London: Satya Sai Baba, one of India's best known spiritual leaders, has triggered a fresh controversy in Britain after association with The Duke of Edinburgh's Award charity involving young people.
The Duke of Edinburgh's Award is a London-headquartered charity whose patron is Prince Philip. It gives three kinds of awards (bronze, silver and gold) to anyone aged between 14-25 for achievements in four categories: community service, skills, physical recreation and expeditions.
Each year it is estimated that over 2,25,000 youngsters vie for the honour in Britain alone.
This year, when the charity celebrates its 50th year, it has chosen to send about 200 young volunteers to India to work with the Sri Satya Sai Organisation.
However, the feat, pulled off by Sai Youth UK, a division of the parent body, has created a furore.
Several people, including some of the Satya Sai Baba's former Western disciples, questioned the decision in view of the mixed reputation the godman enjoys. Sai devotees however, deny the allegations.
The Guardian was the first to raise its voice saying the award scheme had chosen as its accredited partner a spiritual group "whose 'living god' founder has been accused of sexually abusing young boys".
Satya Sai Baba hit bad press in Britain two years ago when a BBC programme, The Secret Swami, interviewed young Western disciples who alleged that the godman had sexually coerced them.
The Guardian quoted Tom Sackville, a former Home Office minister and chairman of Fair, a cult-watching and victim support group, as saying: "It is appallingly naive for the award scheme to involve young people and the royal family with an organisation whose leader is accused of paedophilia. Parents who plan to send their children on this pilgrimage... should be aware of the danger their children are being exposed to."
The daily also said Michael Gave, a conservative MP, planned to write to the charity to say it should monitor the organisations they chose as partners more strictly.
"As a society we need a more determined effort to identify and expose those religious cults and extremists that pose a direct threat to people, so that they do not enjoy patronage that should be directed elsewhere," he was quoted as saying.
In the 1990s, when Prince Charles visited India, he had expressed a desire to visit the Sai Baba but was quietly dissuaded by the British Embassy in New Delhi.
Since the Guardian article, it was reported that there was mounting pressure on the charity to distance itself from the Sai group.
However, charity spokesperson Shona Taylor did not answer repeated queries as to whether the volunteers had left for India and how they could be contacted.