Since 2016, prominent Hindu religious leader Shri Prakash Ji and his family claim to have been caught in a web of harassment perpetuated by an ‘anti-cult activist’ empowered by the Russian Orthodox Church and government.
By Aleesha Matharu
The Wire (17.09.2019) – https://bit.ly/2kJ1lQn – Four years ago is when prominent Hindu religious leader Shri Prakash Ji and Orthodox Christian ‘anti-cult’ activist Alexander Dvorkin locked horns for the first time. Since then, allegations and counter allegations have flown thick and fast in a tale with political and religious roots that span half of Europe and other parts of the world.
The year 2016, according to Prakash and his family, marked the beginning of a systematic smear campaign at the hands of Professor Dvorkin, who, as a deep dive on the internet revealed, has had a history of playing the aggressor against minority religions and sects.
In Russia, under the rule of President Vladimir Putin over the past two decades, Orthodox Christianity has become somewhat synonymous with Russian nationalism, allowing religious activists and groups like Christian State-Holy Rus to have their moment in the sun. In fact, Putin’s critics have time and again accused him of helping nurture a sense of impunity among nationalist and militant religious activists over the years.
Towards that end, the Prakashs say, Dvorkin has been one of the leading champions in the systematic persecution of religious minorities.
Dvorkin was also the face behind the campaign to ban the Bhagwad Gita in Russia in 2012 when he was the head of the Expert Council for State Religious Expertise under the Russian justice ministry. He had then called the Hare Krishna movement, which was legalised in Russia in 1988, a “totalitarian sect” that had no ties with mainstream Hinduism.
Prakash’s son, 25-year-old Prasun Prakash, told The Wire, “We have faced all sorts of horrible things, including constant threats to our life and unauthorised police raids.”
“His [Dvorkin’s] task is to defame any popular spiritual or religious figure in Russia so that the reign of the Orthodox Christian church stays strong on the Russian people. My father, on the contrary, teaches that humanity is above all religions and that people shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of faith,” Prasun said.
Dvorkin, who spoke to The Wire on the phone from Moscow, called the allegations baseless. Instead, he said that it is the Prakashs who have been going hammer and tongs at him.
“I am sick and tired of the atrocious, immoral, and pathetic smear campaign that Mr Parkash his family and his adepts have been conducting against me for the last four years,” said Dvorkin, who is a professor of Church History and Cultic Studies at Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Moscow, as well as the the head of the Russian member-organisation of the French government-funded organisation European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism, better known as FECRIS.
“I think Prakash is the shame of Hindus, I don’t know what kind of teacher he is… he has no parampara. As far as I know, Prakash is not a guru. He is a failed medical student and а con artist who founded his own cult. Just because he is from India doesn’t make him a teacher of Hinduism,” Dvorkin told The Wire.
‘Enemies by default’
“Despite masking as a follower of orthodox Christianity, all of Dvorkin’s actions reveal a person holding extremist views and hatred towards other religions,” 48-year-old Prakash told The Wire. Prakash moved to Russia in 1990 from Patna, Bihar when he was 19.
As may be seen in a profile run by Prazdnik InfoTV from 2016, his followers are locals and he conducts his discourses in Russian.
“Russia is my second home and I have never had any negative experiences with any governmental organs of the country, something that Dvorkin has tried to change,” the guru said.
Shri Prakash Dham, the spiritual centre that has been at the centre of this battle, lies almost 30 km outside the Russian capital of Moscow, the city where Prasun and his two siblings were born. Prasun is presently the director of public affairs at the Centre for Conservation of Indian Culture, Shri Prakash Dham.
Shri Prakash Dham centres can be found in several countries, including Germany, the UK, Ukraine, Lithuania, Kazakhstan and India.
The harassment Prakash has faced has been documented by several international media organisations and rights groups, including in a Newsweek report published in mid-2018, where the religious leader had said: “They searched the centre, and they searched my home, where my family was. They are sending fake journalists to my office. People come to me, they pretend to be a follower, and then they film me. Every week they are doing something.”
“I’m starting to wonder how I can live here with my family. There are so many nationalist elements here, and my daughter is going to school, every day we are worried. They call and threaten us, they say I should leave Russia,” he told Newsweek.
When Prasun and his family went to the police station, they say they were “physically pushed out” by a policeman who, according to Prasun, said: “Russia is an Orthodox Christian country and foreign elements should be removed.” A recording of the incident was posted on Prakash’s Facebook page.
According to Russian news channel Life News, the raids were executed on the suspicion of extremist activities from Prakash’s compound because of complaints they had received from Russian Orthodox activists.
Dvorkin and Prakash’s first brush happened when the latter complained about an online forum – https://forum.iriney.ru/ – run by Dvorkin where users had alleged that Prakash was a thief who “hypnotises people” through meditation only to steal their money.
“I didn’t know about [Prakash] until four years ago when his former followers began writing on the forum connected to our website and saying they had experienced abuse in his cult,” Dvorkin said.
According to the professor, “We have an internet forum which is informative. Four years ago, a discussion page was formed by former followers of Prakash. Some of them were disappointed, felt they had been abused and exploited by him. So they started writing on the forum to express their opinion. The forum is open to everybody – anyone can write as long as they don’t write extremist things or something that could incite violence.”
“Suddenly, Prakash sued me in court for something other people wrote, people who had felt exploited… some people even wrote they had been sexually abused. Instead of giving them answers, he sued me,” he added. “That’s how I learnt about him [Prakash].”
When the Prakashs sued, “journalists wrote articles that weren’t favourable to the ashram,” Dvorkin said.
“For some reason, Prakash felt that all these journalists were my employees, and presented it in a twisted form. Once a young girl from one TV studio went to the ashram… She was not allowed in. He presented it as a group of tough guys who supposedly came with violent intentions, though even the video aired on TV shows one petite young woman surrounded by Prakash’s bodyguards,” he said.
“It was then that Prakash decided my hand was behind everything happening to him. And it even goes out of proportion. Recently one of his followers said that I am the sole reason that the trade between Russia and India dropped by 25% last year.”
With regard to the accusation of using state machinery to harass the ashram, he said the police had questions for them as “he [Prakash] is suspected in very serious economic crimes”.
“But I am not an economist nor a criminal investigator. I cannot discover or investigate economic crimes. To blame me for his trouble with Russian law is as absurd as to believe that I can influence Russian-Indian trade relations,” Dvorkin said.
“He has a lot of money and a lot of very expensive property and the police wants to know where it comes from. With this money, he buys everyone to write ugly articles about me, organise groups in India to rally against me and spread misinformation about me,” Dvorkin said.
When speaking to Newsweek, Dvorkin had also blamed scientologists and Jehovah’s Witnesses for running a defamation campaign against him. “They’ve also said that I am a CIA agent and Mossad agent and KGB agent. But I’m the head of an NGO, professor at the Orthodox University,” he told Newsweek.
Appeal upon appeal
Prasun told The Wire that they have made several appeals to Putin and to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene against Dvorkin on his family’s behalf. A petition on Change.org, started by Prasun and which can be found on Prakash’s website, appeals to Putin, Modi, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar to help bring an end to the harassment.
“We sincerely believe that Mr. Dvorkin, in his quest for cheap publicity, has identified my father and our family to be used as the one tool against Hindus in Russia to achieve the ultimate subjugation of the whole Hindu community in this country as per his illegal and deplorable intentions,” it says.
“We had sued Mr. Dvorkin’s website forum.iriney.ru for libel. Our first lawyer got pressurised by the hooligans of Mr. Dvorkin and couldn’t continue the fight against injustice happening to me and my family. Our second lawyer, Mr. Kaloy Akhilgov took the judicial reigns in the end of 2017. We won the case,” it adds.
Dvorkin was not present in court for the verdict on December 10, 2018. “We also won the distinction of being the first to ever a come out on top in a case against Dvorkin,” Prasun said.
The Odintsovo court’s decision, which favoured Prakash, was hailed as “unique” and “historic”. But, according to the Prasun, it became one of the main reasons for Dvorkin’s supporters to kickstart the hate campaign.
When the petition was first released in 2017, protestors in Delhi reportedly burnt an effigy of Dvorkin outside the Russian embassy, and labelled him an enemy of India.
In 2017 too, General V.K. Singh, then India’s minister of state for foreign affairs, had given his word to the family that the Indian government would throw its weight behind them and work with the Putin administration to bring an end to their ordeal.
“I had written hundreds of letters to the PMO and MEA but strong action hasn’t been taken by them till date,” Prasun told The Wire.
So far, no real support has been offered.
“Bureaucracy does not really care about the state of minorities, be it Russia or India. They care only about personal PR points,” Prasun said.
Instead, Prasun says that they’ve had a lot of support from the Muslim community in Russia, as well as from the Communist Party.
On a recent radio show, Akhilgov, the family’s lawyer who is a prominent Muslim figure in the country, said: “Dvorkin attacks not only Hinduism but also talks rubbish about Islam. He mentioned in one of his lectures that Islam is the product of Prophet Muhammad’s fantasies.”
In response, Dvorkin said, “In his Russian publications Prakash calls himself the leader of Hindus in Russia. No less. But even after 30 years in Russia, he still speaks broken Russian, which does not help him understand what is really happening between the Russian authorities and him.
“Basically, Dvorkin’s strategy is to systematically destroy religious minorities – he also attacks Islam, which my Muslim friends can attest to – through the use of defamation tactics using the internet, TV, radio and newspapers, using his connections in the Russian government (officials who tend to be hardcore Christian nationalists), and by threatening and attacking members of religious groups and so on,” Prasun told The Wire.
“He works for an ideology… we are his enemies by default,” Prasun said.
Prakash and Prasun also presented their case at a conference in Geneva at the United Nations in 2018.
A United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also took note of the plight of the Russian Hindu spiritual leader in 2018:
“In November 2017, police raided a Moscow-area Hindu spiritual centre and the home of its religious leader, Shri Prakash Ji. Although no charges were filed, Ji and his centre appear to have been targeted following accusations made against them by Russian ‘anti-cult’ activist Aleksander Dvorkin. Dvorkin is one of a large network of radical Russian Orthodox activists who have grown considerably in influence over the last 10 years due to the Russian government’s increasing patronage of the Russian Orthodox Church and the government’s Soviet-era paranoia about the subversive potential of independent religious groups.”
In a 2012 interview to website Ortho Christian, where the professor is a contributor himself, Dvorkin had said that the “communal Bharatiya Janata Party”, which is based on “religious nationalism” was the first to exploit the idea of ‘guru on export’.”
“Communalists understood that gurus who go to Western countries and their newly converted adepts play rather important political role, can be agents of influence, and bring real income. As all these gurus then come back to India, many Western people who fell in their nets come after them to see them, to live beside them and certainly bring their money with them,” he said.
Dvorkin, besides being the head of the Russian branch of FECRIS, and a professor of Church History, is also the president of the Saint Ireneus of Lyons Centre for Religious Studies, a missionary faculty department of the university – an NGO, as Dvorkin put it – as well as a member of various boards of anti-cult organisations, including the Open Minds Foundation, for which part of the mission statement reads:
“Teach people how to protect themselves from being unduly influenced by and falling prey to predators, and coercive groups…creating programs to help people recover from institutionalised undue influence.”
But FECRIS, the Europe-wide counter-cult agency, is big brother to various smaller organisations in the continent. The fact that it is publicly funded by the French government raises several questions.
Thierry Valle, the president of CAP Freedom of Conscience, a French NGO that has been dedicated to freedom of religion and belief for 20 years, told The Wire: “Since its creation in 1994, FECRIS has been financed by the French government, despite it being a secular state. In 2018, the financing of the French state represented more than 92% of the budget of FECRIS.”
A 2012 case study by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) says the funding from France “places in doubt the French government’s neutrality regarding religious freedom”.
At a conference in Geneva in January 2018, several experts also argued for France to stop funding FECRIS, urging the country “cease sponsoring such gross violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
One of the speakers, Eric Roux, of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom (EIFRF), said, “When a country like France adopts a specific but controversial policy, other countries may think it is legitimate to follow suit and then they do worse. By financing groups like FECRIS, France sends the message to the rest of the world: ‘You can discriminate and persecute religious minorities because that is what we, the cradle of human rights, do’.”
FECRIS’ aim “according to its bylaws”, is to “identify as a sect/cult or a guru the organisation or the individual which misuses beliefs and behavioural techniques for his own benefit”.
FECRIS also obtained consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN in 2009, and thus has access to the UN in New York, Geneva and Vienna. It organises several conferences every year in various countries, you can read an account of the content of one such event held in Paris in May 2019 here.
The plight of Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses
FECRIS aided the Russian Orthodox Church and the government to successfully outlaw the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and drive their institutions from Russia. Dvorkin himself played a key role: a leaked WikiLeaks cable talks of how Dvorkin had “initiated a campaign to discredit Jehovah’s Witness members in the public eye” and had “appeared on TV and accused Jehovah’s Witnesses of committing macabre crimes”.
In 2017, Russia had labelled Jehovah’s Witnesses an “extremist” group and begun a long campaign of persecution that still persists today. As a result, over 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were left at the mercy of mass raid, forcing as many as 5,000 to flee the country.
In May, the Memorial civil rights group which monitors human rights in Russia, said that 75 Jehovah’s Witnesses had been detained and charged with extremism between February and May this year – pushing the number of members persecuted under Russia’s criminal law to 154.
Memorial itself has also been repeatedly attacked by Russia’s Justice Ministry and was declared a “foreign agent” in 2016. It has also been forced to suffer inspection after inspection based on information received from “unknown” sources. Under Russian law, any NGO that takes part in “political activity” and receives money from abroad must declare itself as a “foreign agent”.
Dvorkin also gave an interview in a 2009 documentary called Emergency Investigation: Jehovah’s Witnesses, in which he compared them to drug dealers and called them “slaves”.
He was also the hand behind a recent ban on yoga classes in prisons after he published an academic paper warning of how yoga can lead to sexual arousal, which in turn can lead to homosexual contact between inmates. The cause was quickly picked up by Yelena Mizulina, a parliament member who has proposed a variety of anti-gay bills, and classes in prison were temporarily dismissed.
Dvorkin and his followers also get fuel for the fire from Russia Spiritual Security concept, which was defined by the Putin administration in 2000 as:
“Assurance of the Russian Federation’s national security also includes protecting the cultural and spiritual-moral legacy and the historical traditions and standards of public life, and preserving the cultural heritage of all Russia’s peoples. There must be a state policy to maintain the population’s spiritual and moral welfare, prohibit the use of airtime to promote violence or base instincts, and counter the adverse impact of foreign religious organisations and missionaries.”
HRWF and other organisations have recommended that:
“The United Nations deprive FECRIS of its ECOSOC status as its vice-president, Alexander Dvorkin, supports Russia’s ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the prohibition of any of their individual and collective religious activities,
The French government stops financing FECRIS.”
The Dvorkin files
Delving into Dvorkin’s past brought up some interesting details: He was initially part of the hippie movement in Russia while studying Moscow in Russia and was finally expelled from the Moscow Pedagogical Institute in 1975, before eventually landing in the United States in 1977.
After graduating from Hunter College in Russian Literature, Dvorkin landed at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York, and graduated with a Master of Divinity in 1983. From there on, he got a doctorate, worked for a short while at the Voice of America in Washington before becoming a subdeacon at the Washington St. Nicholas Cathedral.
Upon his return to Russia in 1991, Dvorkin became regular on radio and television and wrote several books on cults. Since then, not just Hindus, but Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, the Salvation Army, Mormons, Falun Gong and Scientologists have been on his radar.
Over the years, he’s won a fair share of critics. For instance, here’s how Religious Freedom Watch describes Dvorkin:
“Dvorkin’s mandate is spreading hate propaganda about religious groups. He manipulates information, pulling quotes out of context in order to create “alarming” stories. He then uses his position in the Moscow Patriarchy to circulate this disinformation on government and official lines…”
In a video, various professors and experts on religion from around the world criticise Dvorkin’s methodology. As one expert put it: “He creates his own ‘facts’, which is very dangerous.” You can watch the video here.
The backlash against Dvorkin has also been immense. For one, hackers allegedly leaked several personal files, including one with details of a psychological evaluation on a site called fecris.net, which is among the first links Google shows on searching for FECRIS.
Another website published Dvorkin’s explanation of the psychological evaluation: “I was a hippie in 1974 and at that time many of us claimed mental instability in order to avoid the draft.”
According to gazetaprotestant.ru: “After a month in a psychiatric hospital (which was standard procedure), he was recognised as unstable and unfit to serve in the army. Practically all the [revelations] these hackers are now distributing stem from that hospital stay. Someone had illegally obtained access to these hospital documents and forged some.”
The heat is on
After police raids were conducted on Prakash’s apartment and ashram in November 2017, the matter was even mentioned in parliament by state Duma deputy of the Communist Party, V.F. Rashkin, who said that Dvorkin had deliberately created the “conflict”.
“Relations between our country and India have been the most friendly since Soviet times. We need friendship and peace… If this is Dvorkin’s personal attitude, he incites hatred, and it’s very bad. But if it’s not Dvorkin who is involved, but someone else, it is even worse,” he said.
In March that very same year, Rashkin has asked various government bodies to “check Dvorkin’s activities for extremism”.
According to Prasun, “radical nationalists of the orthodoxy” have been triggered more and more against his father and his devotees since the court win. “Right now they are attacking the businesses of my father’s disciples. This has resulted in great public outcry from Hindu businessmen who live in Russia,” he said.
“But I am sure we will fight the injustice till the end. If you have the will, then you can change anything,” Prasun said.