SUBHASH CHANDRA SHARMA, a horticultural inspector in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, can’t forget the date, 15 March 2016. “We were badly beaten up by the goons of Ram Briksh Yadav, the alleged leader of the cult that claims to follow Subhas Chandra Bose, and were held as prisoners inside our office,” he recounts. “Some of them even tried to pour petrol on me and set me on fire.” He and four of his colleagues were saved by the arrival of the local police, who implored Yadav with folded hands to let them go.
The next day onwards, they stopped going to work at the state Horticulture Department office located in Jawahar Bagh, a large park under their charge that had been taken over by Yadav’s men on the pretext of holding a rally, and started going to the District Magistrate’s office instead. It’s only on 6 June that the department’s officers and workers finally returned to the Bagh.
It is not a pretty sight. Clothes and leftover food are strewn across the garden; charred vehicles and bikes lie in a corner near its entrance—the ravages of the mayhem wreaked by miscreants on 2 June. “They have completely destroyed this area,” says Ram Swaroop Sharma, assistant horticultural inspector. “The roads and parks can be rebuilt, but what about the age-old trees? It can never be the same now.”
The police have set up camp inside the park. A stash of firearms has been recovered from the site. Some electricians are trying to restore electricity supply with new poles and wires. The smell of burnt objects is intense. Reads a slogan on the wall of a gutted hutment: ‘Azad Hind sarkaar, Jai Gurudev, Jai Subhas.’ There are posters with images of ‘Azad Hind’ currency notes, demanding that these be adopted as legal tender by India. It was one of the aims of Yadav’s rag-tag militia, the Swadheen Bharat Vidhik Satyagrah, also known as the Swadheen Bharat Subhas Sena.
About 100 metres away from the Bagh is a government facility where autopsies are underway—under heavy police security— on 19 of those who died that day, including Yadav. The clash of 2 June claimed 25 lives in all. Among the deceased are Mathura SP Mukul Dwivedi and Farah SHO Santosh Kumar Yadav. Back at the site, people are beginning to gather, curious about how Yadav had camped with an estimated 4,000 odd followers in the park, defying orders to vacate. “I read about it in a newspaper and wanted to see the ‘swimming pool’ that the baba had got built for himself,” says Sanjeev Parashar, 26, who has come from Sadabad to look around.
The cult of Ram Briksh Yadav, who held followers in his thrall by telling them that Netaji was alive in his care and would make a public appearance some day, is unlikely to survive him. But the story behind his rise from a dairy farmer to the leadership of a cult that combined spiritual yearnings with nationalist sentiment not only has the makings of a Bollywood potboiler, it highlights the absurd ways in which the unresolved mystery of Bose’s death has come to be exploited by demagogues to their own ends.
The Swadheen Bharat Subhas Sena had no presence before 2012. Even before Yadav’s death, the group’s influence did not go beyond the 52 hectares of Jawahar Bagh. “If you go through his demands, you would know that he was a lunatic with no knowledge,” says Subhash Chandra Sharma, who dealt with him almost on a daily basis for two-and-a-half years. He wanted to abolish the Indian Constitution and the posts of President and Prime Minister, and instead have an ‘Azad Hind’ government offering cheap petrol and gold. Many suggest all this was a guise for ulterior plans involving his own glory. “He had nothing to do with Bose and knew nothing about his ideology,” says Anuj Dhar, who has been doing research on the leader for 15 years and has published two books on the subject. “He was just using Subhas Chandra Bose as a cover for his misadventures.”
Every morning, Yadav would deliver a speech to his horde— mostly poor people from eastern UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh—in which he would talk about the ‘government’ he claimed to be running from the Bagh, where he provided them with free food and shelter. Chants of ‘Jai Subhas’ would be heard on and off, and the address would end with a mass oath taken by all to sacrifice their lives to Netaji’s cause if need be.
Apart from a school for children, the Sena had a training module for guerrilla warfare. This, Yadav convinced them, was part of Netaji’s vision. He would also bestow the leader’s surname as an honorific upon loyalists. His closest aide was Chandan Bose, a man from Siliguri in West Bengal who is currently absconding.
“It was a completely different world inside the Bagh’s gates, where people indoctrinated by him would do anything for him,” says Ram Swaroop Sharma.
Ram Briskh Yadav was born to a poor family in Ghazipur district of UP. In his early life, he was booked for several petty crimes. He fled to Mathura and started a dairy business here. At some point, he came into contact with followers of one Baba Jai Gurudev, who had a huge ashram on Delhi-Agra Road. Yadav joined the guru’s following with much ardour, even quitting his business to stay in the ashram. Over the years, he grew close to the guru. Some say he saw himself as his heir apparent.
Since Gumnami Baba refused to play Netaji, Jai Gurudev convinced his followers that he himself was Bose in hiding
However, when Jai Gurudev died in 2012, a three-way fight arose to claim his legacy. The guru had picked Pankaj Yadav (later Maharaj), who was once his driver, as his successor. The third claimant was Uma Kant Tiwari, another disciple. As the story goes, Pankaj Yadav had posted his men on the ashram gates to keep out Ram Briksh and Uma Kant Maharaj. Turned away, the latter went to Ujjain and took hold of Jai Gurudev’s temple there. But Ram Briskh felt disinherited, and it was this anger, say observers, that led him to start an outfit that could challenge the authority of Pankaj Maharaj. “That’s why he was adamant on setting up an ashram here [in Mathura], to take control of Jai Gurudev Ashram,” says a follower of Jai Gurudev who has worked closely with Ram Briksh Yadav.
The declared goal of Yadav’s Sena was to give India an ‘Azad Hind’ government. In January 2014, he led a ‘sandesh yatra’ from Sagar in Madhya Pradesh all the way to Delhi, where the group planned a demonstration at Jantar Mantar for its demands. The yatra reached Mathura on 15 March 2014, and sought permission for a two-day rally at Jawahar Bagh. It was granted. But once he and his Sena settled in, they refused to leave. “They took control of our tube wells and other facilities and started using them as they liked,” says Ram Swaroop. Several attempts to evict them failed. The police action of 2 June that finally achieved this came at the cost of over two dozen lives.
Ram Briskh Yadav is not the only one who has used Bose’s lasting appeal to establish himself as a cult leader. Even Jai Gurudev’s rise can be attributed to the Bose factor. In the late 70s and earlier 80s, Jai Gurudev’s pravachans (sermons) had gripped large parts of UP and Bihar. He made radical speeches on freedom, demanding a revolution against the system. Politicians, of course, drew on his popularity. Former prime ministers Indira Gandhi and AB Vajpayee were among those who visited him. It helped his cause that conspiracy theories around Bose’s 1945 disappearance were still doing the rounds. “Jai Gurudev had met Gumnami Baba of Faizabad, who [resembled Bose], and then made a public announcement that he would produce Netaji at a public rally on 23 January 1975,” says Dhar. But Gumnami Baba refused to play Netaji for Jai Gurudev. On the appointed day, thousands of people gathered at Phool Bagh in Kanpur for a glimpse of their beloved Azad Hind Force leader. Jai Gurudev came on stage and mumbled something to suggest that he himself was Netaji. The disappointed crowd pelted him with stones and he had to be rescued by his disciples.
Jai Gurudev’s own followers, however, happily bought the claim that he was Netaji in hiding. His clout grew manifold and the ashram he left behind now runs a chain of businesses said to be worth hundreds of crores. Many still believe he was indeed Netaji; there are several Facebook posts by the guru’s fans that refer to him as ‘Subhas Chandra Bose alias Jai Gurudev’. “Gurudev never claimed he was Netaji,” says Charan Singh Yadav, spokesperson, Jai Gurudev Ashram. “I can’t speak for his supporters, but he was a spiritual leader who led a simple life.”
In UP’s current government, Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh’s brother and state cabinet minister Shivpal Yadav is a follower of the guru. “Whatever I am today is all because of Jai Gurudev,” Shivpal had said on the guru’s death, “He is God to me.” In the past few months, questions have been raised about his patronage of Ram Briksh Yadav too. “Do you think that without Lucknow’s support they could put up and feed 4,000 people daily on government property?” asks a senior government official in Mathura. “Every time the police tried to take action, there would be instructions from above not to.” The encroachment had to end, he adds, because Yadav had stirred the anger of farmers and residents in and around Mathura who used to depend on the horticulture centre at Jawahar Bagh for their crop seeds.
GUMNAMI BABA DIED in 1985. An impersonator of Netaji who gained fame in the 1990s was Mauni Baba, who surfaced in Sitapur district of UP with his supporters claiming that he was Gumnami Baba, who had not really died and was actually Netaji. This game didn’t last long. In 2003, when word got around that the Mukherjee Commission, set up to probe the Netaji mystery, would call Mauni Baba for a deposition, he suddenly vanished, never to be seen again. “He’s still alive—must be a man in his late seventies,” says Dhar, whose guess is that Ram Briksh Yadav was also a believer of this Mauni-Baba-as-Netaji theory.
Needless to say, all this earns a bad name for one of the most respected heroes of India’s freedom struggle. Sisir Kumar Bose, Netaji’s nephew who helped him escape in January 1941, had said in 1973: “The emergence of a strange and spurious Bose cult prevented the development of a sober, scientific, historical appraisal of India’s only soldier-statesman of modern times.” Chandra Kumar Bose, Netaji grandnephew and now a BJP leader, says that such sects use Netaji’s name only for their vested interests. “These groups are resorting to violence and maligning Netaji’s name,” he says, “What have they done for Netaji in the past, except exploit his name for personal gain? It should be stopped immediately.”
Apart from these groups, there are several small groups in different parts of the country that claim adherence to Netaji’s principles. There is the Subhash Sena, for example, and the Swadheen Bharat, neither of which has much traction even though they are both active on social media. “They all might be part of one group operating under different names,” says Dhar.
In February this year, members of Bose’s family and Dhar with his ‘Mission Netaji’ team had met UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and asked for an enquiry that the Allahabad High Court had proposed in relation to a Gumnami Baba case. Sources say that a commission has already been set up under Justice Vishnu Sahai. It was to be announced, they add, but now after the Mathura violence, the state government may want to tread cautiously, especially with polls coming up next year. “The Mathura incident could also [be a plot] to derail the enquiry commission,” says Dhar.
What happened in Mathura made national headlines, but there have also been smaller incidents of Bose cultism in various parts of India. Conspiracy stories of ‘Netaji in hiding’ continue to flourish even 119 years after the late leader’s birth. This makes space for wannabes who spread lies in their sermons to gain power and money, all in the name of an Azad Hind.