of non-violence and abstinence, shed their saffron robes to don violent garbs, aiming soda bottles and stones at each other and later attacking a police station. By the time peace prevailed, at least a dozen sadhus were in the Takhatsinhji Hospital in Bhavnagar. The town remained tense on the second consecutive day with the police deploying 200 personnel and imposing section 144 of the CrPC, banning gathering of more than four people in one place.

Violence between followers of the Vadtal sect and Bochasanwasi Akshar Purshottam (BAPS) sect, and the pitched battle with the police, is just one incident that manifests the tension brewing between the burgeoning five Swaminarayan sects and their sub-sects, and the fact that violence is afflicting religious sects in Gujarat. However, this is the first time that BAPS was involved in violence.

The Swadhyay Parivar was in the thick of controversy last year after NRI Pankaj Trivedi was murdered by a rival group in Ahmedabad. Digamber Jains and Hindus are clashing over right to worship atop the fourth peak of Girnar in Junagadh. Followers of religious leader Asaram Bapu are clashing with authorities over a notice to evict them from their ashram in Surat which is an encroachment according to the Revenue Department.

The central issue here is control over property and assets worth crores that each sect has amassed over the years. And, control over the trusts that manage the properties which, besides huge temple complexes, include schools and colleges, hospitals, and social work institutes. With such high stakes, there is not an inch to lose.

On Monday, the sadhus clashed over construction of a boundary wall. Though, the decades-old Vadtal sect’s temple is about half a km away from the land acquired by BAPS for an exhibition hall recently, this was cause of heartburn in the Vadtal sect and led to violence on Monday. Vadtal sect’s Gadhada temple’s coordinator Govindbhai Patel says BAPS acquired the land, which they were eyeing, dubiously. “The wall obstructs our access to that area,’’ he claims. But, BAPS’ Swami Brahmviharidas says it took them six years to go through all official procedures and acquire the land. “Everything is on record. The High Court, which observed that all official procedures were followed, ruled in our favour. I think that was the last straw for our rivals and they caused trouble when we started building the wall,’’ the swami adds.

“The primary aim of the sects in the last few years has been to increase their following and presence which decides who is more influential. As the sects grow, the acquisition of prime land and assets and control over trusts has started causing feuds both between and within the sects. We have already seen this in other religious sects in the State,’’ says Dr Makrand Mehta, former professor of History at Gujarat University, who has done a research tracing the origins and spread of Swaminarayan sects.

Political observer and writer Dinesh Shukla says the emergence of new social classes has lead to distortion in religious sects. “This has lead to power struggles and tussles to take control of property and assets.

The property and assets in possesion of each sect is valued at several hundred crores. In the past, these power struggles have resulted in sting operations revealing sex scandals and financial irregularities. Now it is turning to violence,’’ Shukla says.

After Monday’s clashes, head offices of BAPS and Vadtal sect refused to offer any comments on the violence. While feuds over land resulted in the bloody confrontation at Gadhada on Monday, power struggles within religious sects like Swaminarayan and Swadhyay Parivar are getting increasingly violent. In the Vadtal sect and Swadhyay Parivar, it has even led to murders.

On June 15, 2006, NRI Swadhyayee Pankaj Trivedi was clubbed to death outside Gymkhana Club in Ahmedabad. Trivedi was opposed to Pandurang Shastri Athavale’s successor Jayshree Didi, accusing her of corruption and financial irregularities.

He joined a rival faction opposed to Jayshree within the Parivar. But what sealed his fate was his opposition to the Government renewing the lease of Bhav Nirzar temple premises in Ahmedabad which is worth over Rs 500 crore now. Trivedi felt that since the Parivar deviated from Athavle’s teachings, it should not be in possession of the temple.

In September 2004, and again in January 2006, the Digamber sect of Jains and Hindus clashed over the right to worship at the Dattatrey temple on the fourth peak of Girnar mountain range. Skirmishes still take place and a permanent police chowky has been put up there to maintain peace.

Swami Gadhadhranand, chairman of the Vadtal temple committee, was kidnapped by four sadhus and a disciple belonging to a rival faction in May 1998. Before the power struggle began, the root cause of the friction was sale of land worth crores by a rival faction.

Sharing of the temple spoils had led to two other murders at Vadtal. Manubhai Patel, a supervisor was the first to be murdered in last 70s. In 1986, Nattu Swami was murdered in his hostel room at Vadtal by rival faction disciple.

Except the BAPS, even elections to the temple trusts in all other Swaminarayan sects result in bitter skirmishes between rival groups, though elections have not turned violent yet.

The tension was palpable when elections were held last October at Maninagar and Junagadh temples. And, the election results are usually followed by a sodomy or sex scandal, revealed to followers by either faction.