The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Pistol prayer in temple town
- Feuding Ayodhya mahants scramble for arms licences

Ayodhya, Dec. 5: The chisels for Ram have been replaced by guns to protect the mahants.

On the eve of the 12th anniversary of the razing of the Babri Masjid, fear hangs over this temple town. But the insecurity is not over another violent agitation for a Ram temple but the bloody succession battles among priests and heads of trusts that have claimed several lives.

Several hundred trust heads have either acquired arms or have applied for gun licences. Of the 100 applicants whose cases are before the Faizabad district administration, 60 are mahants, police confirmed.

'The infighting among the trust heads is mostly due to property disputes and succession battles. Some of the temple heads have properties. So a strange sense of insecurity has gripped them, leading them to apply for gun licences,' said Faizabad senior superintendent of police Vinod Singh.

Singh was not exaggerating. Kaushal Kishore Phalhari Baba's ashram, which runs a Sanskrit school, has two revolvers and a double-barrel gun, said Arun Dev Shukla, a member of the ashram trust. One of the students, Sandeep Shukla, has been trained as a shooter. 'Just to bring the trust establishment worth several crores (of rupees) under security cover,' Shukla explained.

Govind Das is just 15, but is aware of the bitter struggle for power. Anointed mahant of the century-old Chaturbhuj temple when he was just six, he faces the wrath of Nandkishore, an acharya of the same temple, who has gone to court against the 'unjust succession to the post'.

A pale smile creasing his face, Govind Das, who was in trousers and shirt like any other schoolboy but changed into a dhoti and a saffron robe, spoke of how the war over succession had sullied the temple's reputation.

The rivalries that had been brewing for long broke into the open as disillusionment set in among the foot soldiers of the Hindutva movement. One sign of the crisis of faith in the BJP leadership is the scene at Karyasala, Karsevakpuram, where stone pillars for the proposed temple were being built by the VHP. The man in charge of the workshop, Anubhai Sompura, said of the 125 artisans who began work in 1992, only 25 remained. Stones have also stopped coming from Rajasthan.

As confidence in leaders of the temple movement ebbed, the trusts internalised their battle. In 1993, a priest in Janki Ghat was murdered. In 1994, two mahants, Ram Pratap Das and Prem Narayan Das, were killed following a land dispute. In the next two years, two more priests, Ram Arghya Das and Ramkirpal Das, were murdered. In 2001, mahant Nrityagopal Das survived an attempt on his life.

The mahant now carries a revolver, while Sadhvi Rithambara, a leading temple crusader in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has acquired a licence for one. Most of the major temple trusts have got private armies.

'I am not surprised by the race for acquiring arms by trust heads and akharas. Earlier they used to maintain lathials (security men armed with sticks). That age is gone. Now they need to acquire arms that can protect them,' said Gyan Das, chief of the All India Akhara Parishad.

Gyan Das was flanked by armed men even in his office near Hanumangarhi. He argued that the trusts and akharas had been created to protect the Hindu religion. So they should be armed. What if the arms are used to settle scores with rivals of the community' 'That is there,' he said, 'but God will save them.'

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