- The Russian government is waging war on Hinduism
- A prominent Hindu leader told The Daily Caller News Foundation that harassment is getting worse
- “The only thing that’s keeping me here in Russia is that I call this place my home,” the man’s son said
The Russian government is waging a campaign to systematically remove all non-Russian Orthodox religions from the country one by one, and they’ve targeted Hinduism next.
The same cooperative between the Russian Orthodox Church, the French government-funded organization known as the European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS), and the Russian government that successfully outlawed the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and drove their institutions from Russia has now set its sights on Shri Prakash Ji, the most prominent Hindu leader in Russia, for exactly the same purpose.
The Expert Council of Russia’s Justice Ministry, led by Alexander Dvorkin, who is also the leader of the Russian branch of FECRIS, has yet to levy any legal accusations against Prakash, but authorities harassed him with defamatory television ads, misinformation campaigns, and unsanctioned police raids among other tactics likely meant to goad Prakash and his followers into making rash decisions that would leave them open to prosecution under Russia’s anti-extremism laws. (Related: The French Conspiracy With The Russian Orthodox Church That Destroyed The Jehovah’s Witnesses)
Prakash and his son, Prasun, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that despite bringing their plight to the attention of Russian and Indian leaders, the harassment is getting worse.
Dvorkin allegedly began a campaign of concentrated harassment against Prakash Ji, who is president of the Center for Promotion of Conservation and Development of Indian Culture Shri Prakash Dham, in 2015, but started spreading anti-Hindu sentiment in Russia long before that. This is evidenced in a 2008 book on sectology where he asserted that Hinduism was the core of the “religions of the Anti-Christ.”
“Hinduism, especially in its occult aspect, nourishes, perhaps, forms the core of the religion that is being formed before our eyes or, rather, the consensus of the religions of the Antichrist. Modern Hinduism and, above all, guruist sects – is a missionary challenge to the Church of Christ, to which it still has to give a worthy response,” Dvorkin wrote in “Sectology. Totalitarian sects. The experience of systematic research.”
Dvorkin’s statement is not an atypical perspective on Hinduism from a Russian Orthodox worldview, but it also falls in line with expert analysis he has offered to the Russian government about other religious minorities, including the Hare Krishna sect of Hinduism, from his position as the leader of the Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies for Russia’s Justice Ministry. The Expert Council’s purpose is to investigate religions that deviate from Russian Orthodox teaching and to recommend actions against those religions to the state.
Dvorkin not only uses his position and analysis to conjure state-sanctioned legal action against religious minorities, but also uses it to stoke the anger of Russian nationalists by portraying various religious minorities as invasive foreign influences that threaten to destroy Russian culture. Dvorkin even asserted in the same book that Hinduism is linked to, and exerts influence through, “the Nazi doctrines of neo-pagans.”
Prakash Ji’s struggle with Dvorkin began several years later, when Praksh Ji responded to anti-Hindu sentiment he found on an online forum maintained by Dvorkin.
Forum users who supported Dvorkin’s alleged “anti-cult activism” publicly claimed that the Hindu leader “swindled” his followers out of their riches, lied to them, and took advantage of vulnerable women. Some forum members allegedly urged Russian citizens to burn copies of the Hindu holy text, the Bhagavad Gita.
Prakash Ji, who goes by the title Guru Ji among his followers, complained against the online forum and against Dvorkin in Russian court for inciting hatred against Hindus and against Prakash Ji’s family. Ever since then, Prakash Ji and his son Prasun told TheDCNF, Dvorkin has focused his “anti-cult” efforts on Prakash Ji and his family. Prasun alleged that Dvorkin’s strategy is to pressure him and his family into leaving Russia which will then make it easier to quell any growth of Hinduism, having removed the main Russian Hindu leader.
The first of Dvorkin’s efforts after the online forum, according to Prasun, began with defamatory news coverage on state-run news channels. The TV coverage alleged that police visited Prakash Ji’s ashram in response to local complaints and discovered a large ritual bonfire around which Hindu followers, which they label “sectarians,” gathered for purification ceremonies. Prakash Ji’s followers were allegedly in a state of drunkenness and had been duped into giving all of their worldly possessions, including cars, money, and houses, to Prakash Ji, whom the report claimed they considered to be a god, in exchange for enlightenment.
Prakash Ji and Prasun deny allegations of seducing Russian Hindu followers in states of intoxication to give up all their worldly possessions and assert that Prakash Ji never claimed to be a god, or Avatar, but derives his spiritual authority from his experience.
The alleged harassment escalated on Dec. 11, 2016, when a group of men attacked Prakash Ji’s house and tried to get inside. Prakash Ji claimed Dvorkin paid the men. Prakash Ji sent written pleas to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, and their respective ministers of foreign affairs to intervene against Dvorkin, to prevent the persecution of Russian Hindus, and preserve positive relations between Russia and India.
Dvorkin, however, denies that he is responsible for any of the harassment that Prakash Ji and his family have suffered or that he has anything that could qualify as a following.
“I am a professor, I don’t have any followers,” Dvorkin told Newsweek. “I didn’t know about [Prakash Ji] until three years ago when his former followers began writing on my forum and saying they had experienced abuse.”
Dvorkin in turn accused Guru Ji, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and other religious minorities of waging a misinformation campaign against him.
“They’ve also said that I am a CIA agent and Mossad agent and KGB agent. But I’m the head of an NGO, Professor at the Orthodox University,” Dvorkin said.
Daniel Mark, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Freedom, told Newsweek, however, that Dvorkin is in fact a person of concern regarding threats to religious freedom in Russia.
“Religious freedom in Russia is in a dire state, and we’re concerned about the status of all religious minorities there,” Mark said. “Alexander Dvorkin is one of a large network of Russian Orthodox activists who have grown considerably in influence over the last 10 years due to the Russian government’s increasing patronage of the Russian Orthodox Church and the government’s Soviet-style concerns about the subversive potential of independent religious groups.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also mentioned Dvorkin in a 2009 annual report, where they asserted Dvorkin could lead the Justice Ministry’s Expert Council to seek the closure of both registered and non-registered non-orthodox religions in Russia.
Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, corroborated Mark’s view of Dvorkin to Newsweek. Dvorkin normally prefers not to engage in the physical aspect of fighting against perceived cults, Verkhovsky said, however, he noted the Russian activist was not above getting law enforcement and the church to do so.
“Dvorkin is a very emotional person. In previous years, he could even turn violent in his anti-cultist fight. But he is not a fighter, in fact he was not really brutal,” Verkhovsky said. “Physical attacks by some of [his followers] is still possible but is very rare. They prefer writing books and articles, collaborating with police, Church leadership and other authorities. So usually these people threaten not with violence but with urging [the] law enforcement system against their opponents.”
Russian authorities then led police raids on Prakash Ji’s ashram and his apartment on Nov. 2, 2017. Prasun and his family were given no reason for the raid and the authorities had no legal basis to search their properties, he told TheDCNF. The police who entered their home simply told them that, while they were aware that Prakash Ji was a popular spiritual leader with no criminal allegations lodged against him, they had to comply with orders from their superiors to conduct the raids.
Russian news station L!fe News reported at the time that authorities executed the raids on suspicion of extremist activities from Prakash Ji’s compound because of complaints they had received from Russian Orthodox activists, who called into question whether Prakash Ji’s organization was properly registered with the government.
Authorities seized files and a computer from the ashram, known as the ANO Shri Prakash Dham Center, but found nothing incriminating and declared that the center did not pose a threat of extremist activity, according to L!fe News. Prasun told TheDCNF that he and his father went to the Internal Affairs Directorate of ZAO to complain about the raids and proclaim their innocence of any wrongdoing, but according to Prasun they were angrily confronted by an unnamed man with a swastika tattooed on his neck who began shouting at Prakash Ji in the office that Hinduism had no place in Russia. Prasun posted audio of the encounter on Facebook on Nov. 6.
“Russia is an Orthodox country and impurities from overseas have nothing to do here,” the man said.
Prasun stopped his recording when the man took notice and allegedly violently shoved Prasun out of the room and out of the building. The man allegedly continued to threaten Prakash Ji for another 20 to 25 minutes.
Those instances of harassment are just “the tip of the iceberg,” Prasun told TheDCNF.
“I am not mentioning here the hundreds and thousands of phone calls I am receiving for the past three years from unknown numbers telling me I should leave the country, they will kill me … all sorts of stuff you can imagine to morally lower us and to morally attack us,” Prasun told TheDCNF.
“I am sure right now they will hesitate to do something bad, but in (the) future, I am not sure they will hesitate,” Prasun added.
Prasun also claimed that three state-run news channels — NTV, TVC, and Russia 1 — ran slanderous reports about Prakash Ji without interviewing him. Prasun visited the stations to ask why they ran the reports but received no response. Prasun told TheDCNF he believes they ran the ads because the Russian Orthodox Church has considerable influence in both the government and the media has offices, which Prasun claimed to have seen, in each of those news stations for personnel dedicated to promoting the interests of the church.
“The church, they made up a story that my father (claims to be) a reincarnation of a Christian saint who resided in Russia 600 years ago. They are showing this on a federal channel,” Prasun told TheDCNF of the latest report aired against his father.
In addition to the phone calls and ads, Prasun claims that individuals posing as journalists, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by others, have tried to gain access to his family’s home and to the ashram. According to videos of some of these incidents that Prasun posted to Facebook and YouTube, those posing as journalists were not able to provide legitimate identification as members of the press. Prasun told TheDCNF that he and his father suspect the alleged journalists are agents hired by Dvorkin to intimidate them and to gather incriminating evidence, given the harassment his family has suffered thus far and conversations they’ve had with their lawyer, Kaloy Akhilgov. They do not, however, have concrete evidence to confirm those suspicions.
“It’s a nightmare. When I wake up, I am like, ‘There was no raid. No one has called me. No one has threatened me. It’s great.’ That’s the kind of approach we have right now,” Prasun told TheDCNF.
When TheDCNF asked Prasun whether he and his father felt safe staying in Russia, Prasun responded, “No … No. No. No.”
“The only thing that’s keeping me here in Russia is that I call this place my home,” Prasun said.
Surprisingly, Prasun did not say the attack on his father’s house, the unsanctioned police raids, or the barrage of threatening phone calls was the worst instance he and his family have suffered. The silence from leaders to whom they have appealed for help, Prasun said was the worst.
General V.K. Singh, India’s minister of state for foreign affairs, promised Prakash Ji that the Indian government would support him and try to work with the Russian government to bring an end to Dvorkin’s persecution of his family and followers, shortly after the 2016 attack on Prakash Ji’s home. Prakash Ji also made video appeals to Putin and to Modi to intervene against Dvorkin on his family’s behalf.
So far, Prasun told TheDCNF, no support from any of the leaders to whom they have appealed has materialized.
“The worst thing that they have done is that, number one, they are not listening to us because they are under the control of the church,” Prasun said TheDCNF. “There are only a few people of low ranks listening to us and trying to help us, but the majority of the high ranking officials they don’t give a … they don’t give anything about us because they are controlled by the Church.”
Prakash Ji and Prasun are not, however, out of the fight just yet, and they are not without allies.
This is the first article of a two-part series.
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