On July 20, 38-year-old Bajrang Muni Udasin was stretched out on a cot draped in a soft saffron rug. The head priest of the Shri Lakshmandas Udasin Ashram in Uttar Pradesh’s Khairabad was unable to walk because of an ache in his leg, caused by a nervous condition. He was surrounded by several policemen, who had solicitously come to the ashram’s audience hall to ask if “all was well with him”.

Wearily, Udasin described his daily routine. He wakes up at 11 am and, after his morning meal, presents himself at the audience hall, where a number of followers gather daily with their grievances, many of which are complaints against local Muslims. Udasin claimed to be tireless in his efforts to sort out such problems – “even if I get a call, I reach the spot immediately”.

That day, however, Udasin had worries of his own.

Not so long ago, he was booked for hate speech after he threatened to rape Muslim women. “If you [Muslims] harass one Hindu woman then I will openly abduct your sisters and daughters and rape them,” he had said.

The comments were made at a religious rally in Khairabad in Sitapur district on April 2. The case was registered on April 8, after journalist Mohammad Zubair tweeted a video of the religious rally and the National Commission of Women wrote to the Uttar Pradesh police, urging them to take action. Muslim women in Khairabad then held a protest demanding his arrest.

Udasin was arrested on April 13. Ten days later, he was out on bail.

Soon, things were looking up for Udasin. On June 1, a case was filed against Zubair for calling Udasin and others booked for hate speech “hate mongers”. As Zubair was caught in a loop of arrests and FIRs that took him from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh, Udasin took credit for the police action against the journalist. “My followers were unhappy when Zubair tweeted,” he said. “As a result, the police took strict action by registering an FIR and arresting him.”

The priest was lauded in the Supreme Court. On July 8, Additional Solicitor General SV Raju, defending the case against Zubair, called Udasin a “respected mahant… a religious leader”. Raju told the Supreme Court, “When you call a religious leader a hatemonger, it raises problems.”

But on July 20, Zubair got bail and protection from arrest. A Supreme Court bench consisting of Justice DY Chandrachud and AS Bopanna observed that the power of arrest must be used sparingly and that there was “no justification” to keep Zubair in custody. The court also refused to ban him from tweeting. “How can we tell a journalist that he will not write or utter a word?” demanded Chandrachud.

Back in Khairabad, Udasin was agitated. “I think what the Supreme Court did was grossly wrong,” he says. Railing against the Supreme Court, he said, “There are so many FIRs against Zubair, he is getting foreign money, how can he get bail? Justice Chandrachud, who is from Bengal, and Mamata Banerjee are instrumental in getting him bail. I am 100% sure of this.”

Chandrachud was actually born in Maharashtra.

Udasin now feared unwanted attention again. So far, he had been confident that the case against him could be resolved through a “samjhauta”, or compromise. After all, as Scroll.in found out, the complainant, Ram Naresh, is a follower of Udasin who also works as a driver.

Bajrang Muni with his supporters, including Ram Naresh [extreme right], in the ashram. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

The disciple

On July 20, Naresh was in attendance at the ashram’s audience hall, waiting on Udasin, whom he reverentially addressed as “maharaj ji”.

“Maharaj ji helps anyone who comes to him,” he said. “I go to him whenever I’m in need of money – if there is a function at home or I am unwell. I had a fever about a month ago, maharaj ji got me the medicines for my recovery.”

Lavish in his praise, Naresh continued: “Since our maharaj ji came to Khairabad, the Hindu has woken up. The administration is now with us and so is maharaj ji.”

Indeed, the police were in heavy attendance at the ashram. Apart from those who had gathered to pay obeisance at the hall, many were deployed for the priest’s security. Female police officers checked my bag and took down my Aadhaar details. Four or five police officers escorted me into the audience hall. Some of his followers took photographs and videos of me, without asking for permission.

Intimidated by the gathering, I wasn’t able to ask what was uppermost in my mind: why had Naresh filed a complaint against the man he apparently revered and worked for?

I returned to Delhi before I called him on the phone to ask if he had indeed filed the complaint against Udasin. Naresh admitted he had, but claimed he had only done so “out of anger”.

Udasin, too, claimed that he had said something that had angered Naresh and prompted him to file the complaint. “That was a while ago,” he said when I spoke to him on the phone on July 27. “I called Naresh back to work for me. We will look into a compromise on the case soon.”

Sitapur district’s Additional Superintendent of Police and Circle Officer Piyush Kumar Singh described Naresh as an “ordinary man” who had filed a complaint. When it was pointed out that Naresh was Udasin’s employee, he said he was not aware of that. “Please ask the station officer of Khairabad police station,” Singh said. Despite repeated attempts, the Khairabad station officer did not take calls.

The video of Udasin’s speech shows several police officers standing by quietly as he threatened Muslims. However, Singh claimed the police only noticed the video after journalists shared it and it went viral.

The delay

The fact that the complaint was filed almost a week after the speech might have helped Udasin get bail. The bail order from the Sitapur district court noted “no explanation of this delay had been given by the complainant, Ram Naresh”.

Advocate Ateeq Khan, who was present during the bail hearings, said Naresh was absent. “If the complainant is not there, his lawyer is not there to explain the delay, then what can the judge do?” he asked.

Ateeq Khan had gone to the court in the hope of filing a plea on behalf of Samajwadi Party politician and activist Sadia Khan. The plea was to ask that the other men seen in the rape threat video also be identified. The court refused the plea, saying it would not be prudent to adjudicate on it before dealing with the original complainant, Naresh.

Ateeq Khan alleges that Naresh’s complaint was being used to bury the case altogether. “Why else would they get his follower, who still works with him, who relies on him for a living, to be the complainant?” he asked. “Over time, if the complainant does not insist on the trial being speeded up or opposes bail, automatically the case will not be heard. All he will have to do is tell the court that his complaint was incorrect and withdraw it.”

He added: “By keeping Sadia Khan out of the case, by keeping the women who protested against Udasin out, what you have managed to do is ensure no one can know what is happening.”

When Singh was asked why the police had not taken statements from the Muslim women of Khairabad, he claimed it was because the women did not even know about the video until it went viral on April 8.

Over three months since the complaint, the police are yet to file a chargesheet in the case even though investigations are reportedly near completion. Singh claimed it was because the charges included Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code – “promoting enmity between groups”.

“One needs permission from the state government before the court takes cognisance,” Singh said. “We asked for permission, and the home department asked us some questions. Those are being answered now. As soon as we get the sanction we will submit the charge sheet.”

Advocate Ateeq Khan, who represented local politician Sadia Khan. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

The protesters

While Udasin has returned to the ashram, the women who protested against him live in fear. Khairabad is a Muslim majority enclave in Sitapur district. The ashram is located in a mixed area. A row of Muslim households stands next to it. On the opposite side of the road are Hindu homes. Both Udasin’s followers and local Muslim residents keep a watchful eye on passers by.

Haseen Bano, a 32-year-old Sanskrit teacher at a private school, lives close to the ashram. She said that anger had started brewing after the video of Udasin’s rape threats went viral.

“First they delayed in registering the FIR against him, then they delayed in arresting him,” she said. “We were growing more and more impatient. We would watch news channels waiting for his arrest.”

She said the police never stopped by to assuage the fears of the Muslim women who lived in Khairabad, especially those near the ashram. Twenty-six-year-old Shahista Bano, who had tried to talk to the police officials, said, “They would see us from a distance and ask us to go away.”

Women in Khairabad had also noticed the police presence in the video. “These policemen were there to offer him protection while he spoke about raping women.” said 26-year-old Shameem Akhter. “The police stood right next to him when he made those comments. So why did they wait for Zubair bhai to make the video go viral before they took action?”

Their impatience grew after the police conducted a peace committee meeting at the Khairabad police station on the evening of April 10. Among those present was the chairman of the Khairabad municipality, Jalees Ansari, local Muslims and Udasin’s supporters. Ansari said everyone was asked to maintain peace and that the police assured them action would be taken against Udasin.

However, a resident in his thirties who did not want to be named, said the emphasis was on maintaining calm rather than taking action against the priest.

On the morning of April 11, Haseena Bano took leave from school and decided to hit the streets, along with a few other Muslim women. “Now it was time for action,” she said.

They gathered and started knocking on the doors of other Muslim women in the area, especially those who lived near the ashram. “If we did not speak, Baba [Udasin] would show in reality what he threatened to do,” said Akhtar.

Reshma Bano, another protester, added that staying silent meant strengthening the “raj of Baba” and ensuring their lives grew even more insecure.

A crowd of women started gathering – 60 or 70 people at first, then swelling to about 150. They started to march towards the local Sheeshewali masjid. As the women walked through the crowded main road, more people, including teenage boys, joined them.

As they marched, Reshma Bano recalled, they were heckled by Udasin’s supporters. According to residents, many supporters who lived in surrounding villages were already in Khairabad for the peace meeting on April 10. “These men, Bajrang Muni supporters, kept laughing at us, saying what we were doing was pointless,” she remembered. “See, these were not locals, these were supporters who had come from various villages.”

At the mosque, police officials told the women to withdraw their protest. “The police surrounded us from all sides,” Reshma Bano said. According to her, the police initially tried to disperse the gathering but when they realised the women were not going to back down, they promised to take action against Udasin.

As the women left the mosque, she alleged, Udasin’s supporters kept up the heckling. “They looked at us like what we were doing was wrong. Is it wrong to raise a voice, to want the police to take action against someone who is openly issuing rape threats?” Reshma Bano asked.

When Udasin was arrested on April 13, there was jubilation. “I was relieved that he was put away,” Akhter said. “I felt safer instantly.”

But fear soon returned as police personnel flooded the area around the ashram. “It was scary. We all locked our doors and huddled on the terraces. We heard that his supporters were coming to attack us,” recalled Haseena Bano.

Since Udasin was released on bail 10 days later, the fear has only deepened.

The Muslim women of Khairabad who held a protest on April 11 demanding Bajrang Muni Udasin's arrest. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

The land grabber

But it is not only Muslims in Khairabad who live in fear of the religious leader. “All his comments about Muslims are for show – his main targets are the Hindus of Khairabad,’’ said 34-year-old Sunil Kumar, a Khairabad resident.

Several Hindu residents have the same allegation against Udasin – land grabbing. The ashram has a history of land disputes with local residents. These intensified after Udasin became head priest two years ago.

Kumar said the ashram had been staking claim to about 42 acres of his land, located next to Baba Purwa village in Sitapur district. “Despite two lower court orders saying that the land is ours, Udasin is intent on taking over my land,” Kumar said. Unhappy with the lower court verdicts, the ashram had appealed to the Allahabad High Court in 2016. “The case is nowhere close to a verdict,” Kumar said.

He alleged that their family was regularly threatened against cultivating the disputed land, while the ashram slowly encroached on it. After Udasin became head priest, the threats grew worse, he said.

Kumar recalled an incident in August 2020, when he was allegedly picked up on his way to Lucknow by men working for Udasin. “His men kept telling me to not get involved in land matters and to give it up to him,” he said. “I told them the matter was in court and if the court ruled in their favour, I would give it up.”

The ashram owns a plot of land adjacent to theirs, Kumar said. “I got to know just days ago that he has installed pillars for construction that encroaches into a bigha or two of our land,” he alleged. Kumar said that he had informed the Khairabad police station officials but did not have much hope of them stopping the construction.

Bahadur Lal Bhargava, a 73-year-old farmer, is also fighting the ashram’s claims to about 11.7 acres of land. The matter has been in court for years. “We used to have beautiful mango trees but we have not been able to cultivate anything,” Bhargava said. “Two years ago he [Udasin] put up a board on our land, saying that it belonged to the Udasin Ashram. How can he do that when the matter is in court?”

Bhargava shared this photo claiming that Bajrang Muni Udasin had put up a board claiming the ownership of the ashram on his disputed land. (Photo: Special arrangement)

Then there is Prem Prakash, who says his father died in 2021 because of the constant anxiety of not being able to use 5.6 acres of land that he had bought two decades ago.

“The court case is on,” said 22-year-old Prakash, a commerce student. “The ashram people come and visit me. They tell me that we can keep our ancestral land but we must give up the land that my father had bought. I told them that the matter is in court and we should wait. I do not know what else to say.”

Muslim families have allegedly faced worse. Ateeq Khan, a farmer in Khairabad, claimed that Udasin had been eyeing a plot of their land for over a year now. In February 2021, this led to a violent confrontation between them. Both sides registered cases against the other. Ateeq Khan and his brother were booked for attempt to murder, while Udasin was booked for rioting and causing hurt with dangerous weapons.

Ateeq Khan and his brothers were arrested and spent six months in hospitals while still in police custody. Udasin was never arrested in the case registered against him.

The brothers’ medical costs put them Rs 55 lakh in debt. To pay that, they had wanted to sell another plot that their father owned. But Udasin’s men terrorised prospective buyers, he claimed.

Since November, they have been moving from one relative’s home to another. “We cannot go back home, that is the level of fear,” he said. He added that the local media are scared to write about Udasin – “he goes after everyone.”

Prakash said that many farmers would have lost the land disputes with Udasin had they not been aided by Saket Mishra, an activist and a former member of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Prakash said Mishra would accompany farmers to the police station to get FIRs registered and check with government officials about what Udasin was doing about the claims.

Mishra said he had also faced Udasin’s wrath. “My home has also been attacked by his men,” he alleged. “Whatever we do, no action is taken against him. He is powerful.”

According to Udasin, the ashram owned nearly 2,000 acres of land in and around Khairabad. “It was given out on lease and other things, but over time people have occupied the land,” he claimed.

Additional Superintendent of Police Piyush Kumar Singh said that when Udasin arrived in Khairabad two years ago, he dug up land records going back centuries. These appeared to show that most of the land in and around Khairabad belonged to the ashram.

“Over the years the land was leased out to local farmers and their names began to appear in the revenue records,” Singh said. “We registered a case according to the law and referred it to the magistrate.” He did not comment on the board on Bhargava’s disputed land or the pillars on Kumar’s, saying the matters were in court. He also claimed he did not know about the alleged threats and beatings carried out on Udasin’s orders.

Ateeq Khan says ever since the case was registered against him and his brothers in February 2021, he has not been able to go home. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

The bigot

Yet Udasin still has a support base in the villages around Khairabad, not so much as a religious leader but as a strongman who “sorts out issues”. “When there are issues between Hindus, issues over property, issues between castes or communities, we go to Bajrang Muni, not to the police station,” said one supporter, who did not want to be identified. Unlike the police, supporters say, the muni did not ask for money, only for support.

It is a reputation that Udasin himself is proud of. “In Khairabad, no one goes to the MP, MLA or police station, everyone comes to me” he boasted as he reclined in the ashram’s audience hall.

The priest has eyes everywhere. He knew, for instance, that I had visited Muslim women who lived in Khairabad. One of his followers, a 42-year-old businessman called BR Joshi, chipped in to say I should not have gone to visit those who were “anti-people”.

In a two-hour conversation, the priest barely made any reference to religious devotion. Most of his comments on religion were anti-Muslim diatribes. “They cannot be trusted,” he said repeatedly, as police officials around him nodded in agreement. “Their aim is Jihad and Ghazwa-e-Hind”, the conquest of India.

He claimed the Bhuiyan Tali teertha sthal, a pilgrimage site behind the ashram, used to be frequented by Muslims but he had put a stop to that. “They were trying to take over the area, but now they dare not step there,” he said.

He also refused to walk back on the rape threats in the video, pointing out that he had threatened such dire consequences only if Hindu women were harassed. “I have no regrets about what I said,” he said. “My life is dedicated to protecting Hindu women.”

Sometime early July, Udasin put up an orange board to show the way to his ashram. "Green is not the right colour," he said. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)