In Ahmedabad, tourists wishing to visit the Sabarmati ashram are often asked to qualify their destination. “Which Bapu’s ashram?” auto-rickshaw drivers will ask them. The other Bapu is Asaram, who too has an ashram by the Sabarmati, and who has acquired a cult following besides facing allegations of black magic, land-grabbing and now sexual assault, leading to his arrest on Saturday.
From a runaway teen who reportedly preferred a life of spiritualism to marriage, Asaram has become the guru of reportedly two crore followers, with an empire said to be worth Rs 5,000 crore. The Sant Asaram Bapu Trust runs close to 400 ashrams, a few of these abroad, and at least one in each Indian state barring Kerala, Tamil Nadu and in the Northeast. In many of these states, his trust has been accused of setting up the ashram on encroached land.
Some 40 of the ashrams have gurukuls. It was at two of these that four boys were found dead in 2008, leading to allegations of black magic.
The trust runs a large printing press for 100-odd publications in a number of languages, and an ayurveda unit that prepares medicines, incense sticks, and soaps and shampoos. A former practicioner there alleges he had been asked to compromise on the quality of the medicinal preparations. The doctor and at least one other former follower have alleged expolitation of women.
Until his arrest, Asaram enjoyed VVIP status at airports; he would not be frisked and would drive straight to the aircraft. After the allegation of sexual assault, he reportedly moved around with muscle men. His disciples and Asaram himself have been known to assault people.
“It is all a conspiracy,” Sunil Wankhade, spokesperson of the Ahemdabad ashram, says of the sexual assault allegation. “Asaram will come out clean.”
By his own account, Asaram’s arrival as a “divine soul” had been foretold. Last December 1, he told a judicial panel someone had made the prediction to his mother. The panel was probing the death of two students of the Ahmedabad ashram in 2008. From Asaram’s deposition, and from a book published the ashram, Sant Asaramji ki