A dead sadhu, a live issue

Why does the Punjab government continue to buy time on a 2014 High Court order asking it to organise the cremation of Ashutosh Maharaj, whose followers have kept the body in a deep freezer, citing the belief that he will return to life.

Written by Sanjeev Verma | Updated: November 7, 2016 1:26 pm
Ashutosh maharaj, spiritual leader, ashutosh maharaj cremation, punjab government, high court order, 2014 order, deep frozen body, india news, indian express Ashutosh Maharaj, the late head of the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan. (File photo)

Around 25 kilometres from Jalandhar in Punjab, on the Nakodar road, a contingent of more than 50 policemen, 10 from Punjab Police and 43 from the Central Reserve Police Force, have been deployed to guard a Very Important Person, who has been dead for over to years now. His followers claim he is in a state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi or deep meditation.

The life and death of Ashutosh Maharaj, the late head of the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan, whose body has been lying inside a deep freezer at the DJJS ashram since January 2014, has all the elements of a potboiler: from a mendicant who wandered the streets of Jalandhar to the head of a mutli-crore dera; from superstition and blind faith to vote banks and politicians; from a man who claims to be his son to those who claim he is alive and will return.

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Sansthan doctors had declared Ashutosh Maharaj clinically dead on January 29, 2014. On December 1, 2014, the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed the Punjab government to cremate the body within 15 days as per due religious rites, but the state government ignored the orders. The case continues in the court, and is to come up again for hearing on Wednesday, November 9.

The CCTV camera-monitored premises of the Sansthan are set in a rural landscape in the midst of fields. Most of the security is deployed around the double-storey building where Ashutosh Maharaj’s body is kept. No one except four or five senior disciples of the religious head can enter this building, guarded by a team of cops under a sub-inspector at the iron gate, installed at a distance of 10 metres from the building.

Asked about the high security at the dera, Superintendent of Police (Headquarters) Jalandhar, Kulwant Singh Heer, said, “We are continuing with the security as it was earlier.” The Nurmahal police station is stationed just at the entry of Sansthan.

From the guarded entrance to the Sansthan premises, a path leads to a complex of buildings. Anyone trying to access any of these buildings has to undergo manual frisking at two places, and a Door Frame Metal Detector. The building with Ashutosh’s body is located between two other buildings. The iron gate stretches between the walls of these two structures.

Punjab police sub-inspector Shyam Lal, on guard duty at the gate, points towards the building: “Are you able to see the light on the second floor behind that big door with glass on its top? That is where Maharaj ji is in Samadhi.”

Ask why a man who has been declared dead two years ago requires security, Lal escorts you to an adjacent room, the office of Ashtosh’s senior most
disciple, Swami Arvindanand. “Ashutosh Maharaj has taken Nirvikalpa Samadhi for the cause of ending global terrorism and global warming,” says
Arvindanand. But express puzzlement as to how the two modern-day evils can be fought from a deep freezer whose carbon footprint can only be guessed at, and he says spiritual matters cannot be understood by a layman until he attains “Brahm Gyan” (divine knowledge) or sees “Divya Jyoti” (eternal light).

Asked if the Sansthan head had directed his disciples to put him in the freezer after he took Samadhi, Arvindanand replies in the negative.

Sansthan Spokesperson Vishalanand argues that bodies are being preserved all over the world cryogenically with the hope that clinical science may develop someday, when it may become possible to revive them.

Adjacent to the building where Ashutosh Maharaj’s body has been kept is a huge hall, where a cut-out of the religious head adorns the dais used for religious discourses on Sundays. There, a disciple in his late 30s, who claimed he was from Punjab and left his home after completing engineering in electronics and communication, says with all seriousness: “Maharaj ji had told his disciples that he would return from samadhi when Kalyug will be over and Navyug would come.”

A number of Hindu and Sikh followers from lower and middle class and lower-income groups have been visiting the sansthan from various districts of Punjab, and other places for offering Sewa (service) either at the langar or at the dera’s Kamdhenu Gaushala, with its hundreds of Desi breed cows, or they have volunteered to sweep the premises clean.

Spread over hundreds of acres, the sansthan premises include a pharmacy, doctors, a book store with literature on Ashutosh Maharaj, a clothes store,
another selling mobile SIMs, and accommodation for male and female disciples.
It’s only a rare follower who is skepticical. A bank employee at Jalandhar, who claims he has been a regular visitor to the Sansthan for the last eight years, says, “Sometimes, it seems unrealistic to me also, but I still come here as I find peace of mind.”

In April 2014, more than two months after his death, two petitions came up at the Punjab & Haryana HC relating to Ashutosh Maharaj’s death.
One petitioner was Dalip Kumar Jha, a resident of Madhubani in Bihar, who claimed he was Ashutosh’s biological son. He sought the release of his mortal remains for performing his last rites, a DNA test to prove his claim of relationship, and a probe to ascertain the cause of his “mysterious death”.

Another petitioner, Puran Singh, who said he was the spiritual head’s former driver, also approached the HC, seeking a CBI probe into his death.

On December 1, 2014, Justice MMS Bedi of the HC declared Ashutosh Maharaj had died a natural death on January 29, 2014, and directed the Punjab government to cremate his body within 15 days in accordance with due religious rites. The judge said that in the interregnum, Ashutosh’s body would be given all due respect and not be displayed, except for the “last darshan”, subject to public order and morality.

The court, however, also said that preserving his body in a refrigerator appeared not to be in consonance with any Hindu ritual or tradition. Justice Bedi said the belief of the followers that he is in deep mediation could not be regarded as an integral part of the religion, and could not be protected under the right of freedom of religion. The belief is contrary to the fundamental duty under Article 51 A (h) of the Constitution of India requiring us to have scientific temper and humanism, the court observed.

The judge, however, gave the verdict that Dalip Kumar Jha and Puran Singh did not have any locus standi on the basis of the material produced by them before the court to claim right for possession of the body which deserved to be disposed of by cremation. The court also dismissed the petitions seeking directions for conducting autopsy of Ashutosh Maharaj’s body and a DNA test.

To date, the SAD-BJP Punjab government has expressed its inability to form any opinion regarding the disposal of the body in view of “the faith and
belief of lakhs of devotees spread all over the world”. It has claimed it cannot interfere in this, not can it be judged by judicial scrutiny. It says it is the fundamental right of a sect or religion to hold any belief or faith.

Earlier, the state government had submitted after an “open and discreet inquiry” that there was nothing to indicate foul play in Maharaj’s death. On the question of an autopsy, the state pleaded that the faith of the followers that he was in Samadhi would be shattered.

At the most recent hearing of the appeals against Justice Bedi’s December 2014 ruling — the 15th so far — the counsel for the Punjab government told the court that the matter had been sent to the department of Medical Education and Research for its opinion and since the opinion had been received on September 12, “a final decision” shall be taken shortly. The Medical Education and Research department was asked if a clinically dead body could be preserved through artificial refrigeration; if this is a correct method for preservation; if such preservation would have any effect on public health or posed any threat to the environment.

The court has now adjourned the case hearing to November 9.

Jalandhar-based senior journalist Jatinder Pannu remembers Ashutosh Maharaj as being famous in the Nurmahal area by the name of “Lightan Wala Baba” (Saint with divine light) in the 1980s. He had a moped and he would ask people to see into his eyes through a lamp.

Ashutosh Maharaj was born at Lakhnaur in Madhubani district of Bihar as Mahesh Kumar Jha in 1946. Dalip Kumar Jha, who claims to be his son, says his mother was married to Ashutosh. In 1973, Mahesh left his family in Bihar.

It was during the turbulent times of militancy in Punjab that Mahesh founded a non-profit spiritual organisation Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan in 1983, in Nurmahal village of Jalandhar district and became known as Ashutosh Maharaj.

During its initial years, the Sansthan tried to dabble in mainstream Sikhism but retreated after allegations that Sansthan preachers were misinterpreting the Gurbani. After that, it has been seen closer to Hindu institutions and practices. After perceived threats from radical Sikh organisations, the Punjab government gave Ashutosh Z category security. His following grew as his profile grew, and so did the political patronage.

In May 2013, the SAD-BJP government created a new village at Nurmahal named after the Sansthan. Its population is 525, including 264 voters, mostly sadhus, sadhvis and sewadars of the Sansthan.

Not just that, 17 months after Ashutosh’s death, on May 20, 2015, CM Parkash Singh Badal decided to hand over 9 kanal and 11 marla land to the Sansthan for widening its approach road from 33 feet to 55 feet. The High Court had later stayed this transfer of land. The case is ongoing.

Meanwhile, Ludhiana’s Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Science University (GADVASU) chose Sansthan’s Kamdhenu Centre to experiment conservation and propagation of indigenous Sahiwal cows by adopting Embryo Transplant Technique.

In his November 2015 Mann Ki Baat, PM Narendra Modi had words of appreciation for the efforts of a Sansthan follower Lakhwinder Singh of Jalandhar for organic farming in Divya Gram.

Badal’s wife, late Surinder Kaur, had also come under attack for paying obeisance to the Ashutosh Maharaj earlier. There are allegations that the
Badal government funded a 2-km road and 66 KW sub-station near the Sansthan.

Earlier, the Congress government under Captain Amarinder Singh (2002-2007) had banned the Sansthan’s public functions for quite some time after clashes between its followers and Sikhs due to its alleged anti-Sikh preachings. After the SAD-BJP government came to power, Sikh bodies clashed with Sansthan followers in Phagwara. After a clash at BJP MLA Harish Bedi’s programme in Ludhiana in 2009, all 19 BJP MLAs met CM Badal in support of the Sansthan.

Now, no party wants to be left behind. Big hoardings have been put up by the SAD-BJP government on one side and by the Congress as well as AAP on the other side, within 100 metres of the entry road to Sansthan.

The Sansthan website has posted an article on November 3, with photographs of disciples presenting a book on Ashutosh to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The book was also presented to Punjab Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal. Minister of State for Social Justice and Environment and Punjab BJP president Vijay Sampla, senior BJP leader Mohinder Bhagat, and Punjab RSS Sunil Sehgal attended a function at the dera recently.

So far, the government has blithely ridden out the imbroglio with adjournments. It is doubtful the matter can be resolved any time now, when elections are so close.

Professor Rajesh Gill of the Sociology department at Panjab University says the law of the land should prevail. “This is all superstition and state government should rise above vote bank politics. Our governments fail to take decision when it comes to matters related to Dera Sacha Sauda or Sant Rampal or Khap Panchayats or Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthaa.

One view of the unseemly imbroglio is that accepting that Ashutosh is dead and cremating him would set off succession battles and fights for
property worth crores of rupees that both dera and the government want to avoid.

Many residents of Nurmahal, who are not dera followers and do not want to be identified, complain the Sansthan is spreading superstition. They are of the belief that the body of Ashutosh Maharaj should be disposed of, which is an established practice in the Hindu religion.

The only person who called it superstition and is willing to be identified is Balkar Singh of Sekhon Car Bazar on the other side of the Jalandhar-Nakodar road, where Sansthan has established a restaurant and a shop to sell organic vegetables and fruits from its own farms.
“Maut to ek sachhai ha. Agar sadhu bhi sachai se bhagenge to aam janta ka kya hoga.”