- A prominent Hindu leader in Russia claims his family has suffered three years of constant harassment
- Catholics, Muslims and some Russian Orthodox Christians have rallied in support of him
- The family plans to stay in Russia despite a bleak looking outcome for a legal battle
Russia’s campaign against non-Russian Orthodox religions is intensifying against Hindus, but their plight has earned Hindus some unlikely allies in communists, Muslims, and other minority groups.
Shri Prakash Ji, the most prominent Hindu leader in Russia, his son Prasun, and their family have suffered three years of nearly constant harassment ranging from slanderous media, threatening phone calls, police raids, and physical confrontations, all of which Prakash Ji alleges is inspired by the influence of Alexander Dvorkin, vice president of the European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS).
FECRIS is ostensibly a non-governmental organization, but is fully funded by the French government and is the same organization that spurred Russia’s successful efforts to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Prakash Ji and Prasun told The Daily Caller News Foundation that as the harassment has worsened, high-ranking Russian and Indian leaders have turned a deaf ear to their pleas for intervention against Dvorkin and those who aim to drive Hinduism and other non-Russian Orthodox religions out of Russia.
Unlike the plight of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, which FECRIS, Dvorkin, and the Russian government effectively banished from Russia, the plight of the Russian Hindus has become a rallying point for other groups whom the Russian Orthodox Church and FECRIS have antagonized.
Communists Challenge Dvorkin
Prakash Ji found influential, if not unexpected, allies in members of the Russian Duma belonging to the Communist Party. Russian communists, like all communists, eschew religion. At first glance, their support of a Hindu spiritual leader may seem out-of-place, but they likely relish the chance to criticize Dvorkin and the Russian Orthodox Church’s close relationship with the government.
Valery Rashkin, Duma deputy of the Communist Party, shares Prakash Ji’s belief that Dvorkin is behind the persecution that Prakash Ji and his followers have suffered, much the same way that Dvorkin not only used the authorities to harass the Jehovah’s Witnesses but also stirred up anti-Jehovah’s Witness sentiment among Russian nationalists.
Rashkin called in March of 2017 for the Russian Federal Security Service, the Justice Ministry, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs to investigate Dvorkin‘s alleged extremist activities for threatening interreligious dynamics in Russia, race relations, and Russia’s diplomatic relationship with India.
“Dvorkin, according to me, and many other party members is a threat to all of that. By spreading discrediting and false information about Hinduism, Dvorkin wants us to lose our best friend, India,” Rashkin said, according to Business Wire India.
Rashkin even went so far as to accuse Dvorkin of laying the groundwork for new religious and ethnic war.
“The frequency of his actions in relation to different religions, faiths, nationalities, located on the territory of the Russian Federation (in particular, in respect of Indian citizens), in my opinion, is the evidence of his task to inflate an international scandal and involve Russia in a new war,” Rashkin said in an address to the Duma, according to L!fe News.
The Russian Communist Party also held a public round table discussion at the Duma in 2017 to bring more attention to Prakash Ji’s situation and discuss strategies for addressing it. Thus far, nothing has come of Rashkin’s call for a parliamentary inquiry against Dvorkin or of the round table discussion besides increased media coverage.
The Enemy Of My Enemy
Hindus have demonstrated support for Prakash Ji and his family both at home and abroad, as demonstrated when over 1,000 Hindus gathered to protest Dvorkin on Feb. 3, 2017, in front of the Russian embassy in New Delhi, India.
Hindus are not the only religious group who rallied in support of their Russian spiritual leader, according to Prasun, who told TheDCNF that Catholics, Muslims, and even some Russian Orthodox Christians have rallied to his father’s cause against Dvorkin. His father’s lawyer, Kaloy Akhilgov, is a prominent Muslim figure, according to Prasun.
“Our lawyer is a Muslim. He’s a famous lawyer in Russia, and he has (defended) Muslim minorities before,” Prasun told TheDCNF.
“I personally know him very well, and when I approached him, I told him ‘Okay, so basically I have this problem and I know you have experience but, you are Muslim and I am Hindu. Does it work well?’ And he was actually very happy and took the case and right now we are fighting together,” Prasun added.
Akhilgov has represented Prakash Ji in two cases thus far, the first of which was Prakash’s complaint against Dvorkin concerning incitement of hatred against Hinduism on Dvorkin’s online forum and the second of which was a suit he filed against a state-run news channel for defamatory coverage. Both cases were dismissed, as Russian courts ruled the first case had been filed in the wrong jurisdiction and the second was a matter of free speech.
The other Muslims who have shown support for Prakash Ji do not do so out of support for Hinduism, Prasun explained, but rather out of deeply ingrained ethnic conflicts particular to Russia and because of their respect for Prakash Ji.
“Muslims over here are a different ethnicity. It’s not only about religion,” Prasun told TheDCNF. “They are different nationalities. They are not Russians [ethnically]. There is even a saying – The wolves and the bears, they will not do well. The wolves are the people from Caucasus and the Russians are the bears. And so these two communities always fight. … The Caucasian Muslims are supporting [our case]. I never expected it, but it’s happening like that.”
Muslim support for Prakash Ji against Dvorkin and the influence of FECRIS is somewhat unexpected, however, as they did not come to the aid of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Hare Krishna sect of Hinduism when Dvorkin targeted those groups.
Prasun’s claim that Catholics have supported his father is also understandable, given the history of Russian intolerance toward Catholicism and the Russian branch of FECRIS’ targeting of “Catholics, members of newly implanted religious movements, atheists and non-believers,” in an attempt to reintegrate them into the Orthodox Church, according to a study of FECRIS published in the Journal for the Study of Beliefs and Worldviews.
Support from Russian Orthodox Christians, Prasun told TheDCNF, largely comes from his father’s Russian Orthodox yoga disciples.
“My father has always been of a very friendly approach to the Orthodox Christians because more than half of his disciples are Orthodox Christians, so he’s always had very good relations with the police department, with everyone,” Prasun said.
“There people, the Christian people, are falling back on their pastors and telling them to shut up,” Prasun added.
Prakash Ji’s popularity with Orthodox Christians in Russia is perhaps what rankles Dvorkin and the church most of all, according to Prasun, who says it makes his father look like a threat to their influence.
Battle Without Victory
Prakash Ji and Prasun told TheDCNF that they are committed to staying in Russia, whatever challenges may come, but the outlook for their legal battle against Dvorkin and the church is bleak.
Prasun claimed that one of the reasons high-ranking Russian leaders have not helped his father and intervened against Dvorkin is that the Russian Orthodox Church is one of the pillars of power for governmental figures, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Putin, even if he wants to help me, he cannot help me. Because he wouldn’t go against his pillars that [keep] him in his position of power. His biggest pillar is [the] Orthodox Church,” Prasun told TheDCNF. “He cannot go against the Orthodox church even if someone kills my father tomorrow. That’s the problem.”
Prasun also asserted that no matter how hard they fought in Russia’s legal system, to which they are committed, widespread corruption and prejudice against perceived foreign influences was a major roadblock to victory. Prakash Ji might find legal victory somewhere outside the Russian capital of Moscow, but at the seat of Russian authority he would find no justice, even with Akhilgov’s skill as a lawyer, according to Prasun.
“So legal representation is there, but you know, legal is a very interesting term because everything in Russia happens illegally,” Prasun told TheDCNF. “And the courts will never let us win. I mean, at least in Moscow. At least in Moscow I’m sure no court will let us win. Even knowing that this is total injustice happening to us, they will never let us win. For one simple reason. Russian policy – don’t let any foreigner become a hero.”
The challenges arrayed against Prakash Ji’s family in the Russian legal system, the Russian Orthodox Church, FECRIS, and anti-Hindu Russian nationalists worries the Hindu leader, particularly when he thinks about the fate of his children.
“I actually am not afraid, but I am very worried because every day my children (go) to university,” Prakash Ji told TheDCNF. “I have two boys and one girl. My wife and myself are very worried because these nationalists, these people, [we don’t know] what they will do. And every time, we think about this.”
Prakash Ji explained that, if the Russian government so chooses, they can actually get rid of him and his family within a year because of the stipulations of their Russian citizenship. Prakash Ji, who immigrated to Russia with his wife in 1990, must re-certify his citizenship every five years. The Hindu leader told TheDCNF that he must apply for an extension of his citizenship in December. Given all of the recent controversy concerning his family and his religion, he may be denied and forced to return to India.
Nevertheless, Prasun said he and his father are committed to stay and advance Hinduism in Russia for as long as they are able.
“If we get out of Russia right now, we will prove them right,” Prasun told TheDCNF. “Honestly, I would rather die fighting over here than back off. Because then [backing off] would just tarnish the image of my family, the image of … everything my father has done for these 27 years will just fall apart.”