The death of two ashram boys has raked up bizarre takes about Asaram Bapu's past, his BJP links and other dubious stories
HARDNEWS BUREAU AHMEDABAD/DELHI
SOMETIME IN 1971 Asaram Bapu, then a 30-year-old ‘seeker', came to Motera to stay with Sadhashiv in his ashram. Today, Sadhashiv's Ashram shares its boundary wall with Asaram's sprawling, flourishing and prosperous ashram on the banks of Sabarmati river in Motera village, near Ahmedabad in Gujarat.
Not much is known about his background and activities. It is like a ‘dark zone,' say old-timers in Motera village. Former sarpanch Bhikabhai Thakore, 76, is skeptical about Asaram's "questionable background". Locals talk contemptuously about his previous avatar when Asaram was Aasumal Sirumalani. Like LK Advani, he was born in Sindh before Partition. Predictably, both share a warm rapport. Asaram, though 13 years younger to Advani, happens to be his ‘spiritual guru'. He also is a ‘sympathiser' of the BJP. This explains the State patronage that Asaram enjoys in Gujarat.
This also explains why the Narendra Modi government took 17 days to order an inquiry into the mysterious death of two boys - Deepesh and Abhishek. Students of the ashram's gurukul, their bodies were found near the Sabarmati river bank. Shantilal and Praful Vaghela, the victims' fathers, believe their sons were sacrificed as a part of some tantrik rituals, though police investigations claim that the boys died due to drowning. But the missing organs of one of the boys have given the deaths a bizarre twist. Was it a sinister plot, a grotesquely executed ‘spiritual murder'?
Locals refused to believe the police version and suspected foul play. Asaram is a hated figure in his own backyard. During Gurupurnima (July 18), lakhs of devotees congregated here for Asaram's discourse and ‘darshan'. Ashram inmates clashed with the locals. Journalists were beaten up. This was an action-replay of similar violence unleashed by Asaram's followers in the past.
Asaram's ashrams in Surat, Godhra and Modassa are infamous for ‘land grabbing' stories, confrontation with locals and legal disputes. In 1986, when Bhikabhai Thakore was the sarpanch of Motera village, Asaram's followers had attacked ‘Sadashiv Ashram' to grab the land after the death of Sadashiv. It was this ashram which gave shelter and food to Asaram for two years before Sadashiv asked him to build a cottage nearby for ‘meditation'. Thakore recalls that they resisted Asarams' followers who wanted to grab Sadashiv's ashram. They did not succeed, but Thakore and some villagers were framed in a false case - of assaulting a woman disciple. They were put behind bars. This further proves Asaram's clout and influence.
Asaram understands the importance of cultivating good relations with ministers and bureaucrats in the revenue and home department. Using the VHP, Asaram has always ensured that the home minister or the revenue minister pays obeisance to him in the presence of his devotees. Former home minister, the late Haren Pandya of BJP, dared to defy him, but Asaram, bragging about his popularity, publicly warned him not to underestimate his power.
In a similar incident in Surat, Asaram reportedly encroached upon farmers' land that the state government had acquired. Farmers who wanted their land back were thrashed by ashram inmates -- even local reporters were beaten up as in Motera in July. The case is pending in the Gujarat High court since 1998.
DIG Vanzara, the suspended IPS officer accused of killing Sohrabuddin Shaikh in a fake encounter, now in jail, is among his high-profile disciples. Asaram, in his official website, claims to be a "self-realised saint", but for millions of his devotees, mostly from UP, Bihar and Orissa, he is a living god. In his ashrams, there is a concerted attempt to project him as a godman. His pictures adorn the walls everywhere along with that of Shiva and Vishnu. People talk about his therapeutic hypnotic powers, tantrik vidya, though ashram spokesman Uday Sangani strong denies it. Asaram is a real spiritual master who has nothing to do with tantrik rituals, he says.
Asaram's ‘holy and spiritual status' will always be debated; but what remains undisputed is the fact that his ashram is like a massive religious fortress cum business hub that can give many corporate houses a run for their money. Motera is reportedly one of the 225 existing ashrams of Asaram, including two in the US.
Asaram's political strength is transparent. Motera's ashram has over 800 registered voters. Three elected candidates from Ward No 6 of Motera Nagar Palika are ashram inmates. All three got elected on a BJP ticket.
Asaram's official website claims that after he embarked on his spiritual journey, "he went from place to place and at nights slept on the grass, homeless and alone. He did spiritual practices in dense forests, hills, caves and in various great temples. At Kedarnath, the priest blessed Asaram to become a millionaire."
For all you know, the priest might have made a correct prophecy.