Heroic struggle for Bhaktivedanta Manor commemorated
Posted March 11, 2004
Ten years ago, 36,000 Hindus marched peacefully outside the Palace of Westminster shouting slogans, waving banners and blowing conch shells with a simple, yet powerful, message: allow Britons to practise their right of worship; let everyone have the same freedom of religion in multi-cultural Britain; say no to discrimination.
It was on March 16th, 1994, that the Hertsmere Borough Council had set a deadline to decide the fate of Bhaktivedanta Manor, which was to close for public worship.
In 1973, when George Harrison donated the Manor building and estate, Hertsmere Borough Council allowed Bhaktivedanta Manor to operate as a theological college. At that time, Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement established a Vaishnava college, with a shrine accessible to the public.
In 1981, Hertsmere Council tried to stop worshippers and pilgrims by banning all festivals. Later, however, a compromise was reached to limit large festivals to six days a year. Soon thereafter, when they received fourteen complaints about traffic in 1985, Hertsmere issued an enforcement notice to close the temple to the public entirely.
Prominent leaders attacked the ruling on the grounds that it was motivated not by traffic concerns but more by prejudices based on the race and colour of thousands of Hindus who descended down to Letchmore Heath on festival days.
"The Council indulged in endless body counts by local officials as we come for Sunday worship," explained Bhagavad-Dharma das, a former public relations officer for ISKCON. "A 1985 court affidavit lists the number of worshippers in two columns -- 'white' persons and 'coloured' persons."
The former editor of the London Times, Lord William Rees-Mogg, wrote, "Apart from quite legitimate concern about traffic and numbers, there has been colour prejudice, which may have influenced the council. It is regrettable that the Department of the Environment, which should take a more detached view, has contributed so little to resolving the problem."
Since some residents of Letchmore Heath had complained about traffic during festival days, in 1988 ISKCON suggested that the organisation would construct a driveway (at ISKCON's expense) to connect the Manor to an existing lane which links with the A41, thus ensuring that all traffic avoided passing through the village.
The main obstacle to this, however, was that the land on which this access road would be built was not available -- it was being used as farmland, and one of its owners did not want to sell it. The land was on designated green belt, and thus the suggestion of a public inquiry to be held in 1989 to discuss the possibility was dropped.
No other cause had rallied British Hindus together as much as the Hare Krishna campaign. After all, Lord Krishna was their most worshippable Lord, and Bhaktivedanta Manor was their temple. It was a place where they could worship, their children could learn and where everyone could find spiritual peace and solace.
Britons sent letters and petitions to the government and held many protest events. The community raised £100,000 to pay legal costs. But in 1990 the appeal was refused. The Secretary of State announced, "No new temple. Stop your worship. Stop your festivals."
People of all sects and denominations united to support the campaign to save the temple. Many prominent people played a role in the success of the campaign. The matter was raised in Parliament. Celebrities like Rishi Kapoor, the Bollywood actor, Anup Jalota, the Bhajan singer, and Sunil Gavaskar, the cricketer, became involved.
Politicians, including Keith Vaz MP, Tony McNulty MP and the wife of Neil Kinnock MP, Glenys Kinnock, supported the campaign. Councillor Frank Ward, a Labour Councillor in Watford, played such a crucial role in advising the temple that he was nicknamed "Arjuna das" by temple devotees.
The Times carried a prominent article by Lord Rees-Mogg who asked British people to 'let Hindus share all our religious freedoms.' He concluded his story by saying, "The principle, however, is clear. Freedom of worship is part of the tolerance which is a core belief of British life. The Hindus are one of the largest non-Christian communities in Britain. Their freedom to worship demands not only our tolerance, but our active support. It would be an outrage if Canterbury Cathedral were to be closed to worship because it caused congestion in the narrow medieval streets of that city. It will not be less of an outrage if Bhaktivedanta Manor is closed to worship and it will incidentally do particular damage to Britain's reputation in India."
The BBC joined in the fray -- and telecast many sympathetic documentaries. The London Telegraph carried a front page picture of a disabled supporter, a woman in a wheelchair, on a hunger strike outside the Hertsmere Borough Council office in Borehamwood. There were massive demonstrations at overseas British embassies around the world -- in Delhi, America, South Africa, Australia and other countries.
Dr Mallory Nye, a renowned academic, wrote, "The dispute has also helped to reinforce and develop the ties that already existed between ISKCON and other Hindu groups in Britain, and has strengthened a political alliance of British Hindu representative groups. Because the campaign has shown Bhaktivedanta Manor as the one Hindu temple in Britain that many Hindus are prepared to fight to save, the dispute may well have helped to develop a sense that ISKCON themselves are now a very significant voice of British Hinduism." Gujarat Samachar and Asian Voice joined the campaign by devoting space and coverage to the cause of the temple and created a wave of sympathy across the length and breadth of the country.
HH Sivarama Swami, a Governing Body Commissioner for ISKCON, was so overwhelmed by the role played by Gujarat Samachar, that he described C B Patel, the Publisher, as the 'General of the Campaign' at a Patrons' Dinner held at the Manor.
Crucial for gathering public opinion and Hindu sympathy was a Dharma Yatra jointly organised by ISKCON and Gujarat Samachar-Asian Voice. C B Patel joined Akhandadhi das, Sruti-Dharma das and Pranabandhu das of ISKCON on a car journey that saw them travel to over 100 temples in Britain where they spoke at meetings to garner public sympathy and build a momentum that played a pivotal role for the success of the campaign.
"The Manor's cause was just and reasonable and was supported by millions of Hindus worldwide," recollected C B Patel. "Moreover, the fight for the Manor gave a new dimension to the faith, hope and expectations for the Hindu community in UK. It was a great privilege for me and my publication to be involved in this dharma-yuddha."
The temple appealed to the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the European Court. All said 'No.' Every legal channel had been exhausted. The date was therefore set: on March 16, 1994, the temple was to close to the public. Then, just months before the deadline, negotiations for land opened up again. With the motto 'Get the land - Build the road - Save the temple,' 250 people helped secure funds to purchase land for the new driveway. The application was submitted to the Council.
March 16 was only months away, and the Council delayed considering the application. Many devotees and well-wishers both nationally and internationally expressed their concerns to the government. One hundred members of Parliament joined the list of supporters. The British government began to realise that this was not a small issue.
On Wednesday, March 16, the enforcement notice was taking effect. On that historic day, 36,000 people gathered in Westminster, in central London. People came from all over the country in a display of unity behind ISKCON. Hertsmere felt the pressure.
Akhandadhi das, then temple president, announced, "The Council has bowed to you. They are feeling the pressure. Last night, they told me that the gates of the temple can remain open until they consider our application for the new access road. The tide is turning." Although it was the darkest day, it turned out to be the turning point.
More fundraising, more lobbying and more campaigning followed. At the start of 1996 another appeal went to the Department of the Environment. The Public Enquiry lasted over six months and included speakers for and against the proposed access road. The temple was well represented by political and religious representatives, and even many local villagers supported the proposal.
The temple went into the start of Srila Prabhupada's Centennial year (1996) with no clear indication as to when the decision would be given. In the meantime, worshippers continued to visit, despite being branded as criminals for breaking the enforcement that included Janmashtami 1994. On 10th May 1996, the day of Lord Nrshinghadev's birthday, an unexpected fax arrived from the Department of the Environment, simply granted planning permission for Bhaktivedanta Manor. Upon hearing the news, devotees could hardly believe it.
In his concluding report, the Secretary of State acknowledged that the temple "is unique in the UK because there is no comparable alternative place for teaching, worship and meditation; and the level of provision of these religious facilities is to an exceptionally high standard. Furthermore, the close association of the Hare Krishna movement's founder with the Manor makes it a special, if not unique place . . . so that association must continue."
The campaign was led by the vision of Akhandadhi das, who now runs a spiritual conference centre called Buckland Hall in South Wales.
"In 1986, the campaign to save the temple was born," he remembered. "Some of the heroes must be mentioned by name. From the days of the campaign, there was Councillor Frank Ward, the only member of Hertsmere Council who openly defied the rest and gave us his time and energy abundantly. Naresh Chadha and his team at the Hare Krishna Temple Defence Movement fought a vigorous political campaign, and succeeded in raising the issue to an international level."
Paying tribute to the role of Gujarat Samachar and Asian Voice, Akhandadhi continued, "Although 16th March 1994 was the official end of public worship, I believe that this was the day we won our campaign. I give a lion's share of the credit to C B Patel. His energy, vision and enthusiasm resulted in the biggest demonstration of Hindus outside India. Then I saw a new confidence in the minds of our community. We can be, and we are, united."
Akhandadhi also praised O P Sharma, the President of the National Council of Hindu Temples, whom he described as 'another of the campaign generals to whom we own an eternal debt."
Today Bhaktivedanta Manor has grown into one of the most important Hindu shrines in Britain. The land on which the temple sits has increased from 7 to 77 acres, the Janmashtami festival attracts 80,000 people and over 2500 worshippers gather every Sunday to pray, sing, dance and eat sanctified vegetarian food. There is a long waiting list for enrolling children to the Sunday School, regular plays and cultural programmes are conducted every week, development courses in arts, culture, and Vedic tradition attract hundreds of students, and school buses regularly drop pupils for field trips. It is still the only seminary in Britain for training brahmins and has the only cow-protection programme in UK.
Reprinted by permission from a weekly column "Screaming Hot Bhajiyas" published in the weekly newspaper, Asian Voice (UK)