Lucknow, Feb. 2: The ring of bells in the temple town of Ayodhya merged with the sound of booming guns as rival mahants slugged it out in public for control over temple trusts.
On Monday night, rival groups of Deoram Das Vedanti and Nrityagopal Das opened fire near Ramballabh Kunj temple, injuring the former, police said. Deoram is in hospital.
Tension was simmering between the authorities of the temple's Janki Jivan Trust, believed to be cash-rich, and Nrityagopal's Mani Ram Das Chavni Akhara over the trust's control.
The rivalry spilled over after a meeting on January 31, when the two rival chief priests came to blows, prompting their associates to draw out double-barrel guns and fire. Deoram, an accused in an old criminal case, was hit in the shoulder.
Earlier, in 2001, Nrityagopal had survived a bomb attack in the ongoing dispute over the trust.
The temple town was further sullied when police in Lucknow said they were looking for another mahant, Shyam Shukla alias Shyam Maharaj, in the abduction of a Kanpur industrialist and two of his associates.
Surendra Singh Yadav, one of the three arrested in the case, told the police that the kidnapping was carried out at Shyam Maharaj's behest, said S. Rashid Khan, deputy superintendent of police of a special task force.
'The mahant needed money. He asked us to abduct Ravinder Kedia. We kept him in Bahraich till we obtained ransom,' Yadav is said to have told the police.
Kedia was kidnapped while on his way to Lucknow from Kanpur on January 26. The three captives were released for a ransom of Rs 18 lakh, the police said.
In Ayodhya, the police said disputes are raging between other temple trusts, too, causing tension in the town.
The state police have directed the Faizabad superintendent to increase vigilance over the local mahants in the wake of increasing instances of rivalries between temple establishments, infiltration of trusts by criminal elements, and flow of arms among the mahants' associates.
Mahant Tribhuvan Das, for instance, is locked in a legal battle over the control of Saket Mandir.
Deoraha Baba Chavni, a temple trust, is also caught in a legal crossfire as rival priests have claimed ownership. Two groups of sadhus have locked horns over Ram Baidehi Mandir.
The disputes have often involved violence. In 1994, mahants Ram Pratap Das and Prem Narayan Das were killed following a clash over land.
The year before, a temple priest was murdered at Janki Ghat.
In 1995, another priest, Ram Arghya Das, was murdered, followed by that of Ramkirpal Das in 1996.
Gripped by a sense of insecurity, officials of temple trusts are rushing for gun licences, as reported by The Telegraph in December last year.
At least 350 Ayodhya residents, most of them temple-trust heads, have acquired licensed arms.
The town has over 1,500 such trusts.
Over the last two years, the Faizabad administration has been flooded with applications for licences. Of the 100 applicants whose cases are still pending, 60 are mahants, police sources said.
Most key temple trusts have also installed their private army of securitymen though senior trust officials are provided cover by the state.