Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

No Love for Kazak Krishnas

Religious group subjected to growing hostility from officials and ordinary people alike.
By Aitken Kadyrbekov

Followers of the Hare Krishna movement in Kazakstan say it is being victimised by police and unfairly depicted as fanatics in the press.


The group has won little sympathy beyond its immediate followers in Kazakstan, and is the target of suspicion and hostility from officials, bigger religious groups, media and the general public.


In the latest incident, Hare Krishna member Seit Sadykbekov was fined 150 US dollars and deported on July 19 for violating residence regulations in Almaty. Although migration officials later confirmed that Sadykbekov, a Kyrgyz national, did have the right to be in Kazakstan, the Kazak police authority did not relent.


The movement’s leader in Kazakstan, 39-year-old Shri Hare – originally Sergei Kornilov – says the case is typical of official prejudice towards recently arrived religious groups such as the Krishnas.


“This prejudice manifests itself with regard to everything we do,” he told IWPR.


The authorities have kept a particularly close eye on the farm which the Hare Krishna commune runs in Karasai district, just outside Almaty. Group supporters say people there have been threatened, sued and deported.


In April, the local authorities tried to close the commune on a technicality, claiming in a lawsuit that as the Krishna movement was formally registered as a city organisation it could not operate in the countryside. But although they won the case, a higher court later overturned the ruling because the farm had been given to the group as a donation.


Now Shri Hare says that police are screening anyone who wants to buy properties around the farm so as to stop the Krishna followers acquiring any more land.


“Everyone who wants to buy a dacha [summer house] close to our farm has to provide the local police department with a letter signed by people who know them – neighbours, for example,” said Shri Hare. “Only then are they allowed to go ahead with the purchase.”


Local dacha owners confirmed that this was happening. “The authorities don’t want to see Hare Krishna acquiring more land, getting more powerful and expanding its influence among the local population,” said one resident who asked to remain anonymous.


When IWPR approached the police to ask about the practice, they refused either to confirm or to deny it.


The Hare Krishna movement - more properly the International Society for Krishna Consciousness - has grown to about 500 members in Kazakstan since 1989 when it first appeared.


They tend to be young and from poorer families. Although they do charitable work such as providing meals for underprivileged groups, they have won few friends by devoting themselves to the group to the exclusion of their families.


The group’s isolation and its recruitment of young people from Kazakstan’s two mainstream faiths - Islam and Orthodox Christianity - has exposed it to growing hostility from officials and ordinary people alike.


“This religious group has definitely been subject to a wave of negative press from both print and electronic media,” said Amangeldy Shormanbaev, who acts as lawyer for the commune.


The state Kazakstanskaya Pravda newspaper, for example, has described the movement as “antisocial elements such as hippies and drug addicts”, whose teaching damages people’s minds.


According to Shormanbaev, this kind of negative publicity, together with the police harassment, followed last year’s attempt by the Kazak parliament to amend the law on religion. All religious organisations were to be placed under the control of the official Islamic or Orthodox structures. Although this move was supposed to be a response to the threat from Muslim extremists, human rights groups said other minority religions were also being targeted.


The bill was eventually rejected, but Hare Krishna member say they still face abuse.


“Drunks are always coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re young and healthy, but here you are begging for alms, dressed like an idiot, and trying to make us depart from the faith of our forebears’,” said commune member Namachareya Das.


Das says that several of his colleagues have been attacked by private security guards while collecting alms outside shops.


“They say we’re not allowed to be on the path outside their shop. When we tell them it’s public property and anyone can walk on it, they start threatening us,” he said.


“One of our brothers was beaten up last month in front of a shop in the city centre.”


After such incidents, Hare Krishna members refuse to go to the authorities for help because it is against their beliefs. But they say they would not be averse to the police doing more to look after their rights.


Although the group is tolerated if not loved by the government, it has little chance of airing its views in mainstream publications. There was thus something of a scandal when it was recently discovered that a textbook used in secondary schools across Kazakstan was apparently the work of a Hare Krishna devotee.


The book, a biography of the most important Kazak poet, Abai, claimed that he was in fact the country’s first Hare Krishna adherent – and that people should follow his example.


This is fairly controversial stuff, considering Abai is a national icon in Kazakstan, and was a Muslim like most Kazaks. What is more surprising is that the book has sat in school libraries for nearly five years, presumably because education officials never read it before approving it for use.


A group of literary heavyweights has now demanded that the book be withdrawn from schools.


Aitken Kadyrbekov is a journalist with Nachnyom s Ponedelnika newspaper in Almaty.