Whether it be called a land-grab or the rise of cult fanaticism, the Mathura crisis once again draws attention to a distinctive culture of nationalism in India, which builds on conflicts based on group identity, rather than religion, caste or region, and disregards political ideologies in favour of a certain ‘way of life’. This is the rationale behind the Mathura crisis and the many such groups that have sought to capture the existing dominant ideologies in the public space, with the cults reflecting the growth of public preference for populism and personality-driven Indian politics.
A state failure
The Jawahar Bagh crisis started as a land grab strategy in March 2014, with a group of armed squatters – protesting against the state in the name of Subhas Chandra Bose – illegally occupying the land belonging to the state’s horticulture department. This quickly transformed into a strong cult living in a commune system, right within the heart of Mathura’s prime administrative area. The group calling itself the Swadheen Bharat Subhash Sena (SBSS) and being led by the powerful follower of Jai Gurudev, Ram Vriksha Yadav, managed to mobilise more than 3000 people from various states of north India.
With the police attempts to evacuate the Jawahar Bagh premises in the enforcement of the court orders resulting in several casualties, the central and the state governments are being widely blamed for failing to heed the intelligence reports on the growth of the cult, as is now increasingly being proven true. The local police claim that there was no intelligence failure. They were not given orders to act and many were asked to stand guard outside the Jawahar Bagh premises. And it is not the state government alone which is culpable in this entire mess. Both the Local Intelligence Unit and the Intelligence Bureau have a presence in every district of a state. So even the central government should have received intelligence reports on the matter.
That the centre did not regard this as a threatening enough situation to take immediate action reveals an alarming pattern and raises broader questions about the increasing legitimisation of, and desensitisation towards, the culture of cult nationalism in the country.
The cult life
In India’s cultural landscape, cults, ashrams and groups professing a common way of life and shared ideals arose as an alternative to the discrimination perpetuated by traditional religious hierarchies. Even as they emerged as an alternative force, they acted as a sphere of re-legitimation and reviving force for traditional religion. This is especially so in the case of Hinduism, wherein these new-age cults have promoted a democratisation of traditional religion and retained the seekers.
However, from peaceful, equalising cults – like the Hare Krishna movement – that have created a harmonious space within the public sphere, we are now increasingly witnessing the rise of aggressive cults that prefer to operate in isolation and practise an anti-establishment ideology, attacking both liberal and conservative governments. These include Mathura’s SBSS, the powerful Sanatan Sanstha‘s Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS), Dera Sacha Sauda, the widely-networked and politically intimidating Sati Pati cult in Gujarat, and organisations with political-corporate and spiritual hues such as Patanjali, reflecting the promises of materialistic gains along with religious and cultural pride.
Throughout the country, these cults co-opt both rationalist and lower-caste followers who would have otherwise deserted religion, thereby transgressing the secular-spiritual divide. Living in a commune-like system, they follow a disciplined pattern of collective life, forging a distinctive common culture among the members equally around daily practices of prayer, meals and distribution of work, invariably motivated by an ideology that inspires devotion and inspiration among the members. At the same time, the individualistic imposition of modes of self-discipline ensures both the sense of liberty and self-worth among the members as well as the authoritative microscopic management by the higher heads.
This is precisely the kind of pattern that was being followed in Mathura’s SBSS and in numerous such cults across the country. What transpired in Mathura has echoes of numerous cult scandals that have surfaced over the last two years of this government – the most prominent and political ones being the Asaram Bapu case, the Dera Sacha Sauda scandal, the land grabs by Jai Gurudev’s ashram, Goa’s HJS, whose members are accused in the murder of rationalist Narendra Achyut Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, and various terror plots.
The government is unsuccessful in prosecuting the members of such powerful organisations since they manage to amass a strong network of followers among the business community, politicians and households, even though the aims of many of these groups verge on potential sedition. Surprisingly, even though they claim to follow a spiritual path and are overtly religious in their ideologies – such as the SBSS’s objectives to dismantle the office of the executive and using an alternative currency within the commune, and the Goan Sanstha’s criticism of the ‘moderate’ RSS and the BJP and its aims to establish a Hindu Rashtra by 2023 – they flourish through material incentives and allowances that go against the grain of conventional religious life, such as allowing married life within the commune, leveraging the use of modern technology and education system, holding international and national conferences, establishing global networks, and most importantly, invariably leveraging the growing organic market in the country, to manufacture and push their products.
The leading publications of some of these organisations, such as the Sanstha, show that they – despite their overt opposition to rationalists – paradoxically profess deep faith in the sanctity of science, a way in which they manage to retain a number of west-based NRIs and foreigners. Handpicking practical, ancient practices from religious scriptures, they justify them through scientific argument and hefty numerical data. Through this kind of an inclusive legitimation, their claims to political power forces even the state to accept and co-opt their militant resistance against institutions. This is regardless of which government is in power. For instance, the HJS was most active during the time of Congress chief minister Digambar Kamat and the SBSS was active during the government of Samajwadi Party. Similarly, the Sati Pati cult in Gujarat, with over 6000 followers, has not faced any action from the state government, due to fears of antagonising the powerful local cults. The prosecution of Sant Rampal in Haryana revealed how the ashram, like the Mathura cult, kept its own cache of arms and weapons and trained personal staff, instead of simply practising a way of life. The political clout of several of these cults cuts across the secular-religious divide.
The current intensification
Yet, what stands out at present is the intensification of conflicts arising out of cult dominance during the last two years. Even though the government is using the sedition law all too easily to arrest people on charges of being anti-national – such as in the JNU row – it is failing to rein in such powerful cults that openly propagate an anti-state and anti-institution agenda, not even sparing mainstream right-wing politics. The Sanstha’s HJS is unsparing in its critique of the ‘moderate’ RSS-BJP agenda. Yet, its political clout keeps it safe from prosecution. And now, with reports of SBSS receiving funding from Naxalites, the selective cultural and legal attacks by the state through charges of sedition becomes even more damning, with a need to call out the government on how is it that the ‘national’ is to be constructed and defined.
However, this selective prosecution of some and not others is not a paradox, with the current government in power. For, the sphere of the ‘national’ – as conflicts such as various incidents of religious intolerance and the debate over Bharat Mata ki Jai show – is already assumed to be based on a political ideology of religious majoritarianism, which spans both conventional religion as well as the new-age materialistic cults.
The compatibility of such conventional religious majoritarianism with new-age cult culture is captured by a dual rationale. One, the ability of these cults to feed on disillusionment with the system in failing to plug the socio-economic gaps, such as discrimination and inequality, and the search for a self-justifying anchor in religion; and two, cults have become a form that mirror the decadence of populism and personality-driven Indian politics, as even the results of the recent assembly elections show, where popular preferences were guided by the choice of a strong, albeit authoritarian leader, promising material benefits, supporting convention in cultural life and exhibiting a strong and entrenched personal appeal. This is similar to the manner in which political parties allow many of these cults to flourish in the hopes of garnering potential vote-banks, as seen in states like UP, Gujarat, Goa and Haryana, and the upcoming elections in UP and Punjab could well see some of these cults increasingly being used by some political parties.
What is needed is strong institutional reform to ensure that the state is held accountable for the manner in which it selectively prosecutes ‘anti-national’ offenders, as well as, a reclaiming of the secular space in the Indian constitutional practice, since it has become far too simple to appropriate a secular and inclusive identity and escape crackdown by the authorities.
Garima Maheshwari is a research associate at Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies.