Ashrams and crime

A tale of criminal sants

Print edition : September 29, 2017

Mahant Nritya Gopal Das (second from left), head of the Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust, one of Ayodhya's richest trusts, and chairman of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, at the site of the Babri Masjid in December 2015. Photo: By SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Ayodhya, home to some of the richest ashrams and maths, is not a stranger to rape, murder and gang wars over succession, but the mahants implicated in them manage to walk away scot-free.

AYODHYA, one of the most prominent temple towns of India, reacted to the conviction of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh with a unique mixture of sentiments. At one level, the ancient town accepted the facts of the case as a matter of routine. At another, there was conspicuous amazement. Ayodhya’s residents were not surprised that the Baba of Sirsa was found to be a criminal guilty of rape and accused of other forms of violence, including murder. The temple town has abounded with such “spiritual types” for decades. Their numbers are not in scores but in hundreds. Police records of Faizabad district, of which Ayodhya is a part, state that as many as 350 sadhus (declared spiritual persons) have been booked for crimes such as murder, rape, land-grabbing and dacoity over the past few years.

The records also state in unequivocal terms that a large number of the 7,000-odd “spiritual structures”, which includes big and small temples and “ashrams and maths” (temple-like abodes where a large number of the sadhus and their associates reside), have become centres of crime. “We have been living with these criminal sadhus and putting up with them for so long that we naturally see Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh too as one of their ilk. But as residents of Ayodhya, we are indeed astonished that a baba could get convicted in a court of law and that the conviction could be enforced. Here, it is a rarity if not an impossibility,” said Sheetla Singh, editor of Janmorcha, the popular Hindi daily with its headquarters in Faizabad. Sheetla Singh added that such was the clout and financial power of these criminal sant-mahants that the charges against them did not get framed in formal legal parameters. Consequently, there was no worthwhile investigation in most cases. Normally, he said, the cases did not reach the courts for trial too. Even when they did come up for trial, there were hardly any convictions.

Three broad categories

Sheetla Singh classified “sadhu crimes” into three broad categories. He told Frontline: “Money-related crimes aimed at grabbing land, property and riches of temples and other religious institutions form one category. A huge moneylending business too is carried out by these religious institutions and their leaders, and that too leads to money-related crimes. Power-related crimes, where religious superiors, particularly heads of temples, ashrams and maths, are either killed or subjugated by junior mahants form the second category. A sizable number of disciples of the mahants are impatient to acquire power and they cannot wait till the senior passes away naturally. This impatience drives them to planned murders or evictions. The third category is sex-related, where rape and trafficking are carried out by these criminal sadhus to satisfy their lust-ridden cravings. You can find many of these criminal sadhus jetting across the town in huge four-wheel-drive vehicles or fancy motorcycles. They all flaunt their power and money in various ways, including public exhibition of guns and firearms. This, in turn, has encouraged an active illicit gun-running racket that is guided and controlled by people in some of the temples, ashrams and maths. The cumulative effect of all this is that some sadhus indulge in crimes blatantly, knowing fully well that their so-called spiritual garb provides them near-certain protection from being proceeded against legally.”

A complaint of gang rape that was reported in May 2017 is a clear case in point. A middle-aged woman and her daughter approached the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Faizabad stating that the police were refusing to file their complaint of rape against five sadhus of the Janki Niwas Mandir in Ayodhya. The women had been trying to get the complaint registered for as long as three months, but the police had paid no heed. Their plea in the court stated that the mother had been raped repeatedly over many months and the sadhus had threatened her into silence, warning her about dire consequences. The woman had put up with this torture, but when the five sadhus raped her daughter too in February 2017, she decided not to suffer in silence any more and approached the police. A case was registered and an inquiry initiated, but there has not been much progress after that.

Murder of sants

The fate of cases relating to the murder of four sants in 2013-14 is no different. The murders took place between July 2013 and August 2014. Cases were registered and some arrests took place, but many of the accused, prominent figures, decamped to safer havens, and some of them have been marked in official records as perennially missing. All the four killings were apparently related and had tussles for property and riches of so-called spiritual centres at their core. The urge to acquire greater “mahant power” also played an important part in these crimes. At the centre of all this is the Ganga Bhawan, a temple run by the Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust, headed by Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, who is also chairman of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, a trust controlled by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) under the directions of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, with the self-professed objective of constructing a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood until December 6, 1992. The Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust is arguably the largest and richest trust in Ayodhya and has several institutions under its control, including temples, ashrams, maths, hospitals, Sanskrit schools and colleges. A sizable number of these properties and institutions are in Ayodhya, but the trust has grown beyond the temple town to other parts of Uttar Pradesh and the country.

The last of the killings was on August 28, 2014. The man killed was 45-year-old Mahant Vijay Ram Das. He was found murdered in the Ganga Bhawan temple a few weeks after he had been appointed “vyavasthapak sadhu” (priest manager) of Ganga Bhawan by Mahant Nritya Gopal Das. The vyavasthapak sadhu of the more-than-100-year-old Ganga Ram temple is considered to be in a powerful position in Ayodhya as donations and other receipts are routed mainly through this temple manager of sorts. From the initial investigations, it was clear that there was an “insider element” in the killing. By the end of August 2014, the police arrested a person called Durgesh Tiwari, one of the residents of Ganga Bhawan. Investigation reports had it that Durgesh Tiwari had financial dealings with Mahant Vijay Ram Das and there were disputes over the dealings. There was also the perception that Durgesh Tiwari himself wanted to rise to the higher echelons of the trust’s structure and viewed Mahant Vijay Ram Das as an impediment.

Similar power- and money-related tussles were behind the other three murders too, a senior police official of Faizabad told Frontline. According to him, these tussles had manifested as gang clashes as early as July 2013 and began with clashes between gangs led by Mahant Bhavnath Das and Mahant Balram Das of Sagariya Patti. Amidst the clashes, one Ramesh Das shot dead Ram Bharat, a disciple of Mahant Balram Das. Ramesh Das was arrested, but one of the main instigators of the clashes, Mahant Bhavnath Das, was not apprehended. Incidentally, Mahant Bhavnath Das is the founder-president of Samajwadi Sant Sabha, which, apparently, seeks to link spiritual activities with the concepts of socialism. Following this, Ramdev Das, the vyavasthapak sadhu of the Ayaramji Akhara Udaseen temple, was shot dead in the first week of February 2014. Three and a half months later, Ayodhya Das Lal, the priest of a temple in the Vasudevghat area, also went missing in mysterious circumstances and was later reported dead by the police. Common to all the killings was the fact that the so-called spiritual institutions with which the murdered men were associated had massive wealth. The main reason for each of the murders, initial investigations revealed, were tussles aimed at enhancing material wealth and power. But beyond these findings, the cases are yet to produce any concrete legal results.

A senior retired police officer who has spent considerable time in Ayodhya and Faizabad said that around 200 sadhus had been killed in Ayodhya in the past decade according to informal estimates. He said: “Among those murdered are sadhus like Mahant Lal Das, the priest of the Ayodhya Ram temple in the early 1990s. He was committed to protecting communal harmony and peace in the region and he was hounded by the criminal sadhus for that reason too. But there are other sadhus who have been killed by the police in encounters because the department could not take concrete legal measures for want of evidence, though their atrocities had become rampant and unbearable.”

Stories also abound in Ayodhya about how hardened criminals take refuge in the temple town as sadhus with the intent of escaping from the law. The so-called sadhus, when they are co-opted by an ashram, math or temple or even a mahant, are allowed to give up their former identities, including their parentage and places of birth and origin. They come to be identified as chelas of different sants and mahants who are in charge of various institutions. In turn, the sants and mahants use these criminals to do their dirty work. This was revealed in a case relating to the 1998 shooting at Guptar Ghat near the Sarayu river in Ayodhya, which led to the death of four people and injuries to many. This case involved an assault on the local fishermen’s community launched by a group of sadhus led by the infamous Mauni Baba, mahant of the Yagya Shala ashram. When the case on this assault was filed, four of the five accused were merely named as chelas of Mauni Baba.

It is common knowledge in Ayodhya that all the well-known temples, ashrams and maths encourage criminals to take refuge with them. The bigger institutions such as the Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust, the Digamber Akhara and the Ram-Janaki Nivas that support the RSS, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar, as well as the Hanuman Garhi temple, which swings between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, are no exception when it comes to this illegal activity. However, Sheetla Singh pointed out that such activities became more widespread and accepted after the Sangh Parivar launched the Ayodhya Ram temple agitation in the mid 1980s. Sheetla Singh said: “To start with, that movement was led by Mahant Ramachandra Paramhans, who took the lead to smuggle in idols of Ram, Sita and Lakshman into the Babri Masjid in 1949. While that itself was a criminal act, what unfolded in the mid1980s was the Sangh Parivar’s desperate attempt to polarise society on communal lines to overcome its organisational deficiencies. It was because of this overwhelming intent at that point of time that the RSS, the VHP and the BJP patronised these criminal elements as never before. That has taken root and become the norm and the system now.”

The author Scharada Dubey, in her 2012 book Portraits from Ayodhya, which records oral history and relates tales of the temple town, shows how Mahant Nritya Gopal Das’ emergence as a prime player in the Sangh Parivar itself was through this route. The book contains several instances of the mysterious deaths of people who opposed him institutionally and those who refused to give him their land or property. But, as is the wont in Ayodhya, none of these cases has reached its logical conclusion. Mahant Nritya Gopal Das and the Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust he leads reign over the temple town with not many asking questions about their supremacy or the manner in which it was acquired. And of course, chelas also rule the roost as best as they can under the tutelage of the masters.

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