RS 1,000 crore are riding on a freezer in a small town in Punjab’s Jalandhar district — that and how alive a person who was declared “clinically dead” one month and nine days ago is. That’s the time dera head Ashutosh Maharaj has now spent in a deep freezer in Nurmahal town as his close aides, lakhs of followers, and lately a “son” fight over whether what lies inside is a body or a divine being in “Himalayas-like meditation”.
Eighty personnel of the Punjab Police keep guard outside the Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan dera spread over 100 acres, a team of the dera’s security wing has barricades deployed on the road leading up to Nurmahal from Nakodar to ensure that no “unauthorised” person can enter, while another team of doctors regularly monitors Ashutosh Maharaj for “signs of life” inside the freezer in a chamber that no one else has access to. Religious discourses every other day as well as a mega discourse every Sunday on the campus, meanwhile, continue. Forty days later, few have lost hope.
“Maharaj has been in meditation previously too and come back to life,” says Swami Vishwa Devanand, who manages the dera’s affairs.
One of the spokespersons, Swami Vishalanand, says “the Maharaj has gone into a samadhi”. “His soul has gone to the Himalayas while we are preserving his body, waiting for him to return. Medical science is not complete in itself. Such a state is called suspended animation, taught in forensic science.”
Lakhwinder Singh, the sarpanch of village Divya Gram, housing the Sansthan’s followers and named after it by the Punjab government, agrees. “Where science ends, meditation begins. History is full of instances of people with divine powers going into meditation. When we close our eyes, we can talk to the Maharaj, who has assured us he will come back,” he says.
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The belief holds sway in the neighbouring villages too. “The Maharaj has changed my life,” says Gurpal Kaur of Kotla, who visits the dera daily. “I am sure he will return soon.” If not, the followers are willing to wait months.
A follower named Lakhwinder is among those who have left their families to live at the dera. “It has been over 12 years since I have been serving mankind here. I manage cattle and meditate.”
Apart from the cattle shed, the premises house a health centre, a religious discourse hall, and a room for community meals. At any given time, around 500-600 people are on the campus, including the dera’s staff and “swamis”. With Ashutosh Maharaj a State protectee, because of a perceived threat from hardline Sikhs, there are policemen to guard him too.
The nearabouts 7 ft by 3ft freezer is one of two special refrigeration chambers that the dera procured from a local NGO managing a temple in Jalandhar, on January 29, the day the doctors said Ashutosh Maharaj was dead. One was returned later.
The Sunday Express team was roughed up for trying to click the dera’s pictures from fields nearby. Swami Vishalanand said the attackers couldn’t have been dera followers. “We are not secretive. But when the media starts disrespecting our sentiments, we go silent. Nobody could have attacked anybody, that is out of the question,” he says.
The sceptics are few, and most don’t want to be identified. A group of youngsters living in a nearby village says people are “fooled” in the dera. “Most of the people managing the dera’s affairs have left their families and run away from their responsibilities. Yet they claim they are serving society. The dera brainwashes gullible people,” says one.
Soon after the controversy began, Ashutosh Maharaj’s driver Puran Singh had filed a habeus corpus petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court against four members of the dera who, he claimed, were not releasing Ashutosh Maharaj’s body as they wanted a share of the dera’s properties. When the Punjab Police’s status report in the high court declared Ashutosh clinically dead, the court dismissed the petition.
The district police and administration say they are helpless. “After the high court decision, the matter is at a standstill. It’s a question of religious belief, how can we interfere? We cannot force them to believe that somebody is no more,” says Varun Rujam, Deputy Commissioner, Jalandhar.
Sub-Divisional Magistrate Jasbir Singh, among the few to have seen the sect head since his “death”, says, “The body was in a deteriorating condition when we saw it. But we cannot hurt religious sentiments. I do not think there is any provision in the law under which we can force them to perform the last rites of a body if they do not believe that the person is dead.”
Almost a week after the news of the death spread, a Bihar resident, Dilip Jha, surfaced, claiming to be the son of Ashutosh Maharaj, whose real name is Mahesh Kumar Jha. “Despite several attempts, I have not been able to claim my father’s body,” he told The Sunday Express from Delhi on phone. “It is my legal right to perform the last rites. I recently filed a complaint with the Punjab Police seeking a criminal case against the dera. I could not come to the dera since I have a threat to my life. My mother Anandi is waiting to see her husband’s body in our native village in Bihar. I will shortly move the Supreme Court.”
The dera followers dismiss Dilip’s claims. “There is no such son and all the claims are false,” says Swami Vishwa Devanand.