Frontline special

Tainted guru

Print edition : October 13, 2017
Despite several serious charges against Asaram Bapu, there has been little progress in the cases against the godman.

THE godman Asaram Bapu may not be as flamboyant as Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda who was recently convicted for rape, but he was also allegedly involved in several crimes. In September 2013, 76-year-old Asaram Bapu was arrested on the charge of having raped a 16-year-old girl. Subsequently, several allegations of sexual assault, illegal confinement, black magic, land- grabbing and murder were levelled against him. He is currently serving time in jail for rape.

With the Gujarat courts dragging their feet on the other cases, there has been little progress in them. Despite several serious and shocking charges and extremely incriminating evidence against Asaram Bapu, it is curious that the cases have not been fast-tracked. Additionally, it raises the question whether there is a need for stricter laws specifically for “gurus” and godmen who exploit the vulnerable.

It is expected that after the ruling against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, Asaram Bapu will be the next godman to be tried. In fact, the Supreme Court had earlier this year asked the Gujarat government to expedite Asaram Bapu’s case. Recently, it rapped the State government for not examining the victim. The godman faces charges of rape and illegal confinement in two cases, one in Rajasthan and the other in Gujarat.

Asaram Bapu began his “spiritual movement” in Gujarat, which soon spread to other parts of western and northern India. He built a network of 400 ashrams in 12 nations and has a legion of followers. He enjoyed the patronage of senior politicians, bureaucrats, police officials and well-known businessmen. It is believed that he also enjoyed a certain amount of protection from his powerful associations. However, his smooth run hit rough weather in 2008 when four boys were found dead in two ashrams. This opened a can of worms and out tumbled sordid tales of sexual assault and the alleged possibility of children being used in sacrificial ceremonies.

It was the rape of a minor girl in an ashram in Jodhpur that led to his arrest. The victim’s parents filed charges and with witnesses bearing testimony to the crime, the godman was promptly booked and arrested. This story took a dark twist when three witnesses who spoke to the police were shot dead one after the other. Their families live in hiding, fearing that Asaram Bapu’s followers will eliminate them. “It’s the influence he continues to wield even from behind bars,” a former follower said.

Deaths in the ashram

On July 3, 2008, two boys aged 10 and 11 went missing from the Motera Ashram’s gurukul. Two days later their mutilated bodies were found by the Sabarmati riverbed near the ashram. According to informed sources, a part of one boy’s body was burnt and organs from the other’s body had been removed. The deaths led to a Statewide strike. “I have never seen the State shut down in this manner. People were really angry because the police would not register a complaint. It was at this time that the allegations of black magic began,” says Dakxin Chhara, a film-maker based in Ahmedabad who followed the issue.

Later that month two nursery students were found dead in the ashram’s toilets. Forensic examination revealed bite marks on one body. A reliable source said that a senior student was arrested in this connection. Strangely, the children’s parents did not press charges against the boy or Asaram Bapu.

The outrage that followed the killings led to an inquiry by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and later the setting up of the D.K. Trivedi Commission. Initial investigations conducted by a special force did not find any evidence of occult practices on the ashram premises. Six people were arrested in connection with the killings. The commission’s independent probe of the deaths revealed much more. Two aides of Asaram Bapu and his son Narayan Sai told the commission that they had seen father and son perform strange rituals around dead bodies and that they had seen unusual tools used for these ceremonies. For reasons best known to them, the victim’s family initially backed away and their lawyer said they would not press charges. But a few years later, the boys’ parents took the ashram to court. The case is pending in the Sessions Court.

The D.K. Trivedi Commission summoned Asaram Bapu and his son several times but they refused to depose. According to informed sources, the father-son duo threatened the then Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, that they would bring the government down if they continued to be harassed. Eventually, in 2012, they were forced to depose. The godman told Justice Trivedi that linking him to these crimes was a planned conspiracy against the ashram and the Hindu religion.

Several of Asaram Bapu’s followers admitted their children to the gurukuls attached to the ashrams. A source familiar with the case said that in August 2013, a couple’s 16-year-old daughter was summoned by Asaram Bapu as she was apparently unwell. They took her to his chamber to be treated. He asked them to leave her with him. The victim said that once the parents had left, Asaram Bapu removed his clothes and forced himself on her, according to a Special Investigation Team (SIT) report. The area was secluded and her screams could not be heard. Reportedly, he told her that he was God and that she should offer herself to him and threatened to kill her and her family if she resisted.

It took her a few weeks to confide in her parents, and when she did, they tried to confront Asaram Bapu. He refused to meet them. The parents then filed a complaint, and the guru was booked under Section 376 (rape) and several other charges, including a few under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act. Asaram Bapu was arrested a month later and has since been in the Jodhpur jail.

The victim’s family lives with 24-hour security. “That he (Asaram) is in jail does not mean the family is safe. Every killing took place after his arrest. People attached to this case have either disappeared or have been killed. He is a dangerous and powerful man,” said an Ahmedabad-based lawyer who was involved in the Motera boys’ case.

Asaram Bapu and his son also face charges of rape from two sisters in Surat. One of the women said that she was raped for three years by the guru. The other charges the son with rape. A SIT of the Gujarat Police, on the basis of depositions from about 100 witnesses, booked Asaram Bapu, his wife, daughter and four sevikas (volunteers) for rape, illegal confinement, criminal conspiracy and unnatural sex.

Dead and missing witnesses

When Asaram Bapu was arrested, his followers threatened to take revenge. It was not an empty threat. Three close associates of the guru who stepped forward as witnesses were shot dead.

Amrut Prajapati was killed on May 23, 2014. An ayurvedic doctor, he was Asaram Bapu’s personal physician. Prajapati had worked in various ashrams for 15 years. When he left the ashram in 2005, he was repeatedly threatened by the guru’s henchmen. He was even kidnapped once and beaten and warned not to reveal any information. Prajapati, however, went ahead and deposed as a witness. He was shot dead by gunmen in Rajkot outside his clinic.

Akhil Gupta, Asaram Bapu’s cook, was shot dead in Muzaffarnagar on January 12, 2015. He was a confidante of the guru and helped in the organisation’s finances. He told the SIT that he left the ashram in 2008 as he was not comfortable with the misdeeds of the father and son. Gupta was the prime witness in the 16-year-old’s rape case. He was shot dead while going home from work.

The third witness to be killed was Kirpal Singh. He had been a follower of Asaram Bapu since the early 2000s. He reportedly knew one of the alleged rape victims. Singh was a key witness in the rape case. He was shot on July 10, 2015, in Punwara.

A fourth witness, Rahul Sachan, also a key witness in the rape case, went missing on the afternoon of November 21, 2015. He is feared dead. Sachan was a former assistant of the godman and had reportedly quit the ashram as he was also privy to information which he did not approve of. Sachan had also been demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the assault and murder of witnesses. Charges have not yet been filed in these cases.

Asaram Bapu’s popularity

An informed source said Asaram Bapu was once a sugar trader in the Kalupur market in Ahmedabad. Born Asumal Sirumalani in Sindh, Pakistan, Asaram, like thousands of Sindhis, came to India during Partition. His family settled in Ahmedabad and began a business trading in various commodities in the wholesale market. Some sects among Sindhis are known to patronise gurus, and Asaram’s family godman was Lila Shah, who lived in the Himalaya. It is not known when Asaram took the “spiritual path”, but in 1971 he surfaced on the banks of the Sabarmati in a small hut-like structure where he would hold sermons and dish out ayurvedic medicines to the local people, according to the source.

“His biggest draw was [that] he did not distinguish between caste and community. Therefore, he was extremely popular among the backward classes of Gujarat, who bear the brunt of a regressive caste system that tends to define their existence,” the source said.

In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya rape case, Asaram Bapu incurred the wrath of activists and the media when he said that the victim was partly to blame for the assault. It remains to be seen if the authorities will expedite his case and deliver justice to his victims.