Clouded in controversy
July 24, 2008
India’s spiritual arena is getting as murky as its political one. The latest manifestation of this was the mysterious death of two students in godman Asaram Bapu’s ashram in Ahmedabad.
Following allegations that the mysterious deaths of the boys were related to tantric rituals, Bapu’s followers went on a rampage after they were beaten up by angry locals.
They attacked journalists and burnt vehicles. Even in the past, Bapu has been known to draw controversies. His rags to riches story is also questionable and fodder for debate.
From a mechanic at a cycle shop in Ahmedabad four decades ago to a spiritual guru with two crore followers and an empire worth Rs 5,000 crore, the rise of Asaram Bapu alias Asumal Thaumal Harpalani, 68, has been truly meteoric.
He may rank a few rungs lower than other gurus when it comes to scriptures, but his wealth surpasses that of many of his contemporaries.
His empire includes hundreds of acres of land in prime locations in India’s major cities, a flourishing business of over two dozen products that includes a clutch of ayurvedic medicines, incense sticks, soaps and shampoos besides spiritual magazines that net crores of rupees for him annually.
Bapu controls his country-wide empire through 400-odd trusts, of which two main ones-Sant Shri Asaramji Ashram Trust and Sant Shri Asaramji Mahila Utthan Trust- are based in Ahmedabad.
Asaram Bapu with his followers
Fear and violence have been Bapu’s hallmark, as the attack on reporters and others displayed. His diktat is enforced by his sadhaks (disciples), some of whom have also borne the brunt of his ire when they dared speak against some questionable activities in the ashram. They were terrorised and beaten up by their own fellowmen.
The latest to be hunted out of the Ahmedabad ashram is Dinesh Bhagchandani, 32, Bapu’s former driver and man Friday. He was charged with “indecent behaviour” with a sadhika (female disciple), an allegation his friends deny. Fearing for his life, Bhagchandani has fled Ahmedabad.
More than the fear factor is the money power the guru commands. Most of the controversies involving him relate to land deals across the country involving the ashram, which has 100 major centres located on huge tracts of land besides 1,200 satsang kendras.
One of the newest imbroglio involves over 30 acres of land in Surat worth around Rs 125 crore. Bapu’s disciples have encroached upon a part of government land on the banks of the Tapi river.
The original owner from whom the Government had bought the land has moved the court pleading that if the Government’s objective of making an embankment was not accomplished and someone else is the current owner, the land should be returned to him. Incidentally, land grabbing is one of the more serious charges that Bapu faces.
Another huge chunk of agriculture land bought five years ago by Bapu and his family members—his wife Lakshmiben, son Narayan, daughter Bharati and daughter-in-law Shilpa—in Pedmala in Sabarkantha district is also entangled in a legal wrangle.
A protest against the boys’ deaths
A local whistle blower, Ramesh Choksi, has complained to the district collector that the deal is illegal because Bapu and his family members bought the land by posing as farmers (only a farmer can buy agricultural land in Gujarat, according to the law).
Choksi alleged that Bapu and his family had manipulated records to declare themselves as farmers. The collector has held Choksi’s charges to be true.
Says Choksi, “A look at the land-related court cases in which Bapu and his followers are involved across the country would show that they are one of the biggest land grabbers in India. The Government should blacklist them and seize all their lands.
“Even Bapu’s 15-acre Ahmedabad ashram is clouded in controversy because the gurukul building on its premises is illegal. Not just that, the ashram land at Karol Bagh in Delhi and the 25-acre proposed ashram in Rajokri village near Delhi are also wrapped in court cases. We have had a very bad experience from Bapu’s disciples,” says Ohmvir Singh Chauhan, thakur of Panched near Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh.
According to Chauhan, in the early ’90s Bapu’s disciples encroached upon 26 acres of his family estate. This led to a court battle, but in the end the family had to sell the estate to the followers because it didn’t have the stomach to take on Bapu’s aggressive disciples.
Bapu’s business empire rests on the sale of over two dozen products across his satsang centres and other facilities. Insiders allege that ashram authorities manipulate records to avoid paying taxes.
The magazines—Rushiprasad, a monthly in several languages, and the fortnightly Lok Kalyan Setu, sell 14 lakh copies every month, netting around Rs 7.50 crore annually.
But the bigger grossers are the 50-odd satsang discourses Bapu delivers to his followers. Each two or three-day discourse nets Rs 1 crore via sales of associated products and what he gets from the organisers.
The biggest money spinners, however, are the three to four annual Gurupurnima functions during which Bapu receives donations running into crores of rupees.
The godman’s beginnings were humble. A non-matriculate, Bapu was born in Birani village near Nawabshah in Pakistan’s Sindh province before Partition forced his father Thaumal to flee to Ahmedabad when Bapu was seven years old.
In his 20s, he tried to seek the blessings of Leelashah Baba, who died in 1973. His ashram is in Adipur in Kutch. Says Hemant Kumar Tolani, Leelashah Baba’s disciple, “Asaram Bapu claims to be a disciple of Leelashah Baba. But the fact is that the baba never accepted him because he had severe reservations about him.”
Bapu’s ability to draw followers lies in a book called Panchamrut, a compilation of five major chapters based on Bapu’s speeches.
In one of the discourses called ‘Gurubhakti’, the book exhorts his followers to never question the guru, whether he is right or wrong.
The book compares the guru to Lord Shiva, with the threat that terrible curses would befall a disciple if he ever tries to undercut the guru or question his edict. Not stopping at that, it urges disciples to turn violent against the guru’s critics, going to the extent of even cutting off the dissidents’ tongue.
Says a former disciple of Bapu who deserted him on finding out his questionable activities: “The aim of the literature is to brainwash people so that they follow Bapu blindly and without reason.”
Another follower who parted ways with Bapu says, “His entire training process for his followers and disciples is designed to create an indelible impression in their minds that he is a divine being and therefore infallible and has to be followed by them in whatever he does, whether it is right or wrong.”
A series of well-managed pro-poor and impressive programmes, however, tend to cover up his controversial side, Bapu organises well publicised welfare programmes.
His ashrams run medical services, distribute free food grain among the poor, who form the bulk of his followers. His anti-addiction programme is also another big draw.
Not surprisingly, Bapu avoids the media when it comes to questions about the controversies. Uday Sanghani, the ashram’s spokesman, counters the charges on the godman’s behalf.
“These empty allegations about illicit land deals, money-making and violence by Bapu and his followers are a creation of those who have not been able to stomach Bapu’s rise and his acceptability among the masses as a spiritual master,” he says.
“These people are finding newer and newer ways of upsetting Bapu’s applecart. But Bapu is undisturbed by their antics as his mission is that of awakening the people at the spiritual level,” Sanghani adds.
With the controversy involving suspicious deaths and attacks on the media, the man behind the “saint” may finally be revealed.
Violence hits the streets as Asaram Bapu’s disciples and locals go on a rampage after charges of human sacrifices.
Last week when Praful Vaghela broke his fast at the insistence of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the state Government heaved a sigh of relief.
Vaghela had been on an eight-day-long fast to demand justice and a CBI probe for the deaths of his son Abhishek, 9, and nephew Dipesh, 10. He alleges that the boys were killed by tantriks in a human sacrifice at Asaram Bapu’s ashram in Ahmedabad.
Journalists protest attacks by Bapu�s followers
For almost a week, citizens, political parties, leftist organisations, social groups and common citizens had led violent protests on the streets of Ahmedabad. They torched vehicles and clashed with Bapu’s followers in a burst of frenzy whipped by public revulsion against the godman.
On July 3, the two boys had gone missing from the ashram, where they were studying. Two days later, their bodies were found in the dry bed of the Sabarmati river by locals.
One of the corpses had body parts missing, a possible indication that they had been killed in a human sacrifice as crucial body parts of children are normally used by tantriks in their rituals. The other body’s ears had been eaten away by dogs. Bapu’s initial silence over the issue only inflamed passions of local residents.
Then came the police statement that the deaths had occurred due to drowning and that the bodies had been eaten by dogs, which only added fuel to the already simmering dissent.
Bapu’s initial silence and his belated statement that there was an attempt by his enemies to create a wedge between the people and the Sant Samaj only caused further provocation.
The last straw was when rioters attacked Bapu’s followers, who retaliated by beating up journalists and residents around the ashram who had been supporting the protests.
The post-mortem report has not provided a clear reason for the deaths of the boys. It revealed that the sternum and liver of one of the boys was missing. The state Government has promised Vaghela an impartial probe.
“If I don’t get justice, I will renew my demand for a CBI probe,” says Vaghela. Till then, the suspicions and ugly rumours swirling around the ashram will continue to grow.