VAPPALA BALACHANDRAN | 7 JUNE, 2016
The Eerie Similarity Between the Mathura Cult Tragedy and 1993 Waco (Texas) Cult Deaths
MUMBAI: The June 2 Mathura tragedy resulting in 27 deaths has an eerie similarity with the 1993 Waco cult deaths. The “Branch Davidians” occupied Carmel camp near Waco (Texas) without paying taxes since 1968, waiting for the Biblical Armageddon. The followers of “Netaji” cult (Swadheen Bharat Subhash Sena or Swadheen Bharat Vidhik Satyagrahi) occupied public land illegally since 2014 in Jawahar Bagh, Mathura waiting for the re-appearance of their “Netaji”. Both colonies were run as “concentration camps”. In both cases there was considerable delay in taking government action. Both groups attacked the police with illegal weapons. In both cases majority of cult followers perished due to fire ignited by themselves.
In 1984 the leadership of Davidian cult was taken over by Vernon Howell, later known as David Koresh. In August 1989 Koresh released a “New Light” audio tape that God had ordained him to procreate with married women in his camp in order to establish a “House of David” and to raise an “Army for God” to prepare for the “end of days”.
The Waco government authorities waited too long to take action. Only in 1992 the local Sheriff contacted the federal Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms police (ATF), on getting evidence that they were receiving arms through couriers. Although there was suspicion on automatic gunfire from the Carmel camp, ATF’s poor surveillance methods compromised any effective action. In fact Koresh even knew the identity of their “Under Cover” agent. ATF and local police did not raid the camp since Koresh asserted that their weapons were legally purchased.
In 1993 a former cult member told the police that Koresh had machine guns fabricated from M-16 and AR-15 parts, prohibited under a 1986 law. A search warrant was issued on 25 February, 1993. The raid was fixed for 28th but Koresh who had advance information asked his men to take up defensive positions. Shooting started between both sides with rival accusations on who had opened fire first. ATF admitted that Davidians had better fire power. They lost 4 agents while 5 Davidians were killed.
FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team took over command after ATF’s failure. Koresh initially agreed to vacate the Carmel camp during FBI’s negotiations. Later he retracted saying that God had told him to stay on in the compound. The stand off went on for 51 days. FBI cut off their communications except through their negotiators. 19 children who were released by Koresh told the FBI that they were sexually abused long before the siege.
The final assault was mounted on April 19, 1993 using Combat Engineering Vehicles (CEV) to break the walls to pump in tear gas to flush out residents. A huge fire started and flames spread all over the compound. 76 Davidians including Koresh were killed by the fire, gunshots and due to other reasons. Evidence emerged that many residents were prevented from escaping. A big controversy erupted after the deaths. Surviving Davidians accused the FBI for causing the fire while government sources blamed Davidian leadership for preventing the inmates’ escape and their forced suicides or execution. Washington Post said that Koresh was shot by Steve Schneider, his “right hand man” realizing that he was a fraud. He then committed suicide.
In Mathura the original cult was established by Baba Jai Gurudev, a Godman. He was earlier known as Tulsidas Maharaj who built a temple for himself. He dabbled in politics and established a political party known as “Doordarshi Party”. After his death it was found that he had possessed huge properties and 250 luxury cars. Even now his followers circulate his photo sitting next to Mrs. Indira Gandhi. But he was imprisoned for 20 months during Mrs.Gandhi’s 1975 Emergency. His driver Ram Vraksh Yadav inherited his legacy after Baba’s death. A national daily said that Yadav came with his followers to the Jawahar Bagh in April 2014 with government permission for peaceful demonstration for 2 days. Later they continued to occupy government land for “sit in Dharna” “with a company of armed groups and a parallel system of governance”.
The reasons for the police raid so late on June 2 are not clear. Some reports said that the police were obeying a High court order to get the government land vacated. Other reports said that the local administration had sent several reports to the state government seeking directions. The long delay in issuing orders from Lucknow resulted in allegations that the present UP government did not want any action against the cult. It is common knowledge that several state politicians consider such cults as vote banks. Also the police did not expect such fierce resistance which led to the deaths of 27 persons including the Superintendent of Police and a Sub Inspector. Yadav was confirmed dead along with his 22 followers in the fire caused through LPG cylinders. The police recovered 47 pistols, 184 cartridges, 178 hand grenades and 1,000 LPG cylinders. What was the local intelligence doing when these arms were being stored?
Such cults are an anathema to democracy as they negate the rule of law. However it is difficult to put a blanket ban on them. Even the FBI which had handled major cult deaths like Guana’s Jonestown (1978-900 dead), Waco (1993- 85 dead) and Heaven’s Gate UFO Millenarian Group (1999-37 dead) prefer to call them as “New Religious Movements” (NRMs) since all cults do not violate laws. FBI has a special Behavioural Science group to study NRMs. They do not leave everything to the overworked local police like in India.
On June 3 night a prominent TV anchor was haranguing the Director General of Police Uttar Pradesh as to why the police could not evict the squatters earlier. Perhaps the learned anchor did not know the law that the police is in no way responsible for evicting squatters unless there are court orders. It is the responsibility of civic or Revenue departments to take legal steps to prevent and evict encroachment. And in this case they had failed-not the police. It is no use blaming the police only when the whole administration is paralyzed.
( Vappala Balachandran is an Indian national security intelligence specialist and a former Indian police officer who served 17 years in the state of Maharashtra, India and 19 years in foreign intelligence service. He retired as Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India)