The ancient shrine standing tall and chiding the tiny village mud houses had been built many hundred years ago. It stood like a vast mansion in the open fields surrounded by a large cluster of villages. The massive stricture had always been defying all authorities of the destructive nature of time. Its strong and thick walls were raised to a greater height to prevent outsiders to see what went on inside the four walls. The wooden planks on the front doors had given the shrine the look of an ancient fort. These planks rose from the ground level to the upper most storeys in a single piece. It was well neigh impossible for any invader to break these planks even with the help of mightiest elephants in olden times.
The same shrine has been consistently under police seizing for past two days in a row. The chief of the state police Nirbhaya after getting authorization from the chief minister Pratap to enter the shrine had personally given the directions to the team lead by Tanwar.
“I believe that the great priest Rajamantran some how had got wind of what was coming. We have found the entire place barricaded by hoards of villager. The masses of villagers have covered the shrine up to a few kilometers. Each road, each bye lane and the routes through the maize fields have been occupied by humans. We had to stop the police posse much before the periphery of the shrine. The local police area in charge, the area magistrate and the collector all have reached the place but they are expressing their helplessness. I cannot move the forces further until an order is issued to remove the accumulation of humanity encircling the shrine. Either we issue order to the cavalry to move in or a few rounds of firing will be essential to clear the people. I doubt if either will help. We can expect a tough resistance from the boys of the great Priest. These boys could be armed very heavily. We can see them just behind the surge of villagers. There can be virtual bloodshed at this place”, Tanwar’s report had come in immediately after he had reached the spot. The chief of the state police Nirbhaya had informed chief minister Pratap of the seizing of the shrine. He was also informed about the large battery of the local national and international press correspondents. They had gathered there to pick up the latest news and report the scoop to their respective readers.
The electronic media has been covering the happenings. It had put up the live coverage on the main news bulletin of their network for their viewers’ benefit, and curiosity. A telephone call from Pratap to the station director and the threat to close down the station brought some sense to the officials of the television. “Sir you must understand our position. We have to report to the Ministry of Information and broadcasting that is under the control of the central government. It is their insistence that the coverage be shown live to let the common public view what is happening at the sacred places”.
“In that case you may have to move out of the state within next hour. I will ensure a case of subversion is registered against you and your staff at Baikunthpur for instigating the common man against the state. I hope you can make your bosses see reason and understand the legal implication of such an action by the state administration. The local police will bundle your outfit out. Your reporters will be put under house arrest in such a situation. You are aware that I do not believe in the intimidation of the press yet this onetime please refrain from forcing me to take steps that could be detrimental to your freedom”.
“In that case I may have to get permission from…” the director was about to utter when Pratap gave him a way out “I suggest you carry a news capsule rather than showing the entire episode live. You can send someone to record my appeal to the villagers surrounding the shrine”, that brought the station director to his knees “you see sir, I was confident we will find a way out “, he had finally relented.
The helicopter of the state government was approaching peripheries of the village where shrine was situated. The Home Secretary who found it difficult to speak due to the noise generated by the rooters of the helicopter, bent out of his seat. He brought his mouth close to the ears of the chief of the state police Nirbhaya “I think we are aggravating the situation. These are religious people. They themselves many times do not know what they talk about. The great priest Rajamantran must have been intoxicated by the religious fervor and uttered these words. We should give him a chance to explain his position before we precipitate any kind of action against him”.
“Yes but this time the new combination of the religion and politics has made him too heady. Such deadly combination of the preacher and the politician can prove very costly to the peace of entire state. This can even cause disintegration of the very social thread that binds the two communities in the state for centuries. It can result into a complete breaking of the trust and faith which has kept the people in the neighborhood of each other without raising the boundaries of their dwellings too high. I am sure you have been to the villages of our state or even the old localities of the old towns. Have you looked at the heights of the walls separating one household from another in these villages? These are raised to the level of the human chest and not up to the eyes and heads. It has been proved over the centuries that, in our countryside no barrier exists between the two neighbors, not even that of faith and religion. The kitchens of neighborly households virtually extend into each other’s courtyards. The common mud and brick stoves fixed up into their courtyards bind them together. The fire that is lighted into these community stoves cooks bread for all of them irrespective of their cast, creed, status or religion. Such fanatical statements as delivered by the great priest Rajamantran today have taken away one such part of our community to the distant lands. The wounds of that separation from our brethrens are still raw in our memory. I am confident the common populace will not like to put up with a repetition of the same dissection once again. Yet the same people are out to protect the fanatical and communal mind of the great priest Rajamantran again. This myth must be broken. He should not be allowed to go any further”.
The chief of the state police Nirbhaya saw hoards of villagers standing all around the shrine, from his helicopter. He told the pilot to take a round of the entire area before landing in the school grounds little away from the crowds. Some of the village children started running towards the helicopter. They were chased away by the security forces. The chief of the state police Nirbhaya saw snipers on top of the shrine. If any of the snipers wanted to he could have hit the chopper but better sense had prevailed. The villagers gathered there started raising slogans against the government as soon as they saw the chopper. They had been thinking that it was the chief minister Pratap who has come to the spot to speak to the great priest. The people were disappointed when they saw that it was only the police official accompanied by the state civil functionary.
The chief of the state police Nirbhaya assessed the volatile and charged atmosphere in the air. The home secretary too could sense the tensions prevailing. The villagers had blocked the entrance to the shrine with their tractor trolleys, pushcarts and wooden planks. The home secretary spoke to Nirbhaya “we must find a way out of the situation. Nirbhaya could feel that any kind of police action at this stage will make a hero out of Rajamantran. “The chief minister and the cabinet have sent me along with you to avoid any kind of undue action that can propel into mass agitation. We need to remove the populace from the middle of the police and the shrine. That can be done only if we are able to take their leaders into confidence. We will have to meet their village head. We will speak to him to see reason. You will have to send an emissary to fetch him. Or it is better still if we can make an announcement on the public address system to all people to understand the situation. It is possible then they will move away. You have to make sure your men from the police department must show their restraint under all provocations. Even if the villagers resort to any kind of violence, we will use the force only as a last resort. This was also the feeling of the crisis management committee”.
“Sure I do agree with you but I am not willing to risk any one of my men to be sent as an emissary. We can address common public from a distance. The riot control van is fitted with the Public address system. We will have to walk towards it. Any kind of vehicle movement at this stage can trigger the panic reaction from villagers”.
The chief of the state police Nirbhaya looked at DIG Tanwar for his response to the suggestion. Tanwar has always held the views that “any kind of reconciliatory move with the exploiters of common faith virtually meant the extension of support to the socio-criminal element”. He firmly believed that “only those who contributed to the cause of social reforms and universal welfare through philanthropic activities were real saints. All others self professed preachers were manipulators of man’s search for the illusive peace of mind. The religious preachers were good enough till they propagated the teachings enshrined in the holy books. But if they assume the role of God themselves they become exploiters of the first order. Some of them even get converted to sex – exploiters as women tend to submit to the religious swooning quite easily as compared to the male of the species. The words of the conjurors simply hypnotize them into giving all away. The women then often get stuck in a situation from which there was no turning back”. He felt frustrated often for not being able to stop the mushrooming of such magicians and hypnotists. He believed that “the state will often protect the hideouts of such criminals through the systems that prevented police from entering their so-called religious places”.
“I think we need to issue a warning to the crowd about the causalities they can suffer if we resort to the direct action. We are ready to use the mounted police to chase them away and force our way through”.
“However Mr. Tanwar we can leave that kind of action to the last. Let me speak to them,” the Home secretary made his annoyance quite obvious.
The slogans shouted by the villagers had become louder by now, when people saw senior police officers and the home secretary walking towards the riot control van. The home secretary started his communication with them “Blessed are the souls who join me in paying respects to the great Gods! I am speaking to all of you on behalf of the chief minister of this state and his government. All of you jointly had installed the government of this state through the validated voting rights given to you by the constitution of the country. Our constitution has bestowed us with the best democratic system in the world. Each one of you has made use of the ballot to elect the government in power. You must remember that if you do not like the current administration, you have every right to change the rulers at the next polling. Why should you therefore take law into your hands for an act, which can be handled peacefully and legally? Our great Priest is a well-revered man. He heads a shrine that has been the fountainhead of spiritual guidance for many generations in this area. If he is upset with the system of the state, we are willing to sit in consultation with him and thrash out the differences with him. We are even willing to bring about the necessary changes into the systems that can fast forward the development of the common man. He has incited all of you to disobey the laws of the land, not pay revenues and not subscribing to the administrative systems. Let me remind you that this amounts to incitement to rebellion. I am in a quandary to understand as to how a small area which is land locked from all sides can have its own entity. You will perish in no time if you follow what is suggested by the great Priest. Be wise enough to pay heed to what your government says. Please send your great Priest to talk to the government. We are not using the word surrender. Because you and I, we all still believe he is a great religious and pious man and not a common criminal. We all bow before him in respect. I am sure he will honor the wishes of his own people. The great priest Rajamantran will not want us to make use of the force which could result into loss of innocent lives”, he took a pause to see the effect of his remarks.
The murmur in the crowd was getting louder. Some one from amongst them shouted loudly “you can reach him only on our dead bodies. We will protect him till the last drop of blood”.
The home secretary kept his cool, “that I can assure is not needed. We are not going to arrest him. Some of the elders from your village can come forward to hold discussions .or it will be better if you permit us to talk to the great priest. We will make him realize the effect of his futile utterances. I give you my promise that no harm will come to him”.
A rustic tall gentleman with a hefty built who had come forward from the crowd, volunteered “We have received message from inside the shrine that our great Priest will speak only to the chief minister Pratap. You can call for him here. Otherwise we will not budge even an inch from our stand”.
“I am afraid that will not be possible. However we can work out the modus operandi. It is essential that we sit face to face for negotiation with your great Priest”.
“Then call off your forces. We guarantee your complete safety. You along with one of your officers can come inside”, said the old man.
Home Secretary looked at the chief of the state police enquiringly to the suggestion thrown as a way out by the villager. Nirbhaya reluctantly ordered Tanwar to move the armed forces a little backward and away from the shrine.
“But chief!”
“Tanwar you are not going back. You can but ask the police forces to take positions a mile or so away from this place where they are at present. Should any thing untoward happen; we will send the envoy immediately. You can leave the local police station in charge and two of his men posted at this place”.
The police forces started pulling out. All the people who were watching the police move away from the shrine had become jubilant. The cry of victory ranted the skies. The crowd was shouting slogans “long live the great Priest”, and they were shrieking on the top of their voice “Down with the state police!” The shouting could be heard all over.
Nirbhaya wanted to ask the home secretary “What now?”
“I have my brief from the department. It is obvious the chief minister Pratap did not discuss with you because these instructions have been issued by the central government. You will not be arresting great priest Rajamantran. We will deal with him with tact and diplomacy. You can discuss with your chief minister when you get back. I am sure he will appreciate the way we have solved this catch-22 situation that this government of our state had been subjected to”.
Nirbhaya wanted to tell him to go and sock it up. but things had gone too far by now. He could see a few of the village elders moving towards them.
“The great priest Rajamantran is ready to have an audience with you. We will not allow any of the armed men from your police inside the shrine. We will lead you personally to go into the shrine”. They moved towards the shrine. He noticed people melting away but not without raising slogans once again. They were raising their fists skywards.
“His vicious hold on the mass mentality is complete. They are absolutely spell bound by the charlatan. Nothing can prevent them from laying their lives under this hypnotism” thought Nirbhaya.
Inside the shrine in one of the open courtyards the great priest Rajamantran sat majestically on a thrown. He was enjoying the epithet used by people from surrounding villages in his eulogy. Some one called him the lord the Almighty; another woman addressed him as, “The Remedy to All Ills of Society”.
This lady wanted to bequeath a large portion of her farm land to the shrine. “No one is there to look after my land. It is not being tilled. All my sons stay abroad. They have virtually become strangers to the earth. They are neither interested to plough it nor do they know what to do with it” the woman was praying with her hands folded, “Your lord is well aware that I have inherited it from my father. He did not have any male progeny. The land given by my in_ laws is sufficient for my sons for their survival. I have already gifted this to your holy shrine. Please grace me by accepting these papers. I am sure you can put it to better use”. She handed over the set of papers to him. Then she lay prostrate in front of the thrown he was sitting in to touch his feet.
Ranjit who was watching this amazing communication between the priest and the lady wondered, “How could people do this? How could people gift everything to a human being simply because they thought he was a messenger from God? This is impossible but it is taking place in front of my very own vision. How can this man who is accumulation of flesh and blood like any other human being influence the minds of others to such an extent that they will give every thing to him just for one blessing”?
He looked at the great priest Rajamantran. He was wearing a kind of dress that made him look more like a warrior than the holy man clothed in the traditional robe. The great priest Rajamantran was fully dressed to go to war. He held a long gun on his left side and a sword dangled from his waist, as he walked in. He wore a military costume of the ancient times with full decorator’s honors of wars which must have been earned by his fore fathers during the reigns of Mughal kings and British rulers. It was a well-known fact that his ancestors had been the paid soldiers of the ruling elite before one of them took to religious services. That forefather had laid the foundation to the much-needed Godly solace for the wandering soldiers in the shape of a small shrine where Rajamantran had been holding his court now.
The guests who had come to Ranjit’s house on his grandmothers’ demise had departed to their respective homes after all the rituals related to the death of Ranjit’s grandmother’s had been completed. The altercation between father and his son made them leave sooner then they had planned. Ranjit’s mother was keen to visit this shrine to pray for the peace of her mother-in –law’s departed soul.
‘We shall go direct to the shrine after we have immersed her ashes in the holy river. It will be closer to the shrine from there. It is your obligation to the elders of the family. You must pray for the soul of your departed grand mother. She was always so much distressed about you. She loved you more than any thing else in this world. I shall request great holy Priest to bless you with strength and intelligence. He must bless you to overcome your problems in life and get into some meaningful living”. Ranjit’s mother had to pester him the entire day till he finally agreed to finally go along with her to the shrine.
However he was at a loss understand as to why were there the gunmen standing behind the great Priest. And then he looked at the guns they were carrying. He recognized the guns and smiled at the irony of fait. These were the same guns that had been the cause of his grandmother’s death. He had least expected to come to such a place to pray for the liberation of her soul. He was keen to find out how these guns found their destination here. He was standing in a queue to reach the great priest Rajamantran to seek his blessings when the commotion outside drew everyone’s attention
“My lord the police is here to arrest you’, a villager came running to the inner portion of the shrine where the great priest Rajamantran had been holding his court. People sitting on the floor got up to look for some security and protection for themselves. They were running helter and skelter. The Cleric grinned and asked all of them to sit down. “Do not worry my children! You should not panic. These poor mortals cannot even touch any of my disciples in the entire area. The police will have to cross thousands of human bodies outside before they are allowed to enter the shrine and reach here. They will find a sea of humanity outside to welcome them”.
They could hear the slogans being shouted in the exterior compound. It appeared as if the entire humanity had gathered outside to form a wall of protection encircling the shrine.
“It is impossible to penetrate this kind of fortress by any force in the world”, Ranjit thought to himself. He did not notice any fear on the face of the sage. “It may be that he is the smartest actor of the world.” The defiance of the law of the land by the great priest Rajamantran had been reported by most of the press. Ranjit had read the news while traveling to this place. Every one had anticipated that “the denizen of the shrine was playing with fire”. They anticipated that the shrine will get into trouble with the law. But the common men loved such heroism. They were all over awed by the sermon delivered by the great priest. Only the last of the great had the courage to challenge the might of the Mughal rulers. The leadership that emerged thereafter did threaten the might of the British rule but there was a basic difference between the political non-compliance and the religious fervor generated amongst the common folks. None of the smaller shrines had ever challenged the powers of the Victorian rulers. Even if they did they were always under the influence of one political alliance or the other. This smaller shrine situated in the remote corner of the countryside can evoke so much emotion baffled him. The crowd was inching ahead one by one towards the great priest Rajamantran to pay their respects.
Once in a while he will speak to the devotee, “how is your father now? He asked a young farmer. “Is he taking his medicine as prescribed by his doctor”?
He asked another one, “Has your daughter started going to school? You must be aware that the education of the girl child is as essential as that of the son. Do not be miser while spending money on her education. In case you do not have enough money I will pay her school fee”, he told him.
Yet to another farmer he asked, “I believe you have dug a tube well recently? Does your village get enough water for irrigation of the farms? I have been talking to the authorities to divert the canal water to your village at least for the period when the crops need irrigation. I have been promised by them that it will be done soon. You should ask your village head to remind the concerned chief engineer of the irrigation project to speedup the process of providing more waters for agriculture”.
All the people sitting on the floor in the court of the great priest Rajamantran will repeat in unison, “You are great. You are the greatest your lordship. You are concerned about all of us. That is why you remember everybody’s cause of happiness and misery”.
“He has mastered the art of building up public frenzy. And he also has the knack of controlling the mob psyche to his advantage,” thought Ranjit.
It was only after a long wait that their turn to meet the great priest Rajamantran had been announced. His mother fell on the feet of the seer. She had put her forehead on the floor. She directed Ranjit also to do the same. Ranjit remembered how his grandmother used to implore him to bow his forehead on the ground “for praying and seeking absolvence of the sins of human birth”, she would say. She said “the bowing of the head in front of the representatives of Gods was meant to exhibit the man’s subjugation to the Almighty up there and a submission to His Will”.
“Is he also one of the Gods?” he was not sure but since mother wanted him to show his respects towards him he bowed and touched his feet. Ranjit knew that this was not the right time and place for raising an argument with his mother. He was trying to look straight into the eyes of the ecclesiastic.
The great priest Rajamantran “I have seen you lad toddling here on the grounds of this shrine, when you used to crawl on your knees. The old lady, God blesses her soul! She has brought you up very well. You have turned out to be a sturdy and a strong Youngman. You must devote this handsome physique to the cause of community. We need youngsters like you to keep the faith and our race alive”. The priest looked towards his mother. He asked her “will this son of yours also become subservient to the government that corrupts our common folks. Do you have some better plans for his future?
“He is a grown up young man Milord! I want you to give him the common sense and intelligence. Your honor can make him see the light of the day. You must make him understand the ways of the world. There is no one in our family to look after him after the death of his grandmother. I have brought him here to your court so that you can caution him against the waywardness of life that he lives. I pray you to give him a sermon for his well being. Possibly he has been converted into a blockhead by his vagrant life in the city”.
“He must spend A few days at the shrine. This will bring him closer to gods. The stay here will also do lots of good for him”, said the great Priest. “Let us urge the forgiveness of the benign for your grandmother’s soul, which is what you are here for primarily”. The pontiff began chanting a verse from the small holy book kept next to him.
The drone of the helicopter was heard moving towards the shrine from a distance. The war cries outside in the court yard were becoming louder and shriller. “It appears they have decided to drop in from the skies”, one of the bodyguards shouted and requested the seer “please milord you must get inside the protected room”. He pushed people away and led the pontiff to the inner room.
Another gunman ran towards the stepladder but instead of climbing the stairs he went to the small spacer under the stairs. He removed large bundles of the sugarcanes kept on the floor and took out the wooden cases of guns from underneath them. He started throwing the guns to other young men present, “everyone moves to the roof but no one will use the guns for firing till I ask you to do so”. Some one had put a gun into Ranjit’s hands too and told him to rush upwards. Ranjit’s mother and other ladies along with older men were asked to vacate the room immediately and go out in the courtyard. “They can blow the building hence no one stays inside”. In the hustle bustle and confusion that followed no one realized that helicopter had already moved away from the building and landed in the school building a few meters away.
When no such attack came from the skies the young men hidden behind the pillars came out in the open on the roof and became jubilant with the victory cries. He too joined them though he did not know what made him do so. He pulled the trigger and fired a volley of bullets into the air. He felt adrenalin rushing through his veins the way it had felt earlier, when he had killed his grandmother. A strange sense of calm prevailed upon him after he had fired the entire lot.