A week after spiritual leader Asaram Bapu, 72, was arrested in Jodhpur, he is lodged in Jodhpur Central Jail, for alleged sexual assault on a minor girl, theres little sign of turmoil at his ashrams in Motera in Ahmedabad and Jehangirpura in Surat. His photographs pepper every corner of the ashrams and his spiritual messages play out on audio systems. Hundreds of devotees turn up for the daily rituals of jap and sadhana, refusing to be drawn into the debate over the culpability of their spiritual guru in rape case.
Brijesh Patel, 30, from Patan, a saw-mill owner and a devotee since 2001, is one such disciple who is convinced of Asarams innocence. Bapu is a super yogi. He has inculcated such values in us that we have been practising complete restraint; we dont indulge in any addiction, he says. Patel, who brings out a newsletter Patidar Bandhu, mainly for the politically influential Patidar community, says he is working on a book that will explain how the allegations against Asaram are misguided.
Ahmedabad-based Tapasvi Patel, 26, a final-year student of chartered accountancy is similarly outraged by the allegation. A close devotee of Asaram since he was five years old, Tapasvi drives the godman around whenever he is in Ahmedabad. His family a father who recently retired asa company secretary at a corporate firm in Gujarat, a homemaker mother and an elder sister working in a pharmaceutical company have been devotees since 1989, and Patel says that their lives have only improved. We were in the middle of a financial crunch when my mother went to him first. He assured her we would get over it. Since then, we have continued to do well, he says. What cemented his faith was Asarams assurance that his father would overcome prostate cancer. Eighteen months ago, when my father was diagnosed with the disease, the doctors said it was at a late stage. We went to Bapu and he told us not to worry. Now, all my fathers tests come out fine. The oncologist says its a miracle, I think it was Bapu, he says.
Brijesh and Tapasvi are examples of the clout that Asaram Bapu continues to enjoy among his reportedly two crore followers, despite the rampant allegations of land-grabbing, intimidation, black magic and sexual assault. But if they represent the common man, the Sant Asaram Bapu Trust, which runs close to 400 ashrams across India and even abroad, also boasts of supporters that include powerful politicians former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Uma Bharti, Chattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh, chief minister Ashok Gehlot and BJP leader Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, former Gujarat home minister Amit Shah, and even jailed IPS officer DG Vanzara among others. Vanzara is known to have drunk milk only if it came from the Asaram ashram in Motera. He also wrote poems dedicated to his guru from jail. Till 2008, the spiritual leader was also allegedly close to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi before the latter distanced himself after a protest which turned violent following the death of two cousins at one of Asarams gurukuls.
Tapasvis mother, Ranjanben, 52, is convinced that Asarams arrest is linked to politics. Bapu is speaking out openly against forcible conversion to Christianity, among others. Thats why this is a conspiracy against him. I have a 29-year-old daughter who has been visiting and performing anusthans (spiritual initiation) for years. Shes never faced any such issue, says Ranjanben.
Its a view that finds an echo in Ashok Malvi, 56, a deputy superintendent of police in Bhopal and a devotee for over two decades. Malvi and his family were in Asarams Jehangirpura ashram in Surat on Janmashtami, the last time the godman made a public appearance before he was taken into custody. Since their childhood, Malvis four children three daughters and a son were a part of the ashrams vidyarthi satsang organised in Bhopal. They learned to meditate and read, do yoga and concentrate on their studies, says Malvi. His daughters are now married and his son enrolled for a course in chartered accountancy, and the family still spends hours at Asarams Indore and Bhopal ashrams, reciting the guru mantras that Asarams given them. During any crisis, Bapu gives us direction. I have met him several times and have been blessed by him. A policemans job is very stressful, but Bapu has filled me with fresh energy, says Malvi, who plans to devote more time to the ashram once he retires in three years.
If political support has helped Asaram squash allegations of abuse and intimidation, it has also lent him muscle power. After accusations of black magic came up against Asaram in 2008-09, protestors outside his ashrams were roughed up by ardent disciples and strongmen hired to protect the godman. It helped that Asaram had built a Rs 5,000 crore empire by then, with followers ready to donate generously at his call. Kishan Bhatia, 45, a realtor based in Dubai, first heard of Asaram when he was still a resident of Nasik. His cousin had given him recordings of Asarams preachings 13 years ago and he had been greatly moved by them. He attended a satsang in Ulhasnagar in 2000, when he was still running a small business in the city and earning Rs 20,000. In 2003, he met Asaram in Allahabad and spent 30 minutes with him. It was like a dream come true. He gave a mantra and told me to recite it regularly. He also gifted me his photo and a rudraksh mala, says Bhatia. Soon, he moved to Dubai and started a construction business that increased his earnings manifold. Because of his blessings, I am earning millions of rupees. Whenever I come to India, I deposit Rs 50,000 in Bapus trust, says Bhatia, who comes at least thrice a year to visit Asaram.
Jayant Pandya, chairman of voluntary organisation, Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha, which promotes a scientific approach among people to check superstition in society, attributes the popularity of people like Asaram Bapu to a sense of greed and fear in people and to a predisposition towards superstition. All of us have problems. People always look for support and guidance to steer them towards solutions. Thats where people like him (Asaram Bapu) come in. After helping them, such people give an impression of having a hold on their lives. There are also others who are greedy and want people like Asaram to wield their clout in favour of their followers. That also increases the number of their followers, he says.
Reena Naik, 32, a resident of Mahuva taluka in Surat district, however, sees nothing wrong in seeking help in distress. She began visiting the Jehangirpura ashram with her mother as a child and attended student sammelans. A special educator for differently-abled children in Surat, she married another Asaram follower in 2002, whom she met at a sammelan, but only after she received a go-ahead from Asaram. Naik even believes Asarams blessings helped her have a normal delivery despite difficulties in her second pregnancy. In the seventh month of my pregnancy, the USG tests showed that the baby was in a breech position. We showed the report to Bapu and he told us not to opt for a Caesarean delivery and to wait. In the ninth month, when things didnt change, the doctors urged us to get a C-section delivery done. We stuck to Bapus advice and prayed to him. Because of his spiritual powers, I delivered a healthy baby girl, she says. Naik does not believe she put her life in danger by waiting against her doctors advice. It was Bapus blessing, she says.
But his arrest might have finally moved a few of his devotees to rethink their blind devotion. Raju Nagora, a food vendor in Sola area of Ahmedabad, used to keep a photo of his guru in his cart in which he vended dalwada. However, following the arrest, Nagora has removed Asarams photograph from his cart, keeping business interests at heart. Visitors keep asking us if we follow him (Asaram). Some even ask uncomfortable questions that we are ill-equipped to answer. We follow him in our hearts, that is enough, says an attendant at the joint.