FAIRFIELD – A riot Tuesday morning near Fairfield has raised concerns about a program that has brought thousands of Indian men to Iowa for meditation.
More than 300 men, mostly from India, live in a fenced-off campus adjacent to Vedic City, north of Fairfield. The pandits, pronounced “pundits”, are religious men trained in meditating for peace.
But when program leaders removed one of their members early Tuesday for undisclosed disciplinary reasons, more than 60 men swarmed a law enforcement truck, threw rocks at the sheriff and started a march down a public street.
“I’ve never seen them this incensed before,” said Jefferson County Sheriff Greg Morton, who had been called to the campus to assist with removal of the member. He retreated to his truck when pandits started throwing rocks and witnessed the group break off his side mirrors, rock the truck and throw a rock through the back window.
Morton drove out of the mob and leaders eventually convinced the group to go back to the campus, but with less restraint on Morton's part, things could have been much worse, he said. Deadly even.
“We know there’s a problem there,” he said.
Pandit campus leaders, who are affiliated with the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, downplayed the incident Wednesday.
“There is no reason anyone should feel any fear,” said Bill Goldstein, legal counsel for Global Country for World Peace.
Goldstein helps the pandits secure R-1 visas to come to Iowa for two to three years for concentrated meditation and recitation of Sanskrit sounds. The men are paid $200 a month, with $150 of that routed back to their families. More than 2,000 pandits have spent time in the program since 2007.
The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office has had few problems at the campus beyond frequent false alarms to 911 because the numbers are similar to the country code used to call India, Morton said.
Goldstein would not say Wednesday why leaders chose to remove one of the members and send him back to India. That decision was postponed after the riot and the man was returned to the campus.
“He was taken back so we can conduct a review,” Goldstein said. “We will address this situation so it doesn’t happen again.”
The incident has renewed suspicion some Fairfield residents have about the university and Vedic City, both founded on the principles of Transcendental Meditation, introduced in India in the 1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The university was started in Iowa in 1973.
“I’m not impressed with the whole university,” said Patty Ledger, whose farm is so close to the pandit campus they can hear the men chanting on quiet evenings.
Ledger’s neighbors have complained about pandits walking rural roads, approaching houses and stopping cars. Ledger’s son reported being hailed by two pandits on a country road near the campus, she said.
“They said ‘Don’t send me back’, ‘Two dollars’ and ‘Chicago’,” Ledger said.
Bob Palm, who lives near Vedic City, said Tuesday’s riot has caused fear. “If they will attack an armed officer of the law, those of us who live up there are a little worried,” he said.
While there is distrust in the community, many Fairfield residents appreciate the multicultural influence the MUM has brought to a small Iowa town, said Jefferson County Attorney Tim Dille.
“With 10,000 people, we have more vegetarian restaurants than anyone else,” he said.Still, Dille is concerned by comments he’s seen on social media and elsewhere about Tuesday’s riot. “From what I’m gathering on Facebook and other places, there are some very strong opinions,” he said. “People are extremely upset.”