Photographs by Praveen Khanna, Jaipal Singh & Ravi Kanojia
HE PREACHED, HE CLASHED
On the morning of Tuesday, November 18, as more than 6,000 security personnel laid siege to his ashram, most of India’s attention turned to Sant Rampal, a man with over 20,000 followers, many seemingly willing to give up their lives for him. By the end of Wednesday night, he was a man accused of waging war against the State. Nineteen years ago, he was Rampal Singh, a junior engineer with the Haryana Irrigation Department. And many more years ago, he was simply Rampal, the son of farmer Nand Ram in Dhanana, a village in Sonepat that borders Rohtak district of Haryana.
Shakuntla Devi, 70, lives with her sons and grandchildren in what was till 2012 Rampal’s ancestral home. “I have spent my entire life in this village.
We bought this house for Rs 4.6 lakh. I used to live three houses away. As a child, Rampal would play dholaks during satsangs and weddings.”
Jai Singh and Rampal were “never friends”. Though their paths ran parallel for a while — they went to the same school and were colleagues in the state irrigation department in Rohtak — they lost touch soon after. Singh says the Rampal he knew was an “introvert”. “Both of us did our matriculation from Gohana High School in Sonepat in 1971-72. Even then, he was religious. He used to read lots of books on Lord Hanuman and chant Hanuman Chalisa. But we later found out that he had started following saint Kabir’s philosophies. I don’t know much about his tenure as a junior engineer; we did not work together for long,” says Jai Singh, who retired from the Irrigation Department a few years ago.
Jai Singh’s account of Rampal’s devotion towards Hanuman is corroborated by the ‘Brief Introduction on Sant Rampal’ published on the ashram’s website — “For 25 years, you (Sant Rampal) continuously worshipped Hanuman Ji. Everyday recited Hanuman Chalisa seven times, and consecutively for eighteen years went to a famous temple of Hanuman Ji in a village Salahsar in district Churu in Rajasthan to do worship (sic).”
In the ‘80s, he married Naro Devi. The couple have four children — two sons and two daughters — and the entire family lived inside the Barwala ashram until the siege.
The ‘introduction’ on his website claims that at 16, Rampal met a Kabirpanthi called Saint Ramdevanand who convinced him that “religious practices served no purpose”. But it wasn’t until 1996, when he resigned from his job, that he seriously took to delivering sermons.
In those initial days, Rampal would drive around towns and villages of Sonepat and Rohtak, sermons blaring out from a small microphone he attached to his motorcycle. People who knew him then say he used to get Rohtak photographers to shoot videos and pictures of his satsangs. One such photographer who worked with him for seven years, between 1996 and 2003, requested anonymity while saying that Rampal almost never paid up for the work he got done. “We were told that we could recover our money by selling our photographs to the devotees or the people who hosted his satsangs in their homes,” says the photographer. He said Rampal also organised pilgrimage tours to Kashi and Triveni for 4,000 to 5,000 people and charged hefty amounts for his services. As his fame spread, Rampal’s Splendor bike gave way to a Mahindra jeep which he drove himself till he later got himself a driver.
Around 2000, he came in contact with a transporter from Rohtak who became his devotee. When his business in Pune flourished, the grateful transporter, who now runs a logistics company chain, reportedly bought the first three acres of land in Karontha where Rampal set up the Rohtak ashram.
Shyam Malik, who left Rampal’s ashram in Karontha after a ‘disagreement’, says, “If a disciple returned to tell Rampal that he had profited in his work or business because of the godman’s blessing, he would be asked to donate 10 per cent of his income to the guru.”
Rampal saw himself as an incarnation of Kabir and Guru Nanak, someone who had taken birth “to bring about a spiritual revolution in the world”. His website says he is the messiah whose birth Nostradamus, Lady Florence of New Jersey and astrologer Boriska Silvigar, among others, had predicted.
But oddly for someone who claims to be an incarnation of Kabir, the first police case registered against him was in 2006 for a clash between his supporters and members of an ashram dedicated to Kabir in Chhudani village of Jhajjar district. This was the same ashram where Rampal received initiation into Kabirpanthi — the seat of his guru Ramdevanand. Soon after resigning from his job as a junior engineer in the Haryana government, Rampal’s first stop was the Chhudani ashram, where he reportedly grabbed the guru’s seat after the latter’s death. He also allegedly tampered with an ‘ancient text’ written by the sect’s previous gurus, which so enraged the villagers that they chased him out of Chhudani.
A few years down, he established himself at Karontha in Rohtak district and one of his disciples, Krishan Das, who was disillusioned with Rampal, went back to Chhudani ashram and wrote a book called ‘Shaitan Bana Bhagwan’, an unflattering account of Rampal’s transformation into a godman. On June 19, 2006, an enraged Rampal allegedly got his men to attack the Chhudani ashram and the police picked up 48 of his followers. They were taken to a police chowki in Dighal village, where some more of Rampal’s followers gathered and allegedly set the chowki on fire.
By this time, Rampal was also criticising the practices of the Arya Samaj and people in the Rohtak belt, an Arya Samaj stronghold, began to oppose him.
But that only served to increase his clout.
One of his followers who spoke on condition of anonymity said only 10 to 12 per cent of his ‘devotees’ are from Haryana and the others are mostly from UP, MP, Chhattisgarh and even Maharashtra and that’s because he was already at odds with many villages across Haryana for speaking against Hindu customs and idols. In a state with a strong Arya Samaj influence, he ridiculed ‘Satyarth Prakash’, the 19th-century teachings of Arya Samaj founder Dayanand Saraswati. He called Saraswati’s teachings “unscientific” and used them as a tool to speak against conventional religious practices. Some of these arguments were made in ‘Gyan Ganga’, a book published by the ashram that increased tensions in the area.
With the Arya Samaj in Rohtak asking people to rise in protest against Rampal, the baba’s followers were involved in another violent clash, in Karontha in July 2006. The clash resulted in the death of Sonu, a youth from Baghpur village, and Rampal was arrested for murder. After 22 months in jail, he came out and went to Barwala in Hisar, where the Arya Samaj has relatively less influence.
Here, sources say, in 2008, Rampal designed his ashram, strategically placing his residence well at the back, and also raised a force of trained “commandos.” “These commandos were asked to dress up like the police’s Black Cats. They used to wear black bandanas, were armed with sophisticated rifles and other weapons, and were trained by retired officers of the Army, police and even NSG,” one of the sources said.
Sanjeev Kaushal, Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, said, “His commandos had weapons of all calibers including .315 bore rifles, .32 revolvers and pistols and even country-made pistols and revolvers.”
Rampal used his supporters to spread his influence across states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa, especially in areas where Kabirpanthi was already prevalent. “There are very few men in this country who speak on Kabirpanthi and our Baba was a reincarnation of Kabir. We asked our supporters to spread the word in their own areas, and bring people needy of solace to the ashram,” says Rahul Das, spokesperson for the Satlok Ashram in Karontha.
“Rampal’s followers are mainly from the backward castes. Of the 459 people we arrested on charges of rioting during the operation to nab Rampal, 118 were from Rajasthan, 116 from Haryana, 83 from Uttar Pradesh, 72 from Madhya Pradesh, 10 from Bihar and three from Nepal,” said Haryana’s Director General of Police S N Vashisht.
Other officers spoke of how many of Rampal’s followers were people without jobs and the ashram at least ensured them two square meals a day. “Many of his followers were people who could not find work in their villages, had heard of his ashram and arrived. They got food at the ashram and a roof over their heads. Then there were others who stayed in the ashram and left every morning for work,” said a senior police officer on condition of anonymity.
People who have tracked his rise say Rampal used the local media to great effect in his initial years as a ‘sant’, but grew increasingly inaccessible.
Balwan Singh Malik, a veteran journalist based in Sonepat, says,”When Rampal had just begun delivering religious discourses, he was a frequent visitor to newspaper offices in Rohtak and Sonepat. With some help from his journalist friends, he used to get his religious discourses published. He used to design his own press notes and deliver them to newspaper offices. Till 2006, when he was first arrested from Karontha ashram, he was somewhat accessible. However, after coming out of jail in 2008, he went completely out of touch.” Till he resurfaced eight years later in Barwala in dramatic fashion.
AND HIS UNIVERSE
The exodus began in earnest on Wednesday morning and ended a day later. In those 24 hours, more than 20,000 people emerged from the damaged gates of Satlok Ashram in Barwala in Haryana’s Hisar district. Behind them was a universe governed by one man who they believed was their god. On Wednesday, after almost every devotee had left, The Sunday Express walked around the 12-acre ashram. Sant Rampal’s haven was a story of many contradictions. There was faith and violence. Poverty and opulence. Sermons of peace and cries of war.
The satsang area
The ceiling is high and the roof is made of asbestos. Hanging from the rafters every 10 feet are fans, rows and rows of them. Under them, across an area more than the size of three football fields are thousands of mattresses, pillows and blankets. Every supporter slept on the floor. Next to one mattress are three bags with ‘Akhil Das’ written in Hindi on all three. He had come with his family, with at least two children. One bag has a blue frock and a slightly bigger white shirt and jeans. All three bags are full of clothes.
There are books next to nearly every mattress, all with photographs of Rampal. The messages in the books mirror the instructions on the walls. A poster on one wall says, “If you consume drugs, you will be reborn as a dog. If you touch alcohol, you will be born as a chicken. If you eat chicken, you will be consigned to hell.”
On Wednesday afternoon, as police personnel went around searching every room, they found evidence of a highly organised administration. Registers documented names and addresses of everyone who entered or exited.
The discourse area
Every day, Rampal would appear for a pravachan (religious discourse) for four hours, between 12 and 2 in the afternoon and 7 and 9 in the evening.
“Woh bhagwaan ki tarah zamin se prakat hua karte the (He rises like the Lord),” says Satbir Ram from Darbhanga in Bihar, unaware the Baba’s ‘divinity’ was aided by the hydraulic throne-lift that brought him up from the ground floor to the second.
On top of his throne, hidden from view of the cameras that constantly record his speeches, is a Carrier air conditioner. To the left of his throne is a smaller seat, painted in gold, with a small makeshift studio with arclights in front of it. There are at least 20 laptops and 10 DVD players, each loaded with Rampal’s sermons. A storeroom to one side is stacked with gadget boxes delivered from Flipkart.
The ‘pranam sthal’ on the ground floor is proof that this was a tightly-run ship. A board says, “Please don’t give donations to any person other than the Baba.” There is another seat in an enclosure, where Rampal both accepted ‘alms’ and showered blessings. Even this had two buttons on either side, to control the height and slant of the chair.
Many came for spiritual succour, racked by poverty or unemployment or distress in their families. Others were lured by the promise of free medical treatment in the ashram’s polytechnic.
The polytechnic has five rooms, the first of which is a dispensary for free medicines. In almirahs next to a counter are painkillers and syringes. Bandages and cotton wool are on the top shelf. The six bins are filled with blood-soaked rags, evidence of Tuesday’s battle.
There is also an ‘injection and dressing room’ and an X-Ray room. There are two other rooms with eight steel almirahs filled with stacks of asthalin and the diabetes drug Novolin.
Devotees speak of a kitchen that ran like a conveyor belt, with roles assigned to each volunteer. “Each of us did something — peeling, cooking or simply stirring,” says Savita Sahu from Balasore in Orissa, who is now standing in a queue for a bus out of Barwala.
Today, there are large cauldrons of khichdi, kheer, and dal. Stacked in an enclosure are close to sixty 20-kg sacks of wheat, rice and pulses. There are hundreds more such sacks in two adjacent store rooms. In two parallel lines are 16 large Blue Star freezers, with vegetables and fruits in some and milk in others.
The four-storeyed home has a swimming pool with a changing room to the left and 25 well-maintained rooms, each with at least one airconditioner.
Many of the rooms have large LED TVs complete with DVD players.
On the third floor, where Rampal likely lived, the balcony is covered by a blue canopy. The baba appeared to like his privacy. A bullet-proof Tata Safari Dicor parked on the ground floor too indicates this — a white curtain separates the front and rear row of seats. The rear windows too are covered by white sheets.