A private meeting of atheists dubbed “Nasthik Sammelan” was called off in Mathura district’s Vrindavan on Friday after both Hindu and Muslim religious groups staged a violent protest outside the ashram of Swami Balendu. Balendu, a self-style “atheist guru” who was once a spiritual leader, had called for a two-day conclave on atheism. However, on Friday morning, hundreds of protestors arrived armed with sticks, with police officials backing them.

The Mathura police had reportedly granted them permission for the event, but later said it could “hurt religious sentiments”. Among the protestors were members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and clerics from the Jama Masjid.

One local religious leader, Phool Dol Das Maharaj, told The Indian Express, “Swami Balendu claimed that all religious scriptures are fictitious and meant only for entertainment. His statement is against Hinduism and such leaders should be banned.”

Balendu decried the protests as an attack on the freedom of expression. “Though it was a private event, we had taken all required permissions. The Constitution permits us to be non-believers.”

However, Mathura SP (City) Alok Priyardarshi said the convention “could have promoted communal disharmony”. “The organisers had sought permission for the event, but the permission letter did not mention that it was an atheist conclave,” he said.