The last two and a half decades have seen a spurt in faith-related activities. The recent instance involving a self-proclaimed godman has thrown up some important questions.
Among the many changes we witnessed, one very significant development in a negative sense has been the deepening of superstitious belief and ritualistic practices linked to that belief. This has been noticeable across the board. The number of rational thinkers who could counter such beliefs in the public domain are fewer [today] and the cacophony of those who support these beliefs drowns out these rational voices. This is also linked to the kind of politics we have today. It is rare to find a politician in North India not donning seven to eight rings, each ring supposedly meant to propitiate a spirit. In the earlier days, one did have among the ruling parties and politicians strong rationalists who used their public speeches to promote scientific thinking. But today the character of mainstream political parties is different. For example, I heard a senior leader from the BJP say that this would be an auspicious time to announce the names of candidates for elections.
There appears to be a demand for such godmen and healers of late. One sees a lot of them in the mass media as well.
Yes, why do godmen have resonance among the public is an issue. People are so buffeted with the volatility in their lives caused by entirely external circumstances and factors relating to jobs, increased illnesses and expenditures related to them. The only constant today is the uncertainty in maintaining a decent living and care of children. It is like in the very early days of human civilisation when people could not understand the forces of nature, they developed rituals for protection. Here one has a situation which has nothing to do with nature. Today, it has to do with the volatility in people’s lives relating to a certain set of policies that do not consider people as the centre of the agenda.
The minimum requirements for a decent life are being eliminated. For example, with the neglect of the public health system and the emphasis on the highly unregulated private health care system, a single sickness in a family could lead that family spinning into a debt, which then could lead to destitution. And it is this extent of human vulnerability today which makes people search for some hope and power in what they see beyond the real world. This in turn has fed into an industry which produces in an instant the so-called godmen and godwomen, many of whom have little to do with spirituality and much more to do with material gain and benefit. This is not to damn all spiritual figures as being charlatans and fraudsters, but only to say that just because they don saffron robes it does not necessarily mean they are spiritual.
After the recent revelations of one popular godman, there appears to be some outrage, introspection and discussion taking place. Where does this all go from here?
I can understand the feeling of hurt and dismay and even a spontaneous protest of those people who believed in the individual. But when political parties and organisations like the VHP spin out outrageous theories that this is a conspiracy against Hindutva—that Asaram has been accused of rape—it is utterly reprehensible. In fact, it demeans the religion they claim to represent because in a way it equates the crime with the religion. It also reminds one of that outrageous judgment in the Bhanwari Devi case in Rajasthan where a judge, pronouncing his verdict, said that the case was false as no upper-caste man would rape a lower-caste woman. In an increasing number of cases we have found that in the garb of sadhus and sants or of holy men of any other religion for that matter, the unconditional faith of their followers is used for sexual exploitation.
When it is a question of faith, does it make it different in terms of dealing with such issues, as often the mainstream political parties appear reluctant to take on such matters dispassionately.
One cannot deal with cases concerning such individuals in a way which is any different. Aasaram was given unwarranted consideration by the governments and the police involved. This sets a bad precedent. In my own experience, I found that when I raised the issue of [Baba] Ramdev and the adulteration of medicines, instead of looking at the facts of the case the assumption was that a person who had so many followers was automatically above any wrongdoing. This is a very dangerous assumption, too, because it immediately puts a certain class of people above scrutiny. In that specific case, because the then Chief Minister, who was a Congressman, was himself taking medicines from Ramdev, even a police report by worker-witnesses was not allowed to be filed. So, instead of an investigation, what happened was a massive cover-up and permanent destruction of all evidence to ensure that there could be no case even in the future. People ask me sometimes what happened to the case.
It is apparent that it is difficult for ordinary people, then, especially if they happen to be followers, to come out in the open against these powerful figures.
That the young girl, a minor, who came out with the charge and, along with her father, took up the case, has definitely involved a great deal of courage, particularly since the legal system here is so slow and there is always scope for an accused who is powerful to put pressure and subvert the process of justice. Unfortunately, these issues are seen through the prism of elections and votes by both the BJP and the Congress, and in such cases it is all the more important that the mainstream parties should take a strong stand, and it is their failure that they put narrow political interests above the interests of justice and rationality. It would be interesting for an inquiry to be done on the land allotted to these gurus and sadhus at concessional rates or given free and by which governments. It is equally amazing that huge extents of land can be given at concessional rates and there is no land for the landless and homes for the homeless.