Asaram Bapu has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons for years now, both before and after his arrest in September 2013. The latest amongst these incidents connected to the godman is the death of a third witness in criminal cases against him – Kripal Singh, who was shot by two motorcycle-borne assailants in Puwayan in the Shajahanpur district of Uttar Pradesh.
Even by the murky standards of India’s self-styled spiritual gurus, the allegations whirling around the 74-year-old Asaram are exceptional: suspected black magic and human sacrifice; the deaths of four young male students of the residential schools in his ashrams, of which the bodies of two were found severely burned and mutilated, their limbs and internal organs missing; sexual assault of a minor girl under the pretext of ‘exorcism’; allegations of repeated rape and illegal confinement of two sisters, supposedly with the complicity of the godman’s son, the latter also having been accused of raping the victims; attacks in four states against nine witnesses in criminal cases against the godman, leading to the death of three, of which one was a former personal aide of the guru and another his former cook; threats and intimidation of complainants, witnesses and their families, apart from judges and investigating officers in multiple states.
These do not include other alleged crimes that seem to be associated with Asaram – the suspicious deaths of at least two ashram employees, rumours of widespread sexual exploitation of female devotees, nearly a dozen cases of land encroachment across states, and pervasive financial irregularity. All of it apparently carried out brazenly thanks to the blessings of a higher power – the political elite in his home state and elsewhere.
Who is Asaram Bapu?
Born Asumal Sirumalani in pre-Independence Sindh in 1941, Asaram moved along with his family to Ahmedabad following Partition. The young man who once drove a tanga in Ajmer carrying pilgrims to the Dargah, and spent many years wandering pilgrimage spots, was eventually taken into a religious order in 1964, thus acquiring the name he is now known by.
Starting out in a hut in Motera on the banks of the Sabarmati in the early 1970s, Asaram’s religious empire grew to become one of the largest in the country, today consisting of 400 minor and major ashrams spread across multiple Indian states and abroad, and attracting thousands of devoted followers.
Not surprisingly, political leaders across parties have at one point or the other sought the guru’s blessings, if not been outright followers; the list includes former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Nitin Gadkari, Chief Ministers Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Raman Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal, all from the BJP, as well as Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath and Motilal Vora of the Congress. Narendra Modi had appeared on stage with Asaram on several occasions in his Gujarat days, although after the allegations surfaced, he warned other BJP leaders against defending the godman.
There is no doubt that Asaram commanded great loyalty. One well-known devotee, D.G. Vanzara, the jailed ‘encounter specialist’ of the Gujarat police, is said to have insisted on drinking milk only if it was brought from the godman’s Motera ashram. According to some reports, Vanzara’s bitter missive from prison accusing the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of using and then abandoning him was said to have been prompted by the news of his spiritual guru’s arrest. “My god (Modi) could not save my guru (Asaram). How will he save me?” Vanzara had written in his September 2013 letter.
The Jodhpur rape case
In August, 2013 the Delhi police filed a case against Asaram on a complaint made by a 16-year-old girl, who alleged that the religious godman sexually assaulted her in his Jodhpur ashram. In her complaint, the girl, who hails from Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh, said that she was asked to perform oral sex and was also touched inappropriately during what was supposed to be a ceremony to cure her from evil spirits. The incident took place on 15th August, 2013.
On August 31, 2013 Asaram Bapu was arrested and flown to Jodhpur, where he was imprisoned. Investigators also alleged that Asaram video-recorded his sexual acts with several women so as to blackmail them into granting him further sexual favours. He was booked under Sections 342, 376, 506 and 509 of the IPC, as well as under Section 8 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) and sections 23 and 26 of the Juvenile Justice Act.
Asaram has remained in jail since then, his bail pleas having been rejected six times, despite having been represented by two of the most prominent lawyer-politicians in the country, Subramanian Swamy and Ram Jethmalani. One of the arguments made by Jethmalani in court stretched to the absurd; for instance, that the victim had a “chronic disease which draws a woman to a man”.
Meanwhile, the victim’s family says that they have been receiving threats from Asaram’s followers to drop the charges against their spiritual leader. In September 2013, it came to light that the Sessions Judge Manoj Kumar Vyas, under whom this case was being heard, had received threats warning of “consequences” if he did not grant bail to Asaram. The Jodhpur police also booked three of Asaram’s followers for issuing death threats to the SHO in charge of security during the godman’s hearings.
In February, 2014 the judge framed the charges in the case, retaining all except Section 26 of the Juvenile Justice Act, which pertains to exploitation of juveniles/child labour. Taken together, the various charges could attract a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
In December, 2014 the brother of the victim was threatened by Asaram’s followers that if he did not settle the on-going case, then the lives of the family would be placed at risk. An FIR was lodged against the two men who made the threats i.e. Narayan Pandey (29) and Pradeep Mishra (30).
In February 2015, Rahul K. Sachan, a witness in the case was stabbed outside the Jodhpur court moments after giving his statement. The attacker, Satyanarain, was later identified as an aide of Asaram.
In April this year, senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy met Asaram in jail and afterwards announced that he would argue on the guru’s behalf as denial of bail to him was a “violation of his fundamental rights”. On June 20, 2015 Swamy argued in court that the entire case was fabricated and, therefore, that Asaram deserved bail, but the bail application was rejected by Judge Vyas.
On July 8 2015, Sudha Pathak, a witness, turned hostile. Four days later, Kripal Singh, a key witness in the case, was shot at and eventually died. In his dying declaration, he gave the police the names of three persons who were later identified as followers of Asaram. Kripal had also said that the three had approached him in the Jodhpur court and offered him a hefty sum if he were to withdraw from the case.
The Surat double rape cases
In October 2013, two sisters from Surat came forward to say that they were raped by Asaram and his son Narayan Sai. The elder of the two sisters alleged that she was raped by Asaram at an Ahmedabad ashram and the younger one alleged the same against his son in Surat. Narayan Sai was arrested In December 2013 and the police chargesheet against him was filed on March 1, 2014.
As in the earlier sexual assault case, the Surat cases have also seen a spate of attacks on witnesses.
Soon after the March 2014 chargesheet, the husband of the younger sister was stabbed by an unknown attacker within the confines of a hospital compound.
On March 17, 2014 a witness by the name of Dinesh Bhavchandani, aged 39, was attacked with acid by two men on a motorbike. He had made a statement against Asaram in the case. On May 24, 2014 Amrut Prajapati, a former aide of Asaram and key witness in this case, was shot at and later succumbed to his injuries. He had been Asaram’s personal physician for over ten years but left the Ashram after receiving threats from members of the ashram. He also testified that videos were used as blackmail to sexually coerce women members of the ashram.
On January 11, 2015 Asaram’s former cook and a key witness in this case, Akhil Gupta (35) was shot dead by two unknown people. He had testified that he had spotted the two rape victims entering Asaram’s room.
In May 2015 Mahendra Chawla, the former personal secretary of Narayan Sai, was shot and injured by two unknown attackers. He had provided detailed testimony against both Asaram and Sai, including allegations of financial irregularity, intimidation and sexual exploitation of devotees. Chawla is one of three former Asaram associates who were key prosecution witnesses in the case; the others being Akhilesh Gupta and Amrut Prajapati, both of whom were killed.
Modus operandi similar
Although Asaram has consistently denied the allegations against him as well as any connection to the attacks on witnesses, the pattern that emerges from the multiple suggests these are far from random acts perpetrated by emotionally disturbed followers.
First, the pattern is almost always the same – it starts with death threats (usually also involving family members of the witness), followed by bribe offers, and if that too fails, violent assault or an attempt on the witness’s life.
Secondly, the modus operandi of the attacks on witnesses also reveals a pattern. The attacks on Akhil Gupta and Kripal Singh were carried out by motorcycle-borne assailants, firing .12 bore country-made pistols aimed at the spinal cord from a close range. In fact, the police in Muzaffarnagar and Shajahanpur have started a joint investigation to ascertain whether the same hit team was behind both attacks.
Meanwhile, other witnesses in the cases continue to be threatened. Recently, police protection for Arvind Bajpai, a crucial witness in the Jodhpur case, was escalated following the killing of Kripal Singh. The Principal of Saraswati Shishu Inter College in Shahjahanpur had testified in court that the victim was a minor, and had earlier received death threats over the phone.
A few days after Kripal Singh’s death, two woman police officers of the Ahmedabad police investigating the Surat rapes received a threat in the form of a letter, supposedly sent by Asaram’s followers.
It was reported on July 24 2015 that the UP Police had ordered a CBI probe into the death of Kripal Singh due to the peculiarities of the situation.
Asaram and his son might still be behind bars, but the inability of the authorities to stop the killings of witnesses and the threats and attacks on their family members raises serious questions about how the cases will eventually end up.