2013-09-07 , Issue 36 Volume 10
Once his name is mentioned, almost everybody seems to have an Asaram Bapu story. A popular Bollywood director known for his comedies with a message recalls how Asaram’s men were after him to get him to popularise the idea of celebrating Matri Pitri pujan diwas, Bapu’s brainwave to counter Valentine’s Day, even offering to fly him to “locations” in the ashram’s chartered planes.
A prominent foreign tour operator recalls how a group of clients insisted on making a payment of several lakhs through Dubai and confided, after a sundowner too many, that the hawala transaction was done through “Asaram’s ashram channel”, only to laugh away the conversation in the morning.
One of 400-odd shopkeepers of Revdi Bazaar, an Ahmedabad market originally meant for Sindhi refugees from Pakistan, whispers that “Asaram’s crores” keep circulating in loans to businessmen, at interest rates ranging from 1.5-4 percent a month, depending on the amount and the paying capacity of the borrower.
Then, of course, there are the devout and the renegade. Neelam Dubey, Asaram’s PRO in Delhi, gushes that Bapu freed her from “the habit of drinking 35 cups of tea daily”. Virendra Mehta of Rohtak memorised all 80,000 words of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary along with their page numbers to find a mention in the Limca Records after “receiving mantra-initiation” from Asaram. If these seem like minor miracles, a paralysed OP Mall, chairman of Howrah ( jute) Mills, apparently walked out of an Indore nursing home to attend Asaram’s discourse.
Shantibhai and Praful Vaghela, who admitted a son each at Asaram’s Sabarmati ashram only to recover their hollowed corpses by the river, accuse the godman, his son Narayan Sai and the ashram management of conducting black magic. Amrut Prajapati, Asaram’s personal physician of 10 years, accuses him of sexually exploiting women. Raju Chandok, Asaram’s secretary who fell apart with him, accuses Bapu of plotting the assassination attempt he survived. Mahendra Chawla, who looked after Narayan’s accounts, accuses him of forgery in land deals.
But even as charges piled up, nothing seemed to hamper Asaram’s phenomenal rise as one of India’s foremost gurus with millions of devotees and the biggest landholdings. “For us who have followed his activities from time to time, it is very difficult to escape a sense of something sinister about his operations,” says a veteran journalist in Ahmedabad. “This time, he seems to be somewhat vulnerable. But then, you never know.”
Indeed, few seem to know enough about Asaram, the guru, or his past. Those who do are either his own men careful not to reveal anything beyond his public persona, or people who know better than to offend the man they know so well.
THE LEGAL cell at the Motera ashram was working overtime. Minutes ago, Asaram had left for the airport to shift base to Indore. The day before — three days after a 15-year-old girl accused the “self-realised saint” of raping her — he had held a brief satsang to dub the charge a conspiracy. But his key aides in white robes were feeling the heat of an unrelenting media.
On the other side of the phone, Asaram’s chief media manager Dr Sunil Wankhade had sounded reluctant, wondering if he could trust the press not to hurt the ashram’s interests. Face to face, he asked me if I would “do sting” on the ashram. Soon, his obvious scepticism gave way to desperation and he called for help from the legal cell.
“He will do a big magazine story, cover story,” Dr Wankhade informed Vikas Khemka who had just joined us with an incessantly ringing mobile phone. “We do not give time to the sold-out media. Bapuji doesn’t care what they write or show. You will not distort our words, will you?”
My nod made Khemka draw closer to ask me if I went to Delhi University. “No? I did. BCom honours, in 1993.” Dr Wankhade intervened to underline that Khemka’s family was into “big business” and that he had given up a “monthly income of lakhs” to serve Bapuji. “We are not uneducated, ordinary people here…”
Khemka’s mobile rang yet again and this time he promptly took the call. “Kya bola channel? Bhag gaya bola? S****…!” he asked Wankhade to make someone fall in line with a “defamation threat” and “Jo bhi karo (whatever it takes)”. Then he picked up the conversation from where he had left it. “…And yet people talk about black magic and all that.”
In the next couple of hours, the two of them made an elaborate defence of Asaram. “Tell me, can anyone encroach upon a riverfront? We planted trees, checked erosion and put up pandals for a few days during Guru purnima (Asaram’s birthday) when lakhs of devotees need space. In Surat, we built a park by the river,” explained Khemka.
He dismissed “Chandok, Prajapati and Chawla” as “opportunistic, corrupt people” out to malign Bapu’s name. “How can Bapu harm anyone, even these people, when he always says ‘sabka bhala’? Yesterday, he asked devotees to take care of even this Jodhpur girl,” said Khemka.
But the highlight of his defence was the Supreme Court ruling that turned down the demand for a CBI inquiry into the death of two ashram students and modified the charge against seven ashram officials, including Khemka himself, from culpable homicide to causing death by negligence. “More than 90,000 children go missing in India; 30,000 for good.”
After the bodies of two students — Dipesh and Abhishek — were found in July 2008 by the Sabarmati river close to Asaram’s ashram, with internal organs missing, it took the state government more than two weeks to initiate a CID probe. Blaming media for the “harassment”, Khemka explained that they “might be guilty of failing to look after the boys, but were in no way responsible for what happened after the two ran away or were abducted”.
Dipesh’s father Praful Vaghela claims that only a CBI probe would have revealed how the boys went missing systematically as part of dark rituals performed at the ashram. “It took Asaram three years to appear before the (DK) Trivedi Commission and even when he appeared, he behaved as if he were delivering sermons. The case is still open and the commission report (submitted on 1 August) has not been made public yet,” he says.
But wouldn’t other parents have also complained if their sons went missing in the past? Vaghela nods. “Call it hypnotism or helplessness or whatever you will. Most of Asaram’s followers have absolute faith in him. When two boys were found dead in his Chhindwara ashram, soon after our tragedy, the parents of the first victim refused to press charges.”
The two five-year-old Chhindwara boys in question, Ram Krishna Yadav and Vedant Manmodhe, were found dead in a bathroom in Gurukunj. Despite the mass outrage, Ram Krishna’s parents Mohanlal and Manorama blamed the loss on their destiny. “It’s our fate that we lost our son.” Within a week, the police claimed to have solved the case by arresting a “mentally unstable” Class IX student for the twin murders, dismissing his parents’ plea that their son was made a scapegoat.
Apart from these high-profile cases, detractors point out more than a dozen instances of murder that apparently led to Asaram Bapu. For example, Sandhya, a teacher at the same Chhindwara Gurukul, died under suspicious circumstances. Vashi, who worked for ashram publication Rishi Prasad, was apparently killed for protesting against his sister’s sexual exploitation. The death of a 10-year-old Gurukul student from Muzaffarnagar was blamed on suicide. No FIR was lodged when Zandu alias Narender, the head of Asaram’s Virangham ashram near Ahmedabad, was found dead. But the details in these allegations remain sketchy.
“Asaram believes in catching them young — the younger the better — for a thorough brainwashing,” says ayurveda physician Prajapati, who was picked up by Kota Police from Ahmedabad on 22 August in connection with what he claims is a false case of cheating. “He can be ruthless when it goes wrong. I asked Chandok to give up two-wheelers before he was shot at. Chawla uses only public transport. We fear for our lives.”
AT THE ashram, Khemka had returned to the legal cell. I watched a flurry of activities — media updates pouring in, sevaks shouting commands or brainstorming in a huddle — until Wankhade was back after offering a lengthy byte to a TV channel “with a good viewership in the Gulf”. He looked smug. “Their TRP goes up when we give exclusives. Now all other channels will call up asking what their fault was.” Then, he asked me to take down what he had memorised from Jivan Jhanki, a handbook on Asaram’s biography.
Asaram was born Asumal on 17 April 1941 in Sindh (now in Pakistan) to Thaumal Sirumalani and his “consort” Mehgiba. Like the three wise men who showed up at Bethlehem, a stranger apparently visited Asumal’s family the day he was born to gift ajhoola (swing) because “the day before, all of a sudden, he had a strong feeling that a great saintly child shall be born in Thaumalji’s family”.
The family moved to Gujarat after Partition. Asaram studied until Class III but was considered a brilliant student with a remarkable memory. After his father’s death, he “unknowingly” attained “all Siddhis” and fled to a Bharuch ashram. Brought back, he married Lakshmi Devi. They have a son Narayan Sai, Asaram’s heir apparent, and a daughter Bharati, whose “husband left her and the country after discovering the family’s secrets”.
Soon after his marriage, Asaram left home, with his wife’s permission, to attain god. He met a number of gurus, including a prophetic one who blessed him to be a millionaire. Asaram’s quest was rewarded when he impressed Lilashahji Maharaj in Vrindavan. Eventually, Lilashahji would advise him to stay a householder. After attaining self-realisation, he spent seven years in seclusion and started his Ahmedabad ashram in 1971.
What his official biography does not mention is that Asaram found shelter for two years in Motera’s Sadashiv Ashram before setting up a hutment of his own in the adjoining land. Even today, the sprawling Asaram ashram shares its boundary with the humble Sadashiv Ashram that Asaram’s men tried to grab after Sadashiv’s death. They did not succeed due to strong resistance from local villagers who were later implicated in false cases.
What the official biography does not mention, points out a veteran businessman who claims to know “Gujarat’s Sindhi samaj”, is that Asaram used to run a tea stall by the main bus stand at Visnagar near Mehsana and used it as a front to peddle illicit liquor. A couple of old-timers confirmed that a young Asaram was considered a “miscreant of sorts” in Maninagar, Ahmedabad. But even afterwards, the guru does not seem to have mended his ways.
In August 2002, the Income Tax Department raided 20 premises of a prominent jewellery chain in New Delhi and found a huge cache of unexplained stock. Sources claim that Asaram invested several crores in the jewellery chain, which indulged in “out of book sales” and bogus exports. They apparently imported gold under a duty-free scheme for designing jewellery meant solely for export but sold it without billing in the local market. The profits were invested in real estate.
“Probably, it was the aspiration of a landless refugee that made him value land so. Then it became big business,” says a Mumbai real estate agent of Asaram. In this quest, too, Asaram targeted the most vulnerable: the old and infirm who were duped in the name of devotion to sign deeds gifting their land to the ashram. Even temporary possession was enough to claim the land for good.
In 2002, for example, some Asaram followers approached Bhagwani Devi, a devotee in Delhi’s Rajokri, to donate some of her property to the trust. She agreed but Asaram’s men forged the power of attorney and transferred all her land to the trust. The matter eventually reached the court but the guru was not summoned.
In 2001, Asaram’s Yog Vedanta Samiti took permission to use the premises of the Mangalya temple in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, for just 11 days to hold a satsang. They are still in possession of the 100 acres worth over Rs 700 crore. This January, the Serious Fraud Investigation Office initiated action against the Samiti.
Panipat resident Mahendra Chawla was indoctrinated by Asaram in 1995, became his son Narayan’s personal secretary by 2001 and left the ashram in 2005. Three years later, when the murder charges came up against the ashram, Chawla alleged that Narayan had forged his signatures in 2005 to register a new trust, Bal Yogi Narayan Sai Sansthan. When he confronted Narayan, Chawla claimed, he was “locked up, beaten mercilessly and made to sign five blank papers”. Even after leaving the ashram, Chawla was apparently threatened by Narayan.
According to Chawla’s statements, Asaram’s ashram was also involved in hawala and manufacturing spurious ayurvedic medicines. Besides, whatever food, clothes and other items were donated to his ashrams were subsequently sold by the sevaks and the money was never accounted for. Several lakhs were collected in donation for each satsang — in 2011, for example, more than 200 satsangs were held — and the money transported in Asaram’s personal helicopter. However, the Virar Police, Maharashtra, found nothing actionable in the allegations.
Detractors maintain that the guru’s clout across political lines made him tide over strong public sentiment against his ashrams in Gujarat and MP, particularly in 2008-10. Agrees a political observer who has “nothing personal” against Asaram. “Though he is aligned with the Sangh for obvious reasons, his real growth happened in Gujarat and MP during the Congress rule. Modi is probably the only CM who does not care much about him. That said, the ashram activities got a boost after 2001 when Asaram indoctrinated 20,000 students in Ahmedabad alone.”
To be fair, Asaram’s biggest political assets during his rapid rise included former PM AB Vajpayee and LK Advani, a fellow Sindhi-born. Given his influence on the Sindhi-Marwari communities, the chief ministers of all the Hindi heartland states have handled him with care. The guru enjoys enough backing in the forces and the bureaucracy across the states.
Yet, with Modi issuing a whip on 28 August to restrain party leaders from defending Asaram, the political consensus against him is finally building up. With little political stake in the states that are Asaram’s stronghold, parties such as JD(U), BSP and the Left are aggressively questioning if Asaram is above the law.
In fact, he is not. While most charges of usurping private properties against Asaram and his ashrams are tangled in legal knots, the guru has quite a humble record at defending his encroachments on State land. The metro rail project is coming up on Sabarmati bank where the state revenue department authorities in January 2010 cleared the encroachment of 67,099 sq m land by his Motera ashram.
In November that year, the administration demolished ashram constructions on six acres of encroached land in Bhairavi village of Navsari district. This year, the Sabarkantha district administration served notice to Asaram’s son to vacate nearly 70 hectares of agricultural land in the villages of Pedhmala, Gambhoi and Rajpur that he had acquired by falsely claiming that he was a farmer.
In 1977, the state government acquired agricultural lands along the Tapi river for building embankments and a drinking water project. After a satsang in 1984, Asaram’s ashram occupied a stretch of this land and “regularised” the encroachment in just three weeks through its influence over the then revenue minister Atmaram Patel. The farmers raised objection in 2004 and the Gujarat High Court returned the land to the state in 2006.
Outside Gujarat, Asaram’s illegal claim over 13.5 katthas of land was rejected by a Bihar court in 2009 after a protracted battle with the Bihar State Board of Religious Trusts, which eventually got possession of the plot. In Odisha this May, the Cuttack Municipal Corporation razed an Asaram ashram built illegally in the city.
In none of these cases, Asaram tried to resist the state once he lost the legal battle. “Land cases won’t make much of a dent in his empire,” says a retired police officer in Indore. “He anyway controls too much land and losing a few acres doesn’t worry him. Also, the cases of those children’s deaths never implicated him directly. His only potential vulnerability has always been his weakness for women.”
When people line up for darshan, Asaram apparently throws a fruit or whatever is handy at a girl who catches his fancy. Women from the ashram then convince the girl and her family to send her to Asaram’s mahila ashram so that the guru can perform ananushthan with her. “If he gets his way, you can imagine what anushthan he performs,” alleges a source who directs me to Asaram’s former physician.
Prajapati says he had revived the guru from his deathbed in the mid-1990s and was given access to his bedroom every full moon to check his health. During one visit, he says he got the shock of his life. “I never questioned why a godman took insulin for thyroid. But then I got to know that his days in solitude were meant for these dirty activities. He must have violated at least a thousand women,” he alleges.
That is an astounding claim and it is difficult to imagine that the guru and his cult have the power to silence so many women. But a trader recalls Asaram attending “parties with arrangements for scented baths” at the kothis of the rich and powerful of Alwar, Rajasthan, since the mid-1990s, and vouches for his “give no margin” strategy.
“Once one becomes an ashram inmate, there is virtually no escape,” seconds a teacher who claims to have been associated with Asaram’s Chhindwara ashram. “There are still 200-odd women in various ashrams run by Asaram’s wife. Those from outside are made to toe the line by his goons. If thelakshman rekha is breached, Asaram becomes inaccessible. Didn’t he refuse darshanto the family of the Jodhpur victim when they came to meet him in Delhi after the incident?”
This time, though, the ploy did not silence the victim or her family. The tension is palpable in his camp and has already led to a few public faux pas. The owner of the Jodhpur land contradicted the ashram’s hasty claim that Asaram was not even there on Independence Day. The ashram’s Delhi PRO Dubey’s comparison of Asaram with Guru Nanak has drawn angry rebuttals from the Sikh community led by Shiromani Akali Dal’s Harsimrat Kaur. Her father-in-law and Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal did not have any qualms about getting photographed with Asaram earlier.
I can’t say I did not see such self-goals coming. After giving me an escorted tour of the ashram, Wankhade enquired about the circulation figure of this magazine. As we waited for the busy legal cell to produce prints of some case documents, he handed me a copy of a Gujarati magazine that recently did a cover story on Asaram.
“If you do a positive story for us — like this — Bapuji will tell devotees, on live TV, to buy your magazine. The circulation will double. Talk to your management,” he says, pausing to gauge my reaction. “Nobody can stop Bapuji from saying what he wants to on live TV.”
I concurred. But the law may yet catch up with him in real life.
With inputs from Ushinor Majumdar