When Erin Mossop saw police with shields and batons and a bulldozer swarming through the ashram in Uttar Pradesh that she considers her second home, she says she did not hesitate. She picked up her two children, Annabel, 5, and Elliot, 2, and marched through the melee, until the three Canadians stood facing the throng of Indian police, and she began, she says, “to scold them like I would my children.”
The police arrived at the Kriyayoga Research Institute in the afternoon of April 10. The ashram’s leader, Swami Shree Yogi Satyam, says they were acting on behalf of the thoroughly corrupt Allahabad Development Authority, which sent them to demolish a building because he refuses to pay bribes to government officials.
What came next was ugly: police roughed up and dragged off hysterical followers of the swami, both Indian and international, and Ms. Mossop, from Victoria, and her children became a sort of last stand before the building was eventually torn down. Other supporters videotaped Ms. Mossop confronting the police while her children wailed in terror, then being knocked to the ground while police tore her children from her arms.
The video was quickly posted on YouTube and Swami Satyam’s considerable following in Canada is circulating it widely. It is sufficiently disturbing to prompt the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi to dispatch a consular team to Allahabad to investigate.
“All our buildings are legal and I have all the papers and a High Court injunction against the demolition, but they just act,” said Swami Satyam. “You see the power of the police. If you don’t give bribes in this country you can’t exist.”
He says two officials with the development authority have for years demanded bribes from him: Anil Kumar Singh, vice chair, and Rajesh Kumar Shrivastava, a “junior officer.” They want $45,000, he says. “They think that because foreigners are here we are rich and they demand money. We are a non-profit. I ask for no donations. A little bit of gift [to government] this and that, we can do, but this amount we don’t.”
Mr. Singh refused to answer questions, but Mr. Shrivastava told the Globe and Mail that “Swami is lying”, that he has repeatedly been notified that his building is illegal and his court petitions to try to stop demolition were rejected.
Both sides brandish fat court files to support their case.
“We are sorry that foreign nationals were hurt but disappointed that they sided with the Swami and not with the government,” Mr. Shrivastava said.
Ms. Mossop, for one, is firmly with the Swami. A former opera singer, she is in the process of trying to move her family to Allahabad – her husband Jonathan is back in Victoria working as a watchmaker but is a frequent visitor; they have been part of the Kriyayoga community since 2005. The Swami inspires her with his determination to fight corruption, which he characterizes as a national scourge keeping India impoverished, she said.
Ms. Mossop, 35, said she was also spurred by her knowledge of Mahatma Gandhi during the clash with police. “Gandhiji wouldn’t have been able to change the country if he hadn’t been willing to risk his life. I saw very clearly that we were on the side of truth or justice – I was willing to take a blow.”
That was what drove her to face police, she said. “My heart was pounding – and then I just felt angry staring at all the police coming into our ashram with no right to be here. I was shouting at all these people, ‘shame on you, this is despicable’ and they were all just staring at me. I just stood there with my children on my hip and I scolded them – it was so amazing, I held them up, just the power of speaking words of truth.”
She delayed the police by only about 10 minutes, however. “Then one man started grabbing – there were tons of them on me. I put up a good fight, I’m strong. But they pulled me down and started dragging me – Annabel got pulled away. Once they got me to the ground and those sticks were waving, I thought, ‘We’re going to get head injuries.’”
Her decision to carry her children into the confrontation has since provoked some sharp questions from people who have seen the video, including members of her own family, she said.
“A lot of people say I have been irresponsible: ‘your children are helpless, they didn’t ask to be here.’ But I’m their parent, I know what’s best for them – yes, this incident has been traumatic, I agree,” she said. “But we’re living among some very strong people with very strong convictions about life and life’s purpose – a sense of truth and divine protection. It’s a tricky thing to explain when you’re not in or experiencing it. My kids have witnessed fearlessness in the face of injustice and I know my children are going to come through this and they’re going to be stronger.”
Ms. Mossop and her children were physically unscathed, although young Annabel continues to walk through the ashram with her hands clamped over her ears.
No one was seriously injured in the confrontation, Swami Satyam said, but some had bruises and one person suffered a broken finger. He is now working on restoring peace to the ashram, and pursuing his case in the courts.
What the Swami and his followers call “Kriyayoga Science” is a meditation practice which they say “helps to increase the immune system to permanently cure all sicknesses of body and mind.” There are Kriyayoga temples in Calgary, Vancouver, Mississauga, Vaughan and Kitchener, and the Swami spends much of each year teaching in Canada.
“We’re aware of the situation and we’re continuing to look into it,” Simon Cridland, spokesperson for the Canadian High Commission, said. “We’re willing to provide consular assistance as required and to determine if it’s required.”