The News Agency of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness

The Battle for Bhaktivedanta Manor

By: on Nov. 22, 2008

Witness an elegant mock-tudor building nestled amongst leafy green trees and meadows – not too far from London, but just far enough. Donated by George Harrison and boasting possibly the highest standard of Krishna worship outside of India, it draws an incredible sixty-five thousand people for its annual two-day Janmastami festival. Most will agree that Bhaktivedanta Manor is one of ISKCON’s most prestigious temples.



But Frank Ward’s book “No Time to Slumber for the Hindu Tiger,” released this September,  reminds us that the Manor had to fight a ten-year battle to get to where it is today.


It all began in 1985, when three devotees bought properties in the local village of Letchmore Heath, including its shop. Relations between devotees and the villagers had been excellent, but now a handful suddenly gathered and turned the others against ISKCON. “They’ll take half the village over, and property prices will plummet,” they said.



According to Akhandadhi Dasa, temple president of the Manor from 1982 to 1995, these were the magic words. “There’s no bigger issue than property prices to the British – especially in a small, affluent village of only 100 homes next to London,” he explains. Now a spiritual advisor with his own BBC radio slot, Akhandadhi has an easy friendliness about him, and his Northern Irish accent carries a perpetually bemused tone. “You might as well have said, ‘Satan is in there eating little children,” he quips wryly.



The devotees weren’t entirely innocent, however. Former ISKCON member Bhagavan had announced onstage at the Janmastami festival that he thought the way forward was to buy out the village. Akhandadhi didn’t agree. “I nearly dropped when I heard that,” he recalls. “It was an unfriendly and un-neighbourly move that cut across the relationship building we’d spent years working on. But it still didn’t give the local council the right to do what they did next.”



Key members of the village trust – including, interestingly, a councillor whose grandparents had previously owned the Manor – whipped up fourteen letters of complaint. The local government body, Hertsmere Council, promptly issued an enforcement notice that would end all public worship at Bhaktivedanta Manor by March 1994, leaving it only as a theological college.



“They were completely going back on their word,” Akhandadhi says. “And it wasn’t the first time. From 1973, when we purchased it, until 1981, they accepted that the permission they’d given the Manor included visitors. Then they decided it didn’t, issuing an enforcement notice which we appealed against. In 1982, we reached a deal that we could hold festivals on six days of the year with unlimited numbers, plus Sunday worship. We just couldn’t hold any events likely to attract over one thousand except on the festival days.”



But now the council was attempting to stop all worship, all festivals and all use of the Manor as a religious community. Its members claimed that in 1973 they had given permission for the Manor to have only nineteen residents – a complete falsity according to Akhandadhi, since no numbers at all were mentioned. They also claimed that by purchasing property in the village, devotees were affecting the planning consent of the Manor – an outrageous assumption that Akhandadhi calls “blatant discrimination with no legal basis.”



Thirty-eight council members supported the enforcement notice. Only one objected. That man was Frank Ward. “We shouldn’t be taking sides on a domestic dispute,” he said. “Especially if it means closing down a place of worship, such an important part of our society’s fabric.”



The rest of the council laughed at Frank. “What are you going to do about it?” they asked. Frank stood up indignantly. Although a Roman Catholic himself, he couldn’t stand by and watch this injustice – even if opposing it meant jeopardizing his job. “I’m going to help the Hindu community fight back,” he said.




The Battle Begins 


The devotees at Bhaktivedanta Manor didn’t want to fight. They just wanted a solution. Their “Save the Temple Campaign,” launched in 1986, attempted to build bridges and mend their relationship with the villagers. Akhandadhi tried to broker a deal with Village Trust secretary Harry Edwards, who liked devotees and had once pushed through a crowd to shake Prabhupada’s hand. He approved of Akhandadhi’s suggestion that the devotees relinquish the properties they had bought in the village and assure everyone that they were not attempting to take it over. But the other members of the Village Trust disagreed. “With the council behind us now, we’ve got a strong case,” they said. “The Krishnas are obviously scared. We can take this all the way.”



The devotees tried to isolate what could be bothering the village so much about their presence. Their many studies on sound, including monitoring it regularly at festivals, revealed that this could not be the problem. None of the Manor’s visitors ever caused trouble in the village, and there was no general disturbance. “That left traffic – thousands of people did have to drive through the village to attend festivals,” says Akhandadhi. “So in 1987, we proposed to build an alternative access road to the Manor which would not go through the village.”



But the villagers weren’t interested in a solution. When Frank Ward told the chairman of the Village Trust, “Even if you stood on the chimney pot of your home, you wouldn’t be able to see the access road,” the chairman retorted, “I appreciate that, councillor Ward, but I’d still know it’s there.”



Bhaktivedanta Manor knew the time for being pacifist was over. Its Patrons’ Council, a steering committee made up of dedicated Indian devotees, sprang into action. Taking on trying tasks and making some of the most difficult decisions they had ever faced, they brought Akhandadhi to later refer to them as “The soul of the Manor.”



Councillor Frank Ward was also determined to prove his passion for defending the Manor. In 1990,  the Save the Temple Campaign was dissolved, and Frank became vice chairman of a more activitist outfit, The Hare Krishna Temple Defence Movement. Approving of Frank’s fiery “Call-to-Arms” style, ISKCON sannyasi Krishna Dasa Swami declared, “He is talking just like Arjuna, the hero of the Mahabharata.” He decided that Frank should speak at the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a World Hindu Council meeting held in Katmandu, Nepal. The event would be a remarkable opportunity to gain support for the Manor. When organizers objected that they allowed only Hindus to speak, Krishna Dasa Swami shot back, “But he is a Hindu! He is my disciple, Arjuna Dasa!” without missing a beat.



Frank’s speech at the event was a success, inspiring Hindus worldwide and giving great comfort to the English devotees. From then on, he was often known by his affectionate honorary title, “Arjuna Dasa.”



“Frank is an amazing character,” Akhandadhi says. “He might be a Roman Catholic, but throughout the campaign he spoke just like a devotee – always referring to positive events as ‘Krishna’s arrangement.’ What to speak of all the political and family engagements he cancelled so that he could make it to the Manor every Sunday.” Akhandadhi laughs. “He’d fill Tupperware containers to the brim so he could put them in the freezer and eat prasadam all week.”




Controversy



But not everyone was a fan of Frank’s style. This became evident when the councillor incited an audience of thousands at Bhaktivedanta Manor to commit civil disobedience. “The time has come for devotees of Krishna to examine their conscience in great depth,” he announced. “And to ask yourselves: Are you prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice – to go to prison for Krishna?” He added, famously: “One day, the slumbering Hindu tiger will get on its feet and bite off the government’s nose.”



The June 10, 1993 speech set off a lot of alarm bells. The chief executive of Hertsmere council accused Frank of perpetrating acts of civil disobedience, which Frank proudly acknowledged. Several Hindu congregational members thought the councillor had gone to far. And Hinduism Today publisher Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami declared himself disgusted, saying that God was as much in the little old lady in the village worried about the value of her property as everywhere else. “Rabble rousing, fear-evoking rhetoric that could lead to violence,” he called the speech. “We believe in working with the community, not against it. All Hindus, whatever country they live in, should respect and obey the laws of their country.”



But Subramuniyaswami’s response missed several key points. First of all, the devotees had always been willing to relinquish their properties in the village, guarantee that they had no plan to take it over, and build an alternate access road so as not to disturb the villagers. Secondly, Frank Ward’s approach was Gandhian, advocating civil disobedience but never violence. And finally, Frank himself was an outsider, not a Hindu or Hare Krishna. “Anyway, I think our congregation needed it,” Akhandadhi says. “They needed to hear a western guy, someone who was actually part of the establishment, tell them that they were right to stand up to the council.”



And stand up they did. In 1993, Hindu youth formed the group Pandava Sena, named after the warrior brothers from the Mahabharata. Two others groups – The Manor Youth Forum and HYSOT (Hindu Youth Saving Our Temple) had preceded them, but with 600 members the Pandava Sena  was bigger, more organized, and more proactive. In fact, even in those pre- Al Quaeda days, police were so concerned at its growth rate that Scotland Yard Special Branch picked up the phone and called Akhandadhi. “They were worried that they had young militants on their hands who may have had terrorist objectives,” he recalls. Adding with a cheeky grin, “I must admit I didn’t quell their fears. They were concerned, and I allowed them to remain so.”




The Hindu Tiger Gets to its Feet



The Pandava Sena would go on to play their part in the biggest demonstration ever staged by a London  ethnic community. On March 16, 1994 – the day the temple was to be closed to public worship – an estimated 37,000 Hindus and devotees marched from Soho St. to the London Memorial Museum, chanting and waving placards. Then, after their scheduled rally and speeches, they marched towards Parliament without warning to hold a sit-down protest. Scuffles with police and members of the Pandava Sena ensued, resulting in eight arrests. But the youth group were pleased. They’d made their stand, and they knew that the event, particularly their treatment at the hands of police, had created propaganda that could be used positively later.



It wasn’t the only good thing to come of the protest. Rather than putting their enforcement notice into effect that day as planned, Hertsmere Council wrote the Manor saying that they were holding it off. It was no small victory. Bhaktivedanta Manor was gaining ground. “The whole Hindu community who had protested that day were so proud of themselves,” Akhandadhi says. “In fact, it was such a good day out,” he adds with typical wit, “That we organized another protest on May 26th of the same year.”



The second event was promoted as a lobby of parliament. “We’ll queue up outside the government buildings to meet our MP (Member of Parliament), which all of you have the right to do as citizens,” Manor management told their congregational members. Although it was a weekday, 10,000 people arrived. It was an inordinate number – no more than fifty would have gotten the chance to actually see their MP. But that didn’t matter. It had all been a cover for another plan.



“As everyone stood in the queue, it started to rain,” recalls councillor Frank Ward, whose Hare Krishna Temple Defense Movement was heading up the event. “We intended to do another sit-down protest – but would people still be enthusiastic about sitting on the concrete while pouring rain soaked them to the skin?” 



Nevertheless, as Big Ben chimed 3 o’clock, Frank and HKTDM chairman Naresh Chadha walked to the middle of the road and sat down. “A few people followed us, and slowly more and more moved off the pavement and sat down on the road, ignoring the rain,” Frank says. “Soon, ten thousand were blocking off Parliament Square.”



Police began moving devotees and congregational members back to the pavement in an effort to clear the road. But it was futile. Chanting Hare Krishna all the while, devotees simply made their way back to the road and sat down again. For one and a half hours, the whole of Central London was brought to a complete standstill.



“Before that day, the secretary of state had been told that Hindus would not riot – the government thought they could push us around,” Akhandadhi says. “But those two protests  showed that although non-violent, we could be serious. And as soon as they saw what we were capable of, the government starting giving us more respect and consideration.



“And I felt the tide change.”



Victory


The Manor’s campaign juggernaut rolled on. Protests and speeches were made. Lengthy court battles were fought. In 1995, Frank Ward met with Nelson Mandela, who wrote a letter to British Prime Minister John Major expressing amazement that his government was standing by as the local council persecuted the Hindu community. The message to the government, to the media, and to the public was clear: what had started off as a little spat in the village of Letchmore Heath now involved all the Hindus in Britain and worldwide.



In the end, however, it was a twist of politics that determined the end of the battle. “The two main political parties in England are Conservative – similar to the USA’s Republican party – and Labour – similar to the Democrats,” Akhandadhi explains. “Since Letchmore Heath was the harbor of a very conservative constituency, there was no way the conservative government back then were going to uphold our appeal against Letchmore Heath. But when Hertsmere Council changed from conservative to labour in May 1996, everything changed.”



As Akhandadhi met with the labour party, who had always supported the temple, to discuss the next step, HKTDM chairman Naresh Chadha told the press, “Now that Hertsmere is Labour, we will be meeting with them and sorting the whole thing out this afternoon.” The brashly confident announcement went live across every regional London TV news network. By that evening, the government had faxed Bhaktivedanta Manor granting the access road and permission to continue public worship.



The fight was over.



“It seems that a political change which was beyond our control won the battle, and in some ways it did,”Akhandadhi says. “But everything else we did was 100% necessary. We had to play the game. We had to do the protests and campaigning to keep a high profile and hold the council’s interest in negotiations. We had to spend time and money in the courts to create the machinery the government needed to rubber stamp our appeal. And we had to have behind the scenes negotiations to work out what the solution would be when it was finally granted.



“When those three elements coalesced into one moment,” he finishes, “That’s when we got our victory.”


A Bright Future


On September 1996, ten years after the campaign began, the new access road to the Manor was built. It was named Dharam-Marg, in honor of the son of Srichand Hinduja – the wealthy Hindu businessman who had donated towards its construction. Letchmore Heath inhabitants had to admit that it worked – they didn’t even notice festivals. The Manor’s relationship with the village sweetened  instantly.



The ten-year battle contributed much to the high status and public regard Bhaktivedanta Manor enjoys today. No longer deemed a brainwashing cult as it was in the 1980s, it’s now seen as a major branch of the Hindu community; and part of the very establishment that seeked to remove it. Devotees are regularly invited to Downing Street to take part in political processes, and even to celebrate festivals such as Diwali.



The campaign also ensured that the temple wouldn’t be taken for granted. “Throughout the ordeal, devotees and congregation were constantly being asked to think about what the Manor meant to them and what they were willing to do for it,” says Akhandadhi. “Because of that, they have remained emotionally attached to it to this day.”



Another product of the campaign was a huge network of volunteers. “We simply transferred all the community network machinery that was in place for the campaign over to positive programs, such as organizing festivals and study groups,” Akhandadhi says. “And because we always used the campaign activites to encourage people to develop their Krishna consciousness, our volunteers are especially dedicated.”



Festivals at the Manor also soared. After years of stepping on eggshells, the announcement that public celebration could be as expansive as desired brought a whole new level of dynamism and energy.



The Manor’s future is bright. Its projects, as well as its congregation, are thriving. Its cow protection program – a staple of any rural ISKCON temple – is well funded and well maintained, with an expanding herd and working bulls. A 3,000 sq ft “Goshalla” facility for 44 cows and bulls, which Akhandadhi calls “A visitor’s center, social experiment and agricultural model all in one” will open its doors next year. The building is only the first step in a proposed major plan, which will include a full-size Vedic style temple.



Bhaktivedanta Manor may not yet have fought its last battle. But one thing is for certain – it’s here to stay.


THE END


Frank Ward’s book on the campaign, No Time To Slumber For the Hindu Tiger, was launched on August 24th, 2008 – Janmastami day. The book is available on Amazon.com. All proceeds will go towards building a Vedic Center for Education and Culture in the grounds of Bhaktivedanta Manor.


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