In Ahmedabad,tourists wishing to visit the Sabarmati ashram are often asked to qualify their destination. Which Bapus ashram? auto-rickshaw drivers will ask them. The other Bapu is Asaram,who too has an ashram by the Sabarmati,and who has acquired a cult following besides facing allegations of black magic,land-grabbing and now sexual assault,leading to his arrest on Saturday.
From a runaway teen who reportedly preferred a life of spiritualism to marriage,Asaram has become the guru of reportedly two crore followers,with an empire said to be worth Rs 5,000 crore. The Sant Asaram Bapu Trust runs close to 400 ashrams,a few of these abroad,and at least one in each Indian state barring Kerala,Tamil Nadu and in the Northeast. In many of these states,his trust has been accused of setting up the ashram on encroached land.
Some 40 of the ashrams have gurukuls. It was at two of these that four boys were found dead in 2008,leading to allegations of black magic.
The trust runs a large printing press for 100-odd publications in a number of languages,and an ayurveda unit that prepares medicines,incense sticks,and soaps and shampoos. A former practicioner there alleges he had been asked to compromise on the quality of the medicinal preparations. The doctor and at least one other former follower have alleged expolitation of women.
Until his arrest,Asaram enjoyed VVIP status at airports; he would not be frisked and would drive straight to the aircraft. After the allegation of sexual assault,he reportedly moved around with muscle men. His disciples and Asaram himself have been known to assault people.
It is all a conspiracy, Sunil Wankhade,spokesperson of the Ahemdabad ashram,says of the sexual assault allegation. Asaram will come out clean.
By his own account,Asarams arrival as a divine soul had been foretold. Last December 1,he told a judicial panel someone had made the prediction to his mother. The panel was probing the death of two students of the Ahmedabad ashram in 2008. From Asarams deposition,and from a book published the ashram,Sant Asaramji ki Jeevan Jhanki,emerge details of his life from his boyhood to the guru he became.
He was born Asumal on April 17,1941,in Berani village in Sindh province,now in Pakistan. After Partition,his family migrated to Maninagar,Ahmedabad,where it set up a business in coal and firewood. Asaram dropped out of Jai Hind High School at class III,after his fathers death.
Going by the book,his tryst with spirituality came about following a series of escapes from home between the ages of 15 and 23. He ran away to an ashram at 15,eight days before his scheduled wedding,before his family persuaded him to return. He married Laxmi Devi but left again at age 23,before spiritual guru Leelashahji Maharaj sent him back home from Nainital. Thirteen days after returning,he went off to another ashram,was persuaded again to return,but went once again to Leelashahji,who the book says accepted him as his disciple this time. On October 7,1964,Leelashahji named him Sant Shri Asaramji Maharaj.
Asaram returned to Ahmedabad on July 8,1971,according to the book. On January 29,1972,he built a hut at Motera village,on the banks of the Sabarmati. He converted it into an ashram in 1973,starting with five to 10 followers,he told the judicial panel.
In his deposition,a copy of which The Indian Express has accessed,he conceded he is the settler or chairman of the 40 gurukuls nationwide,but insisted they are being managed not by him but by committees and trustees.
His wife looks after the womens wing of the Ahmedabad ashram,along with daughter-in-law Janaki Devi and daughter Bharati Devi,whose husband is settled in the US. Asarams son Narayan Sai,35,a dropout from class XII,helps his father run the ashram.
The ashram owes much of its early growth to successive Gujarat governments. 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.
The way the BJP government has dealt with allegations of encroachment reflects its changing equations with Asaram,who is believed to have fallen out with Chief Minister Narendra Modi. In recent years,it has taken over land from the ashram in Ahmedabad and Sabarkantha. In 1997,it had tried to regularise the ashrams possession of land that was the subject of litigation.
The litigation was over 34,000 sq m in Surat. The government had acquired over 50,000 sq m in 1976 for public purpose but most of the land remained unused when a flood protection wall was completed in 1982. Asaram encroached on the open land,and gradually took over more and more, says Anil Vyas,who owned the largest chunk. He went to the high court,which in 2008 ordered the land returned to the farmers. In 2012,the Supreme Court upheld the order. Vyas,however,says he is yet to get the land back. There are several issues involved, says district collector Jayprakash Shivhare. We will check the status and see what decision should be taken.
In 2009,after Asaram had fallen out with the government,revenue minister Anandiben Patel told the assembly that the Ahmedabad ashram had encroached on 67,059 sq m; the government took it over on January 8,2010.
The government also took over 70 acres agricultural land bought by Asarams family in three villages of Sabarkantha. They had allegedly forged papers procured from Kutch to show themselves as farmers. Ashaben Shah,mamlatdar of the taluka under which the villages fall,says the deal was cancelled and the land taken back,though no action was initiated for the forgery.
Alongside the ashrams expansion to other states came similar allegations. The Bihar State Religious Trust,for instance,alleges Asaram and his followers had usurped land in Patna in 2006 for a temple. The Bihar trust went to court and got the land vacated following a 2009,says its chairman,Kisore Kunal.
In MP,independent MLA Paras Saklecha alleges that Asarams followers have encroached on more than 200 acres in Ratlam and set up a large temple. The ashram claims it was built by a trust that had been leased the land by Jayant Vitamins Company,shut since 1997. And in Rajasthan,disciples Bhanwar Lal Soni and Satya Narayan Dhoot,who had helped Asaram set up his Jodhpur ashram,have gone to court alleging their land has been encroached.
What brought such allegations into public focus was the deaths at the two gurukuls and the outcry that followed.
In July 2008,young cousins Dipesh and Abhishek Vaghela of the Ahmedabad ashram were found dead. Mutilated with some vital organs missing,the bodies were recovered from the riverbed of the Sabarmati next to the ashram. It led to an agitation with allegations that the boys had died in the course of black magic.
The same month,two boys,aged 4 and 5,were found dead in Asarams Chhindwara gurukul. There were no injuries on the bodies. A few days later,police arrested a 14-year-old for killing the boys claiming he had wanted the gurukul closed because he was fed up with the regimented life there. The parents junked the theory and demanded a CBI probe while the police admitted the motive is complicated.
In Ahmedabad too,the boys fathers demanded a CBI probe and went on a hunger-strike. A number of organisations held protest rallies in Ahmedabad and Surat.
The Modi government,still close to Asaram then,approached the boys parents and they ended their agitation. The government set up a probe commission under retired high court judge D K Trivedi. It was before this panel that Asaram deposed last year.
A former disciple,Raju Chandak,deposed about black magic being practised in the ashram and said this had probably led to the cousins death. In his deposition,Asaram conceded he believes black magic exists,but said he does not practise it. He claimed he had had an encounter with a bhoot some 15 years earlier in Mandal village,Ahmedabad.
The deaths and the outcry went on to highlight the muscle power by Asaram and his disciples wield. In July 2008,ashram sadhaks beat up protesters and journalists too. I was with my cameraman covering the attack when they beat us up, says Gopi Maniar of Aaj Tak.
In November 2009,an agitation by followers turned violent outside the Gandhinagar district collectorate. Several policemen were injured. Ashram authorities blamed it on outsiders.
That protesters were seeking action against Chandak,the former disciple who would go on to depose against the guru,and against the daily Sandesh for a cartoon of Asaram. We had published a cartoon showing Asaram creating a scene at the airport over a security check. It was a criticism of this behaviour, says Sandesh owner Falgun Patel,responding to questions. But Asaram felt it was offensive and we carried a clarification that we had not intended to hurt anyones feelings.
After his deposition,Chandak survived an apparent murder attempt. On December 5,2009,he filed an FIR at Sabarmati saying he had been fired on at close range. The attempt-to-murder case against Asaram is pending.
In Vadodara,Asaram was once photographed punching a disciple who had accidentally stepped on his toes while trying to prevent him from being mobbed by admirers. Last February,he allegedly kicked a disciple who had bent to touch his feet in Vidisha. And in Raipur on Sunday,supporters protesting his arrest assaulted journalists.
Former MP chief minister Uma Bharti remains an unabashed supporter of Asaram. So does Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh. In Rajasthan,Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Vasundhara Raje are said to be among his admirers. Gujarats Amit Shah is known to be close to him,as is jailed IPS officer D G Vanzara.
Until 2009,Asaram was said to be close to Modi too. He had been invited as a chief guest at a project to rejuvenate the Saraswati by filling with water large tracts of land,where the river is believed to have flown,at Sidhpur town in Mehsana. BJP leaders say the project was the brainchild of Asaram himself. It was abandoned because of its cost.
Relations were close even in 2007,when the government launched a channel,Vande Gujarat,which regularly carried messages from Asaram. According to Udai Sangani,a former PRO with the Ahmedabad ashram,Modi visited the ashram twice after he became chief minister.
The relations had soured by the time the violent protest took place in 2009,for which police booked 256 of Asarams supporters,including 72 women,on charges of attempt to murder. All those picked up were bailed out.
That year,the government had undertaken a drive to demolish 300 illegally built temples in Gandhinagar. VHP sources who opposed this say they had the backing of Asaram. Ashram sources deny it but they agree Asaram is close to VHP leaders Ashok Singhal and Praveen Togadia.
Ayurvedic doctor Amrit Bhai,54,who worked at the Ahmedabad ashram from 1989 until he fell out with Asaram in 2005,alleges that girls have long been exploited at the ashrams.
It was in 1999 that I first came to know about the exploitation of young girls. This happened in all his ashrams, he alleges. In what are known as gyan ki kutiya,where he supposedly observes solitude,young girls are sent by other disciples. Their parents have no inkling what they are subjected to. Some girls accept their fate and stay back as sadhvis,while others leave but dont register a police complaint because of the shame or threats by Asarams men.
In Ratlam,another follower who has fallen out with Asaram,and who has raised the encroachment charges with the independent MLA,recalls an incident during a satsang in 2002 when a young woman was thrown out at night. She was accused of theft after she had complained of harassment.
Amrit Bhai,who has a nationwide chain of dispensaries,alleges the ashrams ayurveda business compromises on quality for the sake of cost. Once the business started flourishing in the 1990s,Asaram started insisting I cut down on the cost of raw material. He asked me to compromise on the quality. When I said I would prefer to leave,he threatened he would not let me practise outside. In 2005,I was asked to leave, Amrit Bhai says.
On August 22,Amrit Bhai was brought to Kota by Rajasthan police on an extortion complaint by one Pawan Kumar Karamchandani. He was released the following day as the charges could not be proved. On August 24,he told the local media,I had to call my family,who hired security guards,to pick me up from Kota. There is a constant threat to my life.
Alongside those in whose eyes the guru has fallen are others whose faith is unshaken. Even if I see him doing something wrong,I will refuse to believe it because he cant do any wrong, says K S Prajapati,an engineer from Guna.
Once I was a non-believer, says Harishankar Raghuvanshi,a farmer from Bilrai village in Vidisha. A Poonam Vratdhari,today he does not even drink water on full-moon days until he has had a darshan. Whichever ashram Asaram is in that day,he visits it.
The ashram functionaries always talked sweet, says a Bhopal resident. Then one day I got a notice challenging the ownership of my own land.
Inputs by Santosh Singh in Patna & Ashutosh Bhardwaj in Raipur,Kamaal Siddiqui in Surat