Asaram Bapu

Asaram’s empire

Print edition : October 04, 2013

Asaram with Sadhvi Ritambara and Subramanian Swamy at a rally on Hindu religion in Mumbai in 2009. Photo: PTI

That the godman Asaram Bapu did not practise what he preached was evident from the many cases of assault and land grab against him.

A regular feature of the satsangs (spiritual gatherings) of the self-styled godman Asaram is atmasudhar or soul cleansing. Using a number of Hindu mythological narratives, he reaches similar conclusions every time — atmasudhar can happen only when you live a “pious life”, one that is free of sexual desires and any form of Western influence. This, coupled with a vegan diet and regular meditation, can lead to soul cleansing, he preaches. Meat-eating, according to him, is a foreign habit and is the root cause of aggravated sexual desire and aggression among people. Sexual conduct, according to him, should be governed only by the need to keep the life cycle alive. And this is weaved into the broader narrative of deshseva(service to the nation).

His satsangs, therefore, become a vendetta platform against all forms of Western import into India. For him, if a person indulges in soft drinks, meat or junk food, or wears costumes such as denims and T-shirts or falls in love before marriage, it prevents him from atmasudhar. Through this discourse—a sordid mix of social conservatism, Brahminism, moral policing, all linked to the parochial idea of a nation—he not only demonises meat-eating communities (especially minorities in India) as foreigners and as people who are aggressively sexual, but also entrenches a world view that is widely practised by right-wing Hindu nationalist forces.

Not surprisingly, the popularity of Asaram grew by leaps and bounds in the late 1980s and early 1990s, exactly the period when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement became the stepping stone for Hindu nationalists in the Indian polity. This was also the period when the Hindu nationalist movement reoriented its political strategy towards a reactionary anti-Westernisation dialogue, indulging in various forms of moral policing, an aspect that Asaram’s teachings too reflect.

With India adopting the policies of liberalisation and globalisation in the early 1990s, market-driven consumerism and individualism were slowly becoming a norm. People were grappling with the changed ideas of living and Asaram tapped into this insecurity by employing atmasudhar. A natural corollary of this linkage is that Asaram continues to get political patronage from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled State governments —especially Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Gujarat—despite the many cases of murder, land-grabbing and sexual assault against him. When he was recently arrested on charges of rape, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the Hindu Jagruti Manch organised violent agitations across the country.

His arrest was portrayed by the Hindutva forces as an attack on Hindu culture. “The latest instance of insult that has come up is the one involving Asaram. He is 80 years old. You arrest him on charges of raping a girl? This is like telling the Hindu community that we will finish your feelings of respect towards a religious leader,” VHP leader Ashok Singhal said at a press conference in Hyderabad. Singhal’s defence of Asaram was strategic as the godman’s soaring career graph shows that he has been an asset to the Hindutva agenda.

Asumal Harpalani alias Asaram had a humble start to his career. His father ran a coal and wood trading unit. Asaram, who dropped out of school fairly early, worked as a tea-seller and as a cycle mechanic before he started a small ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river near Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in 1970. Over a period of time, he acquired around 10 acres (four hectares) from donations that came his ashram’s way. He expanded his ashram in the course of time but his popularity actually began growing in the late 1980s when he set up ashrams in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. According to one of his close aides Frontline spoke to, his following increased tremendously when he started organising satsangs in the tribal areas of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh in the same period. At present, he has the biggest ashrams in all the tribal pockets of these States. He has been publicly supportive of the reconversion of Christian Adivasis into the Hindu fold in these States.

Ram Puniyani, renowned anti-communalism activist, writes in one of his articles: “They have been attacking the missionary work in the area of education and health. Incidentally, around Christmas time, attacks are organised against churches and priests in these areas. This holy man has lots of other incidents to his account. In Jhabua area, his sadhvis beat up nuns in the Christian mission school when a 13-year-old girl was raped and killed by an outsider who had nothing to do with the school. The same holy seer sat on protest dharna when the Sankaracharya was arrested on charges which were far from divine.”

Another anti-communalism activist in Madhya Pradesh, Yogesh Dewan, reiterated this claim. “I was part of the fact-finding team in the Jhabua communal riots of 2003. There is clear evidence of the role of Asaram’s ashram, especially of his sister Krishna Behen, in inflaming communal tensions in the area. He has been involved in the reconversion programmes for the tribal people, and the riots served well for him,” he told Frontline. Asaram organises reconversion programmes in his ashrams; he organises tribal festivals in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where people are taught the values of Hinduism, including the worship of cows.

Asaram is also reputed for moral policing. As part of his diatribe against the sexualisation of Indian society as a result of Western influences, he called for the abolition of Valentine’s Day much to the delight of Hindutva activists. In his satsangs, he is full of disdain for premarital love. “Love is only a way to engage in dirty acts,” he told his followers in one of his satsangs, referring to pre-marital sex. In February 2013, he declared that Valentine’s Day would be celebrated as Matru Pitru Pujan Diwas (parent worship day) in all his ashrams, and he also proposed to all the State governments to implement it. He also found a taker of this idea in Chhattisgarh’s BJP government. The State’s Chief Minister, Raman Singh, issued circulars to all state-run schools that Valentine’s Day should henceforth be celebrated as Parent Worship Day. Behind the idea was Asaram’s understanding that those who celebrated February 14 as Valentine’s Day had no respect for their parents.

In a similar way, he advises married couples to abstain from sex on Hindu religious festivals; otherwise it could spell their doom, he warned. He even prescribed yogic tips to control sexual desire. He preaches that dancing to “rock and pop” music at nightclubs could lead to permanent pain and weakness below the knees.

In December last year, when people took to the streets over the gang rape of a paramedical student in Delhi, Asaram put the blame on the victim. He pointed out that the victim should have addressed her rapists as ‘bhaiyya’ (brother) and requested them to leave her. In such a way, Asaram noted, she could have saved herself from sexual assault.

But Asaram’s preaching and practice have no correlation. In 2008, he was accused of the murder of two boys in his Ahmedabad ashram. The D.K. Trivedi Commission was set up to investigate the case. The boys’ father, Praful Vaghela, told the commission that he had sent his boys to Asaram’s school but one day both of them disappeared. In response to Vaghela’s many enquiries, the godman merely prescribed him tantric tricks to find his sons. Days later, the bodies of the two children were found in the river. The post-mortem report revealed that all their internal organs were missing. In another instance, Asaram was accused of murdering two four-year-old students of his school at Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh.

Asaram has also been charged with amassing huge tracts of land illegally all over the country. Many cases of land-grabbing and encroachments have been filed against him. The most prominent of them is the one relating to Chhindwara where he has been accused of encroaching on tribal land. “Asaram has bought/encroached at least 100 acres [40 ha] of benaami plots in Chhindwara, where non-tribal people are not permitted to buy land. He has used his political connections to bypass all rules,” Muktar Ahmad, an advocate who is dealing with the case, told Frontline.

In February 2009, the Gujarat government acknowledged in the Legislative Assembly that Asaram’s ashram had encroached on 67,099 square metres of land in Ahmedabad. There are similar allegations pertaining to his ashrams in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

A major source of earnings for him is his flourishing Ayurvedic medicine business. In his teachings in the last 20 years, Asaram has been critical, without backing his statements with scientific proof, of the supposed ill-effects of Western medicine. It is noteworthy that he started this business only in the early 1990s when his popularity was on the rise. Asaram’s business complements his teachings about anti-Westernisation . His communal agenda and his business interests also are interlinked. The biggest money spinner for him is the Gurupurnima function, about three to four annually, during which he receives crores of rupees as donation from his followers in both India and abroad. The godman is said to have built an empire worth Rs.5,000-crore, including the Sant Asaram Bapu Trust which runs 425 ashrams, a few of these abroad; 1,400 Yog Vedant Seva Samitis; 17,000 Bal Sanskar Kendras; and 50 gurukuls.

The recent rape case is only one of the many atrocities Asaram has been accused of perpetrating over the years. The double standards of his teachings only exemplify the exploitative religious structures that a few sectarian godmen and fundamentalists have perpetuated. His teachings contextualise the mounting cases of intolerance towards reason. In times when communal polarisation is an alarming reality and fundamentalism of all kinds needs to be challenged, the case of Asaram is a litmus test for India’s credentials as a “modern” state.

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