International Boulevard

The Unholy Godmen

The conviction of four men in New Delhi for a gang rape, and public calls for their hanging leads us to consider here the very different treatment meted out to Asaram Bapu, a prominent Hindu spiritual leader recently accused of raping the daughter of one of his devotees. India’s ‘Godmen’ are vital to right wing politics, with their enormous networks of devotees and their frequently Hindu nationalist views.
Earlier in the summer, Bapu publicly intervened in the New Delhi bus rape case when he blamed the victim for the attack, saying that she “is as guilty as her rapists.” Months later, he would be accused of rape himself. Police initially would not arrest him, and Hindu nationalist politicians spoke darkly of plots against the faith; when he was finally detained, thousands of supporters demonstrated for his release.


holi121 Asaram Bapu celebrating Holi with Devotees at Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai. Photo: Rons Bantwal, in Kemmannu News Network.

One of the first publications to accuse the police and politicians of protecting Bapu following the rape accusation was Hardnews, whose reporters pointed out the alarming contrast between his kid-glove treatment and the way the New Delhi case was being pursued.

As we go to press, it’s been almost a week since a minor girl of 15, a child, accused Asaram Bapu of sexual assault in his (un)holy chambers in Jodhpur, one of the several swanky ashrams among the insatiably huge real estate he apparently controls in India and abroad. Her father, we are told, is a devout follower of Asaram. (So this is what he does with the little children of his followers, does he? And what do they do and teach the little children in his ashrams/schools?)

She was studying in a Chhindwara school run by the self-styled ‘godman’ and she seemed to be in perfect health, until her parents were summoned and told that she was not well. In a dubious move, she was transported from Chhindwara and taken to the Jodhpur ashram of Asaram, ostensibly to be treated with some mumbo jumbo rituals by the ‘great helmsman’ himself. There, while the mother waited outside, the ‘sant’ reportedly assaulted her in his inner chambers and indulged in perverse actions with the hapless girl for almost 90 minutes. Certainly, his closest aides too must be fully in the know of this ritual of perversity.

That the child was able to express herself after undergoing the trauma, and that her parents believed her, and that they were able to muster courage to lodge a police complaint, is itself a miracle, considering the powerful social and political networks controlled by this godman. That the little girl was the first to complain, is an uncanny conjecture, and perhaps points to darker, dirtier, untold narratives.

Indeed, what happens in the secret sanctum sanctorum of these luxury cult fortresses of this mushrooming ‘baba industry’ remains a closeted mystery, and this is the case with most of these multi-millionaire businessman babas who have turned fraudulent spiritualism into a lucrative industry, operating from their diabolical dens. Cheating vulnerable and crisis-ridden people through dubious and hypnotic traps of religious consent and fake miracles has been turned into a dangerous art-form by these charlatans and fraudulent gurus. […]

Asaram and his followers have earlier been accused of organized land-grabbing, goondaism and public violence. His Motera ashram in Ahmedabad is steeped in controversy, including land-grabbing charges. In August 2008, the bodies of two children, students of Asaram’s gurukul, were found near the Sabarmati Ashram. It took almost 17 days for [prominent right wing politician Narendra]Modi’s government to order an inquiry. There were allegations that the children’s organs were missing and that they were victims of a ‘black magic’ ritual.

Almost a week had gone by and the police of four states – Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat – simply refused to move against Asaram, who was hopping on his private/chartered aircraft from Jodhpur to Ahmedabad to Indore. His main ‘controversial’ ashram is in Ahmedabad, where he was based after the crime in Jodhpur, but, ironically, Modi maintained a deafening silence, not moving one inch against the godman who is openly patronized by top politicians of the BJP [right wing Hindu nationalist party]. The Jodhpur police took their own prolonged time to investigate, even while a hesitant Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, kept on fudging.

Earlier, summons were issued to the accused. This was a total departure from precedence. They issued no summons to the accused in the Mumbai rape case, or in the Delhi gangrape case in December last year. [In those cases,] the accused were immediately arrested and then sent to police remand, while the law took its course. Surely, the law was being subverted and preferential treatment was given to the godman to protect him despite the crime and the evidence. If the police found the child’s version to be correct, then why were they protecting Asaram?

On August 27, the Jodhpur police apparently had to wait eight hours outside the Indore ashram of the accused, even while it was announced that Asaram was ‘meditating’. Even in this ashram, the police was reportedly ‘escorted’ by BJP leaders.

The BJP’s position seems even more brazenly shameful. BJP leader Uma Bharati and others came out openly in Asaram’s support, suggesting it was a “political plot”. A top BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh too put his foot in his mouth. Modi, whose PR machinery gets him to tweet or comment on everything with a high moral ground (including Sonia Gandhi’s illness during the Food Security Bill debate in Parliament), refused to utter a word. Sushma Swaraj and other BJP leaders who went to town after the Delhi gangrape protests chose to remain mum.

The Congress regimes in Rajasthan, and at the Centre, too, chose to play their cards much too close to the chest. It reeked of opportunism and complicity. Asaram was yet again given time to report for interrogation. This is in brazen contrast to the manner in which the police and government treats, for instance, other rape accused or young men flaunted before the media as ‘terrorists’, often with no evidence to show, or individuals picked up and detained endlessly for being Maoist couriers, carrying ‘suspicious’ literature. Even those who are encounter specialists (real or fake) – do they really give their victims so much time to do ‘meditation’, and that too, in ‘ekaantvaas‘?

So, why this preferential treatment to Asaram Bapu, even after the massive national protests against rape, unprecedented outrage in civil society and in the media, agitations by united women’s groups, political consensus across the entire spectrum, and the JS Verma Committee’s path-breaking report with the stringest conditions against rapists in all forms of sexual assault and violence?

While there is legitimate national outrage against the gangrape of the photo journalist in Mumbai, what about the trauma of the little girl, and her quest for justice? Even as the family has been threatened by Asaram’s goons.

Surely, when it comes to the rich, powerful and privileged, especially fake babas with a passive following which can turn into potential vote banks, there seems to be a tacit consensus to brazenly subvert the law and defuse the case. Similarly, this is a pattern when powerless or poor people are involved. Be it Dalit women, construction/migrant workers, little children/women in the invisible ghettos and suburbs of big cities, or marginalized sections in rural India, this is a dominant pattern in this organized system of injustice. Indeed, the rape case of a ‘meditating’ Asaram is another test for the system of justice in Indian democracy.

– Amit Sengupta

holi221 Asaram Bapu celebrating Holi with Devotees at Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai. Photo: Rons Bantwal, in Kemmannu News Network.

Even after his arrest, First Post noted, the special treatment continued. Sandip Roy comments that it is Bapu’s political connections and importance that have protected him, despite years of dubious behavior.

“In our country there is a law that is same for everybody” says BJP’s Sushma Swaraj when needled by the Congress’ Digvijaya Singh about being a little too quiet on the Asaram Bapu case.

Except everyone knows that is not true.

“Everybody” does not get to spend a night in the VIP lounge of an airport after being accused of rape charges. Everybody’s supporters do not stop trains in protest or beat up journalists covering the story. Everybody does not have the luxury of a police force waiting for days as if seeking an audience with the accused as opposed to an interrogation.

This is not the first time Asaram Bapu has been embroiled in controversy. A series of recent articles in publications such as Tehelka, Indian Express, Open have revealed a slew of scandals that go back years.

They involve charges of sexual assault, land grabs, intimidation, black magic, forgery and straightforward arrogance. But none of them have managed to touch Asaram Bapu himself. Some of his ashram land has been seized, several of his buildings demolished, but Bapu has sailed on, blithely dismissing any misdeeds on the failings of subordinates or the jealousies of disaffected employees.

“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 Ahmadabad to Jay Mazoomdar in Tehelka. “This time, he seems to be somewhat vulnerable. But then, you never know.”

Exactly. You never know because the unholy nexus between godmen and politicians is a powerful one.

Many of us who first heard about Asaram Bapu after those comments on the Delhi gangrape victim like to sneer at him as a sort of uncouth boorish man who thrives on the media oxygen his outlandish statements provide and whose followers are easily duped simpletons. The media fails to see the man is no fool despite his third grade education.

He has built up a web of political support over the years. It’s been his calling card, his USP, his insurance policy. It’s made him virtually untouchable in the eyes of the law even when those children missing from his ashram were found on a river bed with vital organs missing.

The Indian Express writes that Bapu’s growth comes thanks to successive Gujarat governments – both the Congress and the BJP – though now the Congress wants to drop the Asaram hot potato squarely in the BJP’s lap. “The Congress governments in 1981 and 1992 allotted it 14,515 sq m, and the BJP governments in 1997 and 1999 around 25,000 sq m for expansion” writes the Indian Express. […]

Given the Congress’ own sorry record with godmen, most famously Chandrawami and Dhirendra Brahmachari, Digvijaya Singh has little ground to be holier-than-thou. Godmen are extremely attractive to politicians because they can at the very least offer up an already indoctrinated votebank. And if your followers, whatever their religious affiliation, are quick to vociferously claim than an attack on a godman is an attack on their god, the law becomes even more sluggish about doing its job. “This is telling the Hindu community that we will finish your feelings of respect towards a religious leader,” cries the VHP’s Ashok Singhal as if Hinduism and Asaram Bapu were somehow equivalent.

Asaram Bapu is only the latest in a string of godmen accused of shady dealings and sexual shenanigans. This one too might have quickly faded from view. It’s just that in the current climate, rape has become harder to sweep under the carpet even by trying to paint the victim as someone mentally unstable. The father of the teenager accusing Asaram Bapu of rape alleges to Tehelka that others have suffered the same fate but their families do not speak up because they are afraid of Bapu or so blind in their devotion they take his “misconduct towards their wives and daughters as ‘Baba’s blessings.”

There has to be presumption of innocence until proven guilty, but that Asaram Bapu is being handled with kid gloves and treated as a VIP despite the nature of the charges against him shows we have a long way to go before we have a country where the law is truly the same for everybody. The government wants fast track courts for heinous rape cases. But is Asaram Bapu on the VIP track?

– Sandip Roy

holi321 Asaram Bapu celebrating Holi with Devotees at Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai. Photo: Rons Bantwal, in Kemmannu News Network.

A certain amount of distaste for the godmen and their followers is evident in much of the Indian press, and the Bapu case seems to have given some writers license to attack the cult-like behavior of these new religious movements and their leaders. Outlook‘s Debarshi Dasgupta takes a more interesting tack with his detailed investigation of the methods used by Bapu and other spiritual leaders in managing their disciples.

If you for some reason decide to surrender in devotion to Swami Nithyananda, the following anecdote is likely to be part of your initial lessons. It’s one he keeps recounting to the multitudes at his ashram in Bidadi, near Bangalore, curious and eager to have his wisdom rub off on them: A professor happens to visit a Zen master. While the master quietly serves tea, the professor blabbers on about Zen. The master keeps filling the visitor’s cup till it started overflowing. The professor blurts out, “It’s full! No more will go in!” “This is you,” the master says. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Become empty first. This is one of Nithyananda’s first commandments. It’s also probably one of the most essential. As devotees drop their critical defences, he fills them with his worldview, his aura to transform them into loyal followers. This model of indoctrination is not unique to Nithyananda. Across India, for that matter elsewhere, one of the first sermons that godmen will drill into devotees is, outsource the thinking to the guru while devotees free their minds in pursuit of the blissful feeling of spirituality. As Bhargavi Hemmige, a research scholar at Mysore University who spent some time at Nithyananda’s ashram out of academic curiosity, recollects, “He kept telling us not to use our minds. It’s a monkey that misleads, he told us.”

What else but complete control over the mind can explain the ineluctable hold India’s godmen have over their devotees? So much so, grievous accusations of colossal financial transgressions, rape and child abuse, even murder do not seem to diminish their faith. On the contrary, in the case of Asaram Bapu, a godman mired in controversy and recently arrested by Rajasthan police on charges of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl, they seem to shore up their belief in defiance.

As Asaram evaded imminent arrest, throngs of his followers gathered at Jantar Mantar in Delhi to push for his release and sounded the battle-cry from a makeshift stage. “Our fight will go on until the conspiracists give up trying to tarnish Bapu’s image. We should send a clear message by amassing at the next satsang in such large numbers that there should be no place left for us to sit,” said one, to loud roars of approval from the crowd. “Our victory is certain. Only then will we leave,” exclaimed another devotee. “I have not eaten a thing in 48 hours, but gurudev is giving me the strength to go on and I can for another five days.” At Jantar Mantar, they spend most of their time chanting ‘Hari Om’; in other places, Asaram’s devotees have blocked roads and railway tracks and even assaulted media personnel. […]

How is it that godmen manage to win such unquestioning submission? Interviews with devotees, some of whom have fallen out with their gurus, detail an elaborate spiel that gurus have in place to control a devotee’s free thinking capabilities. The initial assault on independent thinking often comes with sleep deprivation: devotees are often allowed no more than four hours of sleep. What is thought of as a part of the frugal character of ashram life actually undercuts a devotee’s critical thinking. This is combined with a heavy work schedule and unreasonable deadlines that overwhelm a person’s routine. “This just doesn’t leave any time for you to sit and reflect. And the moment you do, you fall asleep,” says Anushka Gopal (name changed on request), a Bangalore-based woman who spent five years at the ashram of a popular south Indian guru but chose to walk out after his sexual misconduct was caught on tape.

Another cog in the brainwashing machinery is a pseudonym that goes on to become the ‘real’ identity of the person. The change is subtle but its long-term impact is drastic when it comes to erasing a devotee’s past. This is demonstrated effectively in the case of 35-year-old hotel management guru Santosh, now known as Shantimayananda after “great healing and transformation”. His parents unsuccessfully petitioned the Karnataka High Court to have him come back from Nithyananda’s ashram in Bidadi, where he has been living for six years now. “He has no concern for his mother and father, he simply thinks Nithyananda is god,” says Munnur Krishnamurthy, his distraught father.

The next stage is to have older devotees perpetuate the guru’s aura and suppress an acolyte’s individuality. What the group believes is what you should believe, they are told. […]

– Debarshi Dasgupta

bapu-arrest21 Asaram Bapu sent to 14 days judicial custody. Photo: Mohammed Sharif, Indian Express.

With Bapu finally under arrest, The Times of India cautioned that the accusations against him were contributing to a witch-hunt atmosphere against the godmen in general.

Asaram Bapu is now under arrest on charges of sexual molestation of a minor. That is a serious indictment and if found guilty, he deserves punishment to the fullest extent permitted under the law. In all the breathless commentary around the subject, however, a few necessary distinctions are being obliterated. It is not clear whether Asaram is on trial for sexual molestation – indeed a serious charge, as we have noted – or for being a ‘godman’, usually preceded by the epithet ‘self-proclaimed’ (as if there were any other variety). Secondly, occasions when he allegedly consorted with women are being adduced as reason to believe that he is guilty as charged.

There is a strand of spirituality that believes itself incompatible with sex, but this does not subsume all of spirituality (consider Tantra, Osho’s teachings, Vaishnavism, Sufism). Moreover, certain Semitic religions lay great store by the unbridgeable distance between God (who is transcendent) and man (who is fallen), but this does not subsume Eastern religions. In Hinduism, for example, there is a great deal of traffic between gods and men.

Even in a Semitic religion such as Christianity, Jesus Christ was the son of God born to the world of men. Therefore, unless one wishes to be in the boots of the Roman empire which persecuted early Christian sects, a ‘godman’ is not an inherently evil or even illegitimate category. Neither should it be a category recognised by the state and given more rights than ordinary citizens.

There is also a disturbing puritanism inherent in the equation of promiscuity and sexual crime. A free society should not eliminate the distinction between consent and force. That holds equally for the notion of ‘godman’, a loose – and often pejorative – English translation of the word ‘guru’ that exists in most Indian languages, a more accurate translation of which would be ‘spiritual mentor’. If X decides to adopt Y as a spiritual mentor surely that is a matter between X and Y, neither society nor state should get in the way. All of which goes back to a cardinal principle of Indian jurisprudence: one is innocent until proven guilty. If Asaram is guilty of the charges against him he ought, by all means, to be locked up. But that cannot be established through unwarranted inferences or a media trial.

-The Editors

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