Hindus challenge planning decision in Strasbourg: Michael Fathers on an unholy row in Hertfordshire

First Edition

THE PRESIDENT of the temple is Akhandadhi Das, 37, otherwise known as Mr Fleming. A native of Belfast, he should know a few things about communal tension.

He has his hands full at the moment because Hertsmere Borough Council in Hertfordshire has imposed an enforcement notice that prevents Hindus from publicly practising their religion anywhere near Pickett's Manor, a mock Tudor house that once belonged to George Harrison. They have until 1994 to obey or quit the premises.

The case ended its seven-year journey through the English courts in March and has now transferred to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Manor, in Letchmore Heath, a hamlet near Watford, is British headquarters of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, to you and me the old Hare Krishna movement of the Sixties and Seventies.

More importantly it contains a shrine to Krishna - the incarnation of that greatest of Hindu gods, Vishnu - and Rama, maintained with all the proper ritual. Consequently it brings in devotees by the coachloadsfor important Hindu festivals.

This weekend is Krishna's birthday, the biggest of them all. There must have been between 10,000-15,000 people in the grounds on Friday.

At first, in the Seventies, Hertsmere Council and the residents of Letchmore Heath sought to control the crowds by agreeing to six 'events' a year involving more than 1,000 people.

But in 1985 an Australian businessman and Hare Krishna follower bought another house nearby. Soon afterwards, two Hindu women bought the village shop. The word went out that 'Harrys and Hindus' were taking over Letchmore Heath.

A year later the council issued its first enforcement notice scrapping the six events and banning all public worship and festivals. The argument was traffic, crowds and noise.

From then on it was all downhill as attempts to find an alternative site for the temple got entangled in planning law. The council now says that it can do nothing until the 1994 deadline has passed. The 'Harrys' hope the problem may be overcome if they are allowed to build a private road to the manor bypassing Letchmore Heath.

(Photograph omitted)