Godman in trouble

Print edition : December 26, 2014

Rampal in a police lock-up in Panchkula before being produced before the Punjab and Haryana High Court in Chandigarh on November 20. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Supporters of Rampal clash with the police outside his Satlok Ashram at Barwala in Hisar on November 18. Photo: REUTERS

At the entrance of the ashram after the arrest of Rampal. Photo: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

The Haryana Police arrest the self-styled godman Rampal, who is an accused in a murder case, after a violent clash with his devotees in his ashram in Hisar district.

THE story of Indian democracy is never complete without its share of self-styled godmen and godwomen. Just as electoral politics is competitive, the emerging tribe of godmen too try to make their presence felt in more ways than one, not always spiritual. Even as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was savouring its maiden electoral victory in Haryana, an unexpected upheaval shook the Barwala division in Hisar, a district known for caste polarisation.

It was not a conflict between Jats and non-Jats that Barwala witnessed in November. The clashes related to a simple case of a godman, with a large following, resisting arrest. The self-proclaimed godman, Rampal, against whom the Punjab and Haryana High Court had issued a non-bailable arrest warrant on November 5, deployed his followers on his 4.8-hectare ashram situated on the outskirts of Barwala to prevent the police from entering the premises. Rampal’s faithful commandos, armed with stones, sticks and other weapons, barricaded the ashram, while he himself remained ensconced in its luxurious precincts.

On November 17, when Rampal failed to appear in the court in a contempt of court case, the court, taking cognisance of the seriousness of his offence, ordered the police to “smoke him out even if he was hiding in a bunker”. A platoon of police laid siege to the ashram on November 18, and after a violent stand-off with Rampal’s devotees for more than 24 hours, arrested the godman on November 19. In the melee, six people, five women and an infant, were killed and more than 20 mediapersons, who had reached the scene to cover the arrest, sustained serious injuries and damage to their media equipment. The State police, who carried out searches in the ashram, seized a huge cache of firearms, bombs and other weapons. The ashram was sealed and thousands of devotees, who were confined to it, were asked to leave. The court sent Rampal to judicial custody until November 28 for failing to heed its summons.

In 2006, Rampal and several of his followers were arrested on charges of murder and attempt to murder, and under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) from his Karauntha ashram in Rohtak district, after one youth was killed when the godman’s devotees clashed with Arya Samaj volunteers. Rampal was released on bail in 2009. He shifted his ashram to Barwala, where the Arya Samaj is said to be less influential than in Rohtak. In May 2013, during a confrontation with the police, who fired at the devotees gathered at the Barwala ashram, three persons were killed. In July this year, Rampal failed to appear in a court in Hisar and his supporters allegedly misbehaved with the lawyers. The District Bar Association went on an indefinite strike and demanded that the bail given to the godman in the murder case be cancelled. Rampal’s lawyer pleaded before the court that he was unable to appear in the court because of ill health. His refusal to appear in the court led to the issuance of a non-bailable arrest warrant on November 5.

Although Rampal’s followers have had confrontations with the law in the past, his bete noire appears to be the Arya Samaj, which has a strong following among Jats. The Arya Samaj, having lost its social reform character over the years, now largely runs ashrams and gurukuls, conducts marriages, and is devoted to the cause of cow protection, which has had its own problematic expressions. A follower of Rampal described the Arya Samaj as outdated. “They didn’t like our guru from the beginning,” he said.

The Kabir Panthi

Rampal, who calls himself a “Paramatma” and a Kabir Panthi, is a Jat by caste, but his followers include both Jats and non-Jats.

After he moved to Barwala, his following began to grow by the day. Stories of his having cured several people of life-threatening diseases began to circulate. And even before the residents of Hisar district realised what was happening, he had become a phenomenon. An engineer by training, Rampal was employed with the State Irrigation Department. He is reported to have demitted service in 2000 (another version is that he was removed from service), after which he began his “spiritual quest”. Originally hailing from Dhanana village in Sonepat district, he declared himself an incarnation of Sant Kabir and Guru Nanak. His testaments published by the Rashtriya Samaj Sewa Samiti, a society floated by the ashram, claim that Nostradamus had predicted the rise of such a godman in the 21st century.

The Satlok Ashram’s dedicated website introduces Rampal as “The reduced Destroyer of All Sufferings”. It claims that he is “the Incarnation of God for whom everyone has been waiting for ages” and “who has descended to Haryana”. It claims that his arrival was foretold by well-known “soothsayers”: “The Prophecies of all the Foretellers of the World e.g. Prahlad Bhagat in Janm Sakhi Bhai Bale Wali, Jaigurudev of Mathura, Nostradamus, Lady Florence of New Jersey America, Prof. Cheiro of England, Hungary’s astrologer Boriska Silvigar, Dr. Zulvoron of France, American Charles Clark, Mr. Gerard Crise of Holland, American futurist Anderson, Jean Dixon of America, G. Vegilatin, talk about a ‘Greatman’ (Mahapurush) who has taken birth in a rural area in northern part of India and will bring a Spiritual Revolution in the Whole World. Supreme God Kabir states in Kabir Sagar that I will myself descend on earth when 5505 years of Kalyug would have passed. That ‘Hari’, ‘Greatman’, ‘Mahapurush’, the incarnation of Supreme God Kabir is Jagatguru Tatvdarshi Sant Rampal Ji Maharaj. He has come to remove all the sufferings of His Children and to take everyone back to our original Home, Satlok.”

The website contains “important information for those who want to become disciples”. It forbids aspiring devotees from consuming intoxicating drinks, accepting dowry, going to places of pilgrimage, and performing the last rites, among other things. Rampal’s “teachings” seem to be an indirect critique of traditional Hindu practices though at the same time he elevates himself to the status of a super being or “paramatma” .

The majority of his followers are poor. It is said that until the 2006 clashes he was not well known. A disciple, requesting anonymity, said that Rampal’s popularity would grow considerably after the recent clashes. Rampal is estimated to have some 10 lakh followers in Haryana alone, and some 15 lakh followers spread across Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and even Nepal. Each month, Rampal would organise a satsang, or a religious “reading”, for six days when food would be served to the devotees. “He did not have any connection with political parties. If it had been the case, this police action would not have happened,” said a devotee, who claimed that his niece was cured of pneumonia by Rampal with just an assurance over telephone.

“The Karauntha conflict in 2006 was with the Arya Samaj who wanted to burn down his ashram. You see, he had made some derogatory observations against the founder of the Arya Samaj, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, which was published in a leading newspaper. He was exposing the founder’s views on women through his writings,” explained the devotee. For six months, this particular language newspaper published Rampal’s critique of Dayanand Saraswati’s book Satyarth Prakash, which also alleged that the founder of the Arya Samaj was against the backward and lower castes. “The Jats are an aggressive community and the majority of them are Arya Samajis,” said the devotee, himself a Jat. When the court gave back control of the Karauntha ashram to Rampal, the Arya Samajis protested. The ashram is now under police protection. “It is a fact that in Satyarth Prakash, there are objectionable descriptions of religious sects and social reformers. So it can be argued that a critique of the text can be made. But the larger question is, what was a self-proclaimed Kabir Panthi doing with a huge cache of arms?” Inderjit Singh, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), asked.

According to his followers, the ashram had a set of rules, one of which is not to take charity. However, Frontline got access to a pamphlet which urged devotees to make offerings of Rs.9,000 for some sermons. And money apparently flowed from rich benefactors. “Each satsang used to cost Rs.1.5 crore. He used to spend money like anything on the followers. The disciples were well taken care of. Yes, there were people who were financing him also, but it was charity. Even now there is enough food for six months at the Barwala ashram,” he said.

As for Rampal’s political views, he said voters who asked for his opinion during the elections were told to press the “NOTA” [none of the above] button. He is reportedly against the colour saffron, the devotee said. “Rampal used to tell us to shave regularly and wear white. He would say that sporting a beard and wearing saffron meant that we had something to hide. In 2005, when I first met him, he had hardly any followers. In 10 months, the following grew. It will only grow more. That this [November] incident would happen was predicted by him,” he said. About the weapons recovered from the ashram, he said they were all “licensed” ones. “He had an ongoing issue with the Arya Samajis. That is why he kept the weapons.”

Local sources told Frontline that earlier ashram personnel would not allow people to enter the premises. Now the police are not even letting mediapersons inside. “Rampal never issued any press notes. He would call reporters to a guest room and give them some kheer [a sweet rice pudding]. He was keen to advertise in the media but the content would be controversial. He never followed Kabir himself but claimed to be his incarnation. In the beginning everything was free, but gradually the ashram began charging a fee for paaths [religious sermons]. It was Rs.2,000 initially; it went up to Rs.10,000,” said a journalist employed with a prominent Hindi daily.

Religious leaders increasingly play a role in influencing voters, as was seen in the case of the chief of the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda, who has a large following among the Other Backward Classes and Dalit Sikhs. His public declaration of support to the BJP is well recognised as a major factor in swinging the votes in the Haryana Assembly elections. That he is accused of rape and murder is not something that bothers the dominant political parties. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his campaign in Sirsa, “sought” the blessings of the Dera chief.

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