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Jailed for cow smuggling, dumped by VHP — Mathura gets a new star sadhu to pressure Idgah

Ashutosh Pandey shot to fame when he brought a 3-ft idol of Lord Krishna to court. He claims his Trust got the electricity at Shahi Idgah mosque cut.

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Mathura: On a crowded lane outside Mathura Civil Court, a white jeep with a big red nameplate embellished in gold announces the arrival of Ashutosh Pandey, the rising star-sadhu of the temple-mosque conflict in this ancient city.

The 37-year-old Lord Krishna devotee from Shamli with a laundry list of police cases against him has now made it his mission to liberate Krishna Janmabhoomi. He has filed a case against the Shahi Idgah mosque, is raising a Krishna Sena, and even showed up in court with an almost three-foot-tall Krishna statue last month.

He is gaining local media attention, posting photographs of his public meetings, newspaper clippings and TV spots and has cracked the self-promotion tactics only too well.

Dressed in a crisp saffron kurta and dhoti, a saffron turban, a stole with Jai Shri Krishna embroidered on it in Hindi and a bright red tilak on his forehead, Pandey, walked into the court premises in a well-rehearsed slow stride and with his entourage of 10 men. Phone cameras track his every move.

There was a hearing scheduled for his case but Pandey knew that the presiding judge was on leave, but he still came to court. He made sure he was captured on the cameras and gave video interviews to reporters outside the courtroom — the day was a success.

Pandey with the members of his Trust outside the Mathura court | Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
Pandey with the members of his Trust outside the Mathura court | Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint

Pandey, however, isn’t the only player in the rabble-rousing game here. Since December, several other fringe groups and Hindu political parties have been competing in Mathura. They’ve all filed multiple petitions in court against the Shahi Idgah mosque, and each group is fighting for credit for any action taken in the case. They’re also putting pressure on the mosque in other ways such as taking out yatras. The gradual and myriad mobilisation of trusts and sadhus here somewhat mirrors what happened in the early days of Ayodhya over three decades ago.

Two months ago, Pandey made Mathura his base, and like dozen other petitioners, filed a case in the Mathura civil court in January claiming that the mosque is built on the original birthplace of Lord Krishna. He calls the ancient mosque an illegal encroachment and wants it demolished.

“The true owner of the land is Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi Trust. This illegal structure [Shahi Idgah mosque] should be removed. Whatever mantras they speak on my God’s birthplace in their language, this should be stopped. We are hopeful of justice through the court,” says Pandey speaking to ThePrint outside the courtroom.

But his intervention in the matter is not limited to the legal route. In fact, it is his actions outside the court that are making headlines.

In December, ThePrint reported how in another case, the Mathura civil court had ordered an inspection of the mosque property. It was an opportunity Pandey grabbed. Within two weeks of the order, Pandey, who is from Kandhla, Shamli, relocated to Mathura. His grandparents were leaders in Congress and Jan Sangh.

“I had a dream about Keshav ji [Lord Krishna] on 20 December. He asked me to fight for him. I came to Mathura on the 22 December and the same day I took a pledge that I will not go home or wear beads (malas) till I free Lord’s land. My family calls me home, but I tell them that I have devoted my life to God’s service,” says Pandey.

Pandey wasted no time. On 26 December, he registered a trust in Mathura — Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi Mukti Nirman Trust. There is no official number of members, but he claims they are spread across India. Since then, he has kept the mosque management and the city’s local administration on their toes.

His actions, however, are drawing criticism from the mosque management committee.

“The people who are filing complaints against the mosque themselves are neck deep in criminal cases. Ashutosh Pandey is booked under heinous crimes and he has come to Mathura to rile up people,” says Tanveer Ahmed, secretary, Shahi Idgah Mosque management committee.

It’s also disrupting the peace in the city, say residents of Muslim localities in the city.

“This is all done for a political motive. Leaders like Ashutosh Pandey who have come from outside are consolidating votes by creating communal divisions in Mathura. Locals don’t want conflict,” says Shahir Hussain, resident of Nayi Basti in Mathura.

He adds that Mathura stands more to lose than Ayodhya. For starters, it is a residential area and the temple and the mosque are part of the economy. The temple also depends on the Muslim residents for peripheral activities like the stitching of clothes for the idols.

Also Read: ‘Mathura court order not survey like Gyanvapi, just an inspection,’ says Shahi Idgah’s counsel

Creating unrest

In the chaos of the civil court where more than 15 matters on the Shahi Idgah mosque and Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi temple are being heard currently, Pandey was just another saffron-clad Lord Krishna devotee. That is until a publicity stunt last month.

Lord Krishna is mentioned as one of the petitioners in the case. On the second hearing in his case on 7 February,  he arrived in court with an idol of Lord Krishna. The golden-faced idol was adorned with a blue-frilly cloth, flower and note garlands, and a tall elaborate crown.

The idol he took to court is now placed in his office. He often takes it for public engagements. | Facebook | Ashutosh Pandey -RBYS
The idol he took to court is now placed in his office. He often takes it for public engagements. | Facebook | Ashutosh Pandey -RBYS

“The judge had asked where petitioner number six is, so we brought the Lord to the court,” Pandey says. “The judge was satisfied and said [there was] no need to bring him again.”

The court premises became a circus that day,  said a lawyer who was present in the court.

“Pandey went and placed the idol in a park, and people started coming forward to bow their heads to it. When someone complained that the park was not clean enough for the idol to be placed there, he put it on a chair,” he said.

He added that even though the civil judge reprimanded him for such an act. Pandey made sure the day ended in his favour. Photographs of him with the idol made him popular instantly.

The same idol is now placed on a giant wooden table in his one-room office in a deserted spiritual resort called Lotus Garden in Vrindavan.

Coming from a family of temple caretakers and owners, Pandey spent his childhood days at the Siddhpeeth Shri Shakumbhari Devi Temple. He was involved in cleaning and doing the make-up of the idols with his grandmother, who was the district head of the Congress in Shamli.

When he learnt to play dholak (drums) in school, the evening kirtan (prayers) at the temple was incomplete without him. He dropped out of school in ninth grade and joined a gurukul in Punjab for two years.

Devoting his life to Mathura was a natural progression, he says.

Since January, he has been organising Jan Jagran Yatras under his Trust to spread information about the alleged illegal activities of the mosque. This year, he has visited Ghaziabad, Bijnor, Gautam Budh Nagar, Haridwar and Delhi.

He’s also tapping into Brahmin social organisations, one of which heads called Rashtriya Brahmin Yuvjan Sabha.

He’s creating networks of young men (Krishna Sena) and women (Radha Vahini) who, he says, can act as a ‘ground army’ for Lord Krishna when the need arises.

“The jan sammelan (meeting) in our districts (Ghaziabad) was clubbed with the Holi celebration, so people gathered in large numbers. Guruji [Pandey] told them about the mosque next to the Shri Krishna temple. Many people were not aware of it,” says Rajeev Sharma, a member of the Trust from Ghaziabad.

He drove from Ghaziabad to Mathura along with his counterparts from Gautam Buddha Nagar, to be present at the civil court with Pandey on 10 March.

Also Read: ‘Mathura isn’t Kashi’: BJP plan to develop Bankey Bihari temple area has riled up Hindus

Targeted attacks on mosques 

Last month was a good month for Pandey. It was not just him, but the work of his trust that was making the news. The Trust was credited in the media for lodging an FIR against the mosque’s management committee secretary, Tanveer Ahmed, for allegedly ‘stealing electricity’ which eventually led to the mosque’s electricity being cut.

“For 75 years the mosque was stealing electricity from the government. Why did no one ever raise this? It was based on our complaint to the power minister on 25 January that the power department cut the illegal connection,” claims Pandey proudly.

But Sandeep Sharma, the Mathura head of Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, claims that it was the Mahasabha that raised the matter of illegal electricity connection first.

“Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha’s national head, Dinesh Kaushik had written to the UP Chief Minister, the Prime Minister and Union Home Minister many times about this issue. This inspection by the power department happened as a result of those letters,” claims Sharma.

Pandey claims that the Trust is mentioned in the FIR, and points to this as proof of his involvement in getting the power supply to the mosque cut.

But the FIR, which ThePrint has accessed, on the illegal electricity connection of the mosque has no reference to Pandey’s 25 January complaint. It says that on 4 February, officials from the electricity department saw a wire and they cut the connection on their own.

Ahmed says that by manipulating the press, Pandey is trying to turn the narrative in his favour.

“Many organisations have come up and are filing different complaints and cases against the mosque. They neither respect the constitution nor do they wait for the court procedure. They only try to create unrest by giving fiery speeches through local media and filing baseless FIRs. Their motive is to confuse the public,” says Ahmed.

Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi temple and the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura. | Photo by Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi temple and the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura. | Photo by Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint

Pandey is undeterred. He claims he has strong evidence that the mosque is not a registered entity. His confidence comes from a large inventory of 100-year-old land records, and other records from the power department, tehsil office and Archaeological Survey of India, which he claims he has obtained from his sources in various government departments.

None of the documents he claims to possess are deposited in the court case yet.

The Mahasabha, meanwhile, has been campaigning against the mosque in other ways. Earlier this month, the political party filed an appeal to the city police to allow them to play Holi inside the mosque. They said in the letter that they want to colour the original birthplace of Lord Krishna which is buried under the mosque. Permission was not granted, Sharma says.

“There is a Hindutva wave in the country. We were hopeful that CM Yogi ji and the district magistrate will give us permission to play Holi inside the Idgah. But our application was not accepted. We will keep trying in the future,” says Sharma.

He adds that the momentum against the mosque is now building up. In a short span of time, more than 2,000 workers have joined the party in Mathura and they have created 56 wings, all working towards a single cause of reclaiming the temple land.

Criminal record

Pandey joined the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) soon after he returned to Kandhla from the gurukul. He started off managing the township and climbed the ladder ‘very quickly’ and became the district head. In the Muslim-majority town, he would hunt cow slaughterers.

“Living amongst the Muslim households, I saw so many cases of cow slaughtering. My job was to catch these criminals and take them to the police station. I was a state witness in multiple cases,” says Pandey.

But in 2013, he found himself on the wrong side of the law.

He and his associates, including his cousin, Shubham Bhargav, who is now his security in-charge, were named the main accused in a cow smuggling case by a rival politician. Pandey was caught on camera trying to bribe a police officer to release a truck of 50 oxen which were being smuggled illegally.

Pandey denies these charges. He calls it a political vendetta and claims the sting operation by the police inspector was a staged attempt to trap him. He was convicted and jailed for almost seven months.

His criminal records fill files that occupy a large shelf in his Vrindavan office. Untying the thread of a file with red flaps, he pulls out stacks of printouts and photocopies, they range from newspaper cuttings from when his house and car were set on fire in Kandhla to records showing him as the accused in multiple applications given to the police.

“These were false cases against me. I was harassed. People have also shot at me,” he says.

Pandey’s life took a turn after his arrest. In jail, he found himself isolated. The VHP and the Brahmin Mahasabha, another organisation he was associated with, deserted him.

“No one came to meet me in jail. No one helped me. No one sat on protest to release me,” he says, bitterly.

After his release, he ended his association with both organisations. This was when he began the Rashtriya Brahmin Yuvjan Sabha, to fight against injustices towards Brahmins.

Under the banner of the organisation, he protested to make the cow the national animal and to declare Parashurama’s birth anniversary a national holiday.

His list of crimes grew after his release.

Between 2004 and 2022, Pandey had 22 cases filed against him, most of which are in Kandhla and one each in Ayodhya and Lucknow. In the last six years, he has been accused of gang rape, hate speech, cheating, murder threats, extortion, election fraud, hurting religious sentiments and possessing counterfeit coins. He has also been booked at least four times under UP’s Goonda Act. On the other hand, he has filed complaints and initiated 35 cases against different parties.

He claims that all these cases are baseless and he has been acquitted in many of them. ThePrint has not been able to verify the claim of acquittal but police records show at least 10 of the cases are still pending

By his own admission, he is out on bail in seven cases.

“The court and the police station had become my home. This is what gave me the courage to enter the temple fight in Mathura,” Pandey says.

Sadhvi Prachi Acharya, who is heading the Haridwar wing of Radha Vahini, is an accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots case.

Also Read: Mandir or Masjid? New surveys not needed, just acceptance of truth & move towards reconciliation

Expansion plans

On the way back from the Mathura court to his Vrindavan office, Pandey’s entourage stops at a police station to register a complaint about a death threat he received recently from an unknown caller. The caller wants him to withdraw his case against the mosque.

Back in his office, Pandey is preparing to greet Brahmin men who are flying down from Lucknow. They will handle the social media accounts of the Trust, and work on creating a Wikipedia page for Pandey. The 21 trustees are also deliberating on a plan to construct a Krishna temple in every district of UP.

The Shahi Idgah mosque is still Pandey’s top priority.

“Next, I am going to have the generator at the mosque stopped. They got it from an Arab country. If it is operated, the wall of the temple [that it shares with the mosque] might fall,” claims Pandey.

The generator is already being operated.

But two days after his visit to the court Pandey’s enthusiasm to fight for the temple land fizzled out, He announced in a press conference that he is withdrawing his case from the civil court.

“I thought about this a lot. I had entered the fight as a Krishna bhakt (devotee). But this has become a political issue. The police are not taking my complaints seriously. I received two death threats. They have not even registered an FIR,” he said to ThePrint. The police have since registered a complaint regarding one of the threats he has received.

He adds, that he will withdraw the case at the next hearing, on 23 March.

But though he dissociates himself from the politics of the temple, he admits that he supports parties that have taken up the cause of Lord Krishna.

Hum neta bante nahi, banate hain. (I am not a politician, I want to make them) I want to be like Mohan Bhagwat and Madan Mohan Malviya. I will send my people to the government so that they don’t bring any other law like the [Places of] Worship Act 1991,” he says. “Jab wo neta ban jayenge, to aa kar humari gaadi ka darwaza kholenge (When they become politicians, then they will come and open my car’s door).”

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

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