Ahmedabad, August 10: For the phenomenally influential religious guru, Asaram Bapu, his 37-year-long spiritual career had never been a cakewalk and the four mysterious deaths in his ashramss here and in Madhya Pradesh and the public ire he has been courting are only the latest that he hopes to shrug off.
His spiritual domain is spread across 300 ashrams throughout India, as also in the US, with lakhs of his followers and admirers flooding his commune with funds. Sixty-seven-year-old Bapu has even delivered a speech at the parliament of world religions.
Few controversies connected with his ashrams have invited media attention the way the deaths of four children in his two ashrams — in Ahmedabad and Chhindwara — did in just one month. His ashram, in both the cases, is facing serious problems, with investigators finally getting down to grilling inmates of the ashrams in connection with the deaths.
Asaram Bapu may not have had to look back ever since he set up his first kutia or hutment in Motera village here in 1971, but the path had all along been strewn with scandals.
Sindh-born Asaram, who had migrated to Ahmedabad with his parents during Partition, is facing about dozen-odd cases at different places — all of them pertaining to alleged land grabbing by his Sant Asaram Bapu Trust. One of the villagers in Motera, Ashok Thakore, has moved the court to get back five acres of his family’s land allegedly grabbed by the ashram. According to Thakore, the land is situated adjoining the ashram and was used for erecting tents on the Guru Purnima day. Permission to this effect was given by his father to the ashram. After his father’s death, the ashram grabbed it by saying that Thakore’s father had ‘gifted’ it to the ashram. However, the ashram has not been able to substantiate its claim with proofs.
In another case, Anil Vyas, a farmer from Jehangirpura village near Surat, where the ashram is facing several allegations of land grabbing, is fighting a prolonged battle for recovery of his 34,400 square metres of prime land from the ashram. According to Vyas, despite the fact that the ashram’s claim over the land was challenged in the court, the state Government regularised the unauthorised encroachment on January 24, 1997. However, the Gujarat High Court on December 8, 2006, held the regularisation illegal and decreed in favour of the farmer. The Ashram then appealed to the Division Bench against the order.
A Delhi-based widow, Sudarshan Kumari, is also fighting a legal battle against Asaram Bapu whose Trust, she alleges, had fraudulently got some papers signed by her. The paper later turned out to be a ‘gift deed’ to the ashram. The documents say that she has gifted the ground floor of her house in Rajouri Garden, New Delhi, to the ashram. According to her complaint, on July 6, 2000, on the pretext of taking her to Asaram satsang, she was taken to the office of Sub Registrar in Janakpuri, New Delhi. One of the inmates of the ashram, identified as Mani Kaka, hypnotised her and made her sign a number of documents, without allowing her to go through the content. The other person who signed the papers there, according to her, was Narayan Swamy, son of Asaram Bapu. She came to know about the gift deed when officials from the Municipal Committee of Delhi came to confirm it.
The ashram authorities at Rajokri village, near Gurgaon, have allegedly forged documents pertaining to the registration of the ashram. Bhagwani Devi, a resident of Rajokri, has also approached the Delhi High Court levelling allegations of land grabbing against Asaram’s Rajokri ashram.
Even Government agencies have levelled allegations of land grabbing against Asaram’s Trust. A few months ago, the Bihar State Board of Religious Trusts (BSBRT) had served a notice to the Trust’s headquarters in Ahmedabad, asking it to vacate a land belonging to BSBRT, worth Rs 80 crore. And in April 2007, a retired judge of the Patna High Court had filed a criminal complaint in Kadamkuan police station, Patna, alleging grabbing of his land by Asaram Bapu and others.
In Ratlam, Asaram’s Trust had to vacate a piece of land after a prolonged litigation. In January 2007, power theft amounting to Rs 4.7 lakh was detected from his Rajkot ashram.
Despite all these cases and allegations, Asaram Bapu’s popularity is on the rise — particularly among the ruling party politicians in the state. “It is due to the clout of Asaram that no criminal case was registered against any of his ashram-members nor was anyone from the ashram arrested after the two boys of his gurukuls died under mysterious circumstances,” said a rebel BJP leader, requesting anonymity.
The popularity of Asaram can be gauged from the fact that his photographs can be spotted in every government office across the state and even state transport corporation’s buses display his photos and messages.
When the Gujarat Government in 2005 decided to rejuvenate the Saraswati river by filling long tracts of land considered to be the vestiges of the mythical river at Sidhpur town in Mehsana district, Asaram Bapu was the chief guest at the launch of the project. Though there are other religious leaders in the state, inviting him to such a high-profile programme as the chief guest explains the popularity of the man among the ruling party.
Again, when the state Government temporarily launched Vande Gujarat TV channel, telecasting its developmental achievements on the eve of December 2007 Assembly polls, the channel regularly carried footages of Asaram Bapu.
This explains the clout of Asaram Bapu whose religious movement has taken the shape of a cult, having followers in every section of the society. With his influence growing, there are many politicians, including Minister of State for Home Amit Shah, visiting his ashram regularly.
Senior BJP leader L K Advani is also believed to be one of the regular visitors to the ashram. The Ashram manager in Ahmedabad, Arvind Patel, is a senior BJP functionary.