In Bangladesh, ISKCON is throwing its weight about

In Bangladesh, ISKCON is throwing its weight about

Shafiq Rahman, 
ISKCON procession in Dhaka

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) is going from strength to strength in Bangladesh. But its expansion is making it aggressive, to the annoyance of the Muslims and to the dismay of fellow Hindus.

Now they do not even have the decency to stop drumming and playing music during Azan, the Islamic call to prayer. Leaders of Hindu religious groups disapprove of this practice but ISKCON is carrying on regardless.

Till 2004, ISKCON had only 1900 life members in Bangladesh. But over the past decade and a half, membership has shot up to over 35,000. And its non-member following has also expanded exponentially. In 2009 it had 35 temples in the country. Now there are 71.

Towards the end of the 1990s, ISKCON took over the temple and ashram set up by Swami Tripurlinga at 79 Swamibagh in Old Dhaka. This is now ISKCON’s head office. Directly opposite this office, at 82 Swamibagh, is the Swamibagh Jama Masjid. This mosque is almost 350 years old. It is now a five-storey building with a capacity to accommodate around 1500 worshippers.

But in blatant disregard of the mosque, the ISKCON temple blasts out loud music and drumming over the loudspeaker, disturbing prayers in the mosque.

In the last week of August this year, during a Janmashtami celebrations commemorating the birth of Krishna, ISKCON continuously played loud music with kirtans in praise of Krishna and other religious chants without a break throughout the night. They did not even break for the Asr, Maghrib or Esha prayers at the mosque. The Khadem of the mosque, the muezzin, the local people were incensed.

Even the generality of Hindus were unhappy about it. A certain Tapan Das said: “Some members of the ISKCON have been after me for a long time, urging me to take membership. They asked me to visit the place and said I would like it. I grew up in this country. I have always seen that during our pujas and other religious rites and rituals, we always stop during Azan and at Maghrib. But these people do not even have that decency. I see nothing good in such insolence.”

Vice chair of the masjid (mosque) committee Md. Sirajuddin said: “We do not say anything to them directly in case it disrupts the peace. We approach the administration instead. We have informed the police several times. ISKCON has asked us for the Azan and prayer timings and we have informed the temple accordingly. They stopped for a few days, but resumed. It continues that way now.”

When contacted over the mobile phone, the former President of ISKCON in Bangladesh, Brahmachari Krishna Kirtan Das, initially denied the allegations. Later said: “Not everyone is equally conscious or sensitive. Once when I was in ashram it happened too, but I stopped the practice.” But the next day he said on camera dismissively: “Such oversights are hardly worth taking into consideration.”

In 2014 during Ramadan, the temple were asked to stop playing drums and music loudly during the tarabi prayers. This created friction and local elders, people’s representatives and the administration had to intervene to bring the situation under control.

Advocate Rana Dasgupta, Central General Secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddha Christian Oikya Parishad, described this as sheer arrogance.

He asked: “There has been a mosque there for so long and a temple and ashram too. Nothing ever happened in the past, why now?”

He said that such behavior does not bode well. ISKCON is an international organisation. They must have respect and tolerance for other religions, Dasgupta said.

The Brahmachari of the Swamibagh Ashram, Iswar Gauraharidas, had completed his Masters in mathematics from Rajshahi University 2013. He said that around 3 or 4 teachers from each public university and higher educational institution including Dhaka Medical College Hospital, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), Khulna University of Engineering and Technical (KUET), Bangladesh Agricultural University, Sylhet Agricultural University and others, are followers of ISKCON.

ISKCON’s rules are that if anyone is interested in joining as a member he or she must have at least a Secondary School Certificate (SSC) and must be young. The society uses youth to spread its message. Gauraharidas adds that the response is highest among students.

Alleged involvement in murder

Many feel that alleged ISKCON member Amit Saha, an accused in the murder of BUET student Abrar Fahad, was dropped from the chargesheet in the case initially and his arrest was also delayed, simply because he was an ISKCON member and that the organization used its influence to protect him.

Amit Saha was a student of BUET’s department of civil engineering and also law affairs Deputy Secretary of the BUET unit of the ruling Awami League’s student wing Chhatra League. It was in his room that electrical and electronic engineering student Abrar Fahad was tortured and killed.

The mainstream media, social media and several BUET students claim that Amit Saha is an ISKCON member. He was the one, they say, who followed Abrar, checked his Facebook account and portrayed him as a follower of Jamaat-e-Islami’s student front Shibir.

When there was a nationwide uproar over Abrar’s death, members of Chhatra League were expelled, charged, detained and taken on remand. Yet Amit Shaha remained untouched. People said that he was getting away because of his involvement with ISKCON.

Then on 8 October the Additional Commissioner of DMP’s Detective Branch (DB) Abdul Baten told journalists: “Amit Saha was not intentionally dropped from the case. He will also be arrested if needed, following further investigation.”

Finally, on 10 October Amit Saha was arrested and on 11 October the court ordered a 5-day remand. Later it granted another 3 days’ remand.

Now, however, the central ashram’s Brahmachari and editor of Amriter Sandhane, Sukhi Sushil Das, denies that Amit Saha is an ISKCON member. He said: “I don’t even know him. ISKCON is being dragged into the matter intentionally.” Krishna Kirtan Das echoed it.

Hare Krishna chant

In the meantime, for a week from 11 July this year, under its Food for Life programme, ISKCON distributed among children in 10 schools of Chittagong, food offered for worship on the occasion of ‘rathjatra’. It was said that they made the children repeat the mantra ‘Here Krishna Hare Ram’ while taking the food. The matter was taken to court.

When lawyer Taimur Alam Khandakar brought up the matter the High Court Bench comprising Justice FRM Najmul Ahsan and Justice KM Kamrul Quader remarked that while an NGO could distribute food in schools, it was wrong to lure the children with food to make them chant such mantras.

That very night ISKCON issued a letter to the Chittagong City Police Commissioner offering an apology and explaining the food distribution. The next day at a press conference, the General Secretary of ISKCON Probartak Sri Krishna Mandir, Darubrahma Jagannath Das also offered an apology. He pledged to ensure that future programmes would be carried out with more care.

Temple takeover

There are also allegations that ISKCON forcefully took over a Hindu temple. In 2009 clashes broke out over the takeover of the Sri Sri Rashik Roy Jeu temple in Auliapur of Thakugaon Sadar Upazila and one person was killed. In 2018 the administration locked up the temple and imposed Section 144. The temple is presently under ISKCON control, said Sukhi Sushil Das.