It is a common belief that religious and spiritual leaders should be providing inner strength from their spiritual guidance to protect their followers from all kinds of evil. However, over the years we have seen many self-proclaimed godmen, sadhus, yogis and sanyasis in this country building up quite the reputation for themselves, some more notorious than others.
Far from protecting the followers from any diabolical activity, some of the godmen are themselves mired in absurd controversies with the script in hand – ‘catch me if you can’.
Earlier this month on June 2, the name of ‘Swadheen Bharat Vidhik Satyagrahi’ and ‘Swadheen Bharat Subhash Sena’ made headlines after some 3,000 supporters of these sects clashed with police in Mathura’s Jawahar Bagh area during an eviction operation. It all started with an illegal occupation of sprawling 280 acre land.
On January 11, 2014, thousands of activists of the Azad Bharat Vidhik Vaicharik Kranti Satygrahi – splinter group of followers of spiritual guru Baba Jai Gurudev who passed away in 2012 – illegally occupied hundreds of acres of government land at Jawahar Park in Mathura on the pretext of holding a protest.
However, despite having permission for two-day protest, they continued to stay there illegally for two years. They burnt down nearly 2,400 trees at the park to facilitate their stay. It was on May 20, 2015 when the Allahabad High Court finally directed the principal secretary (home), district magistrate of Mathura and senior superintendent of police to take “all necessary steps and precautions” to ensure that a public park was “not allowed to be encroached upon in this manner”.
While the entire state machinery was busy all this while in setting other public affairs in order, Ram Briksh, a charismatic 60-year-old “godman,” declared his followers a “free nation” of revolutionaries rejecting the government of India. The “Jawahar Bagh people”, as they call themselves, formed their own government and justice system, used their own currency instead of the rupee, and engaged in rigorous martial training. Their political program involved cheap fuel for everyone, abolition of democratic elections and other radical moves. This mysterious semi religious cult was at the center of the deadly clash in Mathura.
After the court served an ultimatum, the State finally decided to remove Ram Briksh and his supporters from a sprawling public land. But the operation was such a disaster that 29 persons including an SP and SHO died as fallout.
Mathura is not an exception. Every time the Indian police have to flush such godmen out of their hideout, we see almost same familiar script unfold. First the dungeon is allowed to build inside their ashram, then their private army are given time to form a ring of security, and when the pressure from the media or the judiciary becomes unbearable, the cops panic and resort to excessive force. What follows are the visuals we saw at the Jawahar Bagh in Mathura: teargas shells, violent clashes, firing and eventually many injured people.
The godmen in India may thrive on blind faith but they themselves put faith in private army. It’s not just about one religious cult Ram Briksh – whose private army fought a pitched battle as he waged a war against the state- there are in fact several others who have shown their private military might – Sant Rampal and Asaram Bapu, to name a few. It has also come to light that even Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the Dera Sacha Sauda supremo, too has a private army to protect him.
Police in the city of Mathura came under fire from members of the sect, who were armed with automatic weapons and hurled crude explosive devices during the violence. “The cult was being run by self-styled Hindu “god-men” whose aim was to drive followers toward a kind of “religious terrorism,” Uttar Pradesh chief police inspector DC Mishra reported to have said.
“Children as young as eight years old were being given training in arms,” Mishra further said. These controversial religious figures not only place the state against faith but also use hapless devotees including women and children as human shields to protect themselves from the law. The followers of many godmen have in past gone down the path of violent confrontation with the law to help them evade the law. Why do followers of self proclaimed god men become so blindly rapt in their devotion that their power of reasoning fails them?
Earlier in 2014, an indefinite seize was allowed to happen when hundreds of people were held hostage inside the Satlok Ashram complex of controversial sect leader Rampal and were not allowed to leave, despite the administration asking them to vacate the premises. Self proclaimed godman Rampal was evading the arrest for a crime committed by his acolytes in 2006. In the last four years, he had already evaded court appearances 43 times.
When the Haryana authority decided to get hold of the ‘godman’ to meet the deadline set by Punjab and Haryana High Court for producing him in a contempt case, a violent clash between god man’s supporter and authority broke out at the Satlok Ashram leaving over 200 persons, including security and media personnel, injured. Rampal’s supporters fired at the police and lobbed ‘petrol bombs’. However, during an interview, the devotees clearly suggested that their actions were forced by the godman’s henchmen. “Its reflection of ‘regression of rationality’ in our society, we are going through that turbulent time,” terms Purushottam Agrawal, Dean of Humanities, ITM University.
In a reminder to the state authority, the High Court on November 17 had already warned: “State government’s inability to arrest Rampal will allow even small time criminals to defy the law.” It seems that violence has become a cult characteristic. Every deviant cult leader displays a streak of violence. Rampal was no exception. He had an army of trained commandos at his beck and call which he used them to the hilt when the police laid his ashram under siege.
Later, Police investigations and cross-examination of Rampal’s associates revealed that the Baba was in favour of violence, so that the police would get scared and not dare to arrest him. This revelation is in contrast to Rampal’s claims that his supporters had captured him while the stand-off took place outside the Satlok Ashram in Barwala before he was finally captured by security agencies on November 19. Investigations had also revealed that Rampal’s associates were hatching conspiracies inside the ashram while the administration was trying to complete the operation peacefully.
Another godman, Asaram Bapu, who was arrested last year following allegations of sexually assaulting a school girl, evaded arrest for days on end. He was protected by his followers till the charade had become untenable and the Rajasthan police got him. “Why such godmen are usually given so much time that they could create their own private security cover? It’s because of their proximity with the politicians and they are everywhere whether it state or the Center,” said Purushottam Agrawal.
In August 2013, a 16-year-old girl accused Asaram of sexually assaulting her at his ashram in Jodhpur on the pretext of exorcising her from evil spirits. The girl’s parents filed a complaint with the police in Delhi, and a medical examination confirmed that she had been assaulted. When Asaram did not appear for interrogation by August 31, the Delhi Police booked him under various sections of the IPC.
Defiant Asaram continued to remain inside his other ashram in Indore and avoided arrest while his devotees clashed with journalists and policemen outside. Eventually, he was arrested on 1 September 2013 from his ashram. Protesting the arrest of Asaram, several of his supporters again attacked the police personnel outside the Parliament Street police station in Delhi.
Following the altercation, both sides indulged in stone pelting in which at least 20 people were injured and several vehicles damaged.
What is religious about all this? Its war against the state and the sects are ‘enemy of the State’.
Godmen can create hostage like situation because the states on many occasion have had kid-glove approach when it comes to dealing with such powerful godmen. Authorities are most of the time scared of taking them on courtesy - politics of identity.
Private army culture in ashrams or deras is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2002, a report was produced before the Punjab and Haryana high court by the CBI which revealed that armed guards were roaming at the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda.
In the report, the judge said: “I visited the Dera Sacha Sauda and observed that it was less a religious dera than a business centre. The dera comprised many huge buildings, kothis and flats, colleges, schools, hostels and factories… It was observed that armed persons were freely roaming around in the dera.” It said that nobody was allowed to meet dera head without the permission of his security staff.
The report also pointed towards the political clout the dera head enjoyed and says that the judge got information that a large number of people including chief ministers, ministers and bureaucrats visited the dera.
It’s not that the authorities are not aware of the ways these ashrams and deras function. But its reaction differs with different religious leaders and the size of their followers. “The state must uphold the rule of law regardless of individuals’ political connection. It’s the state’s prerogative to put such threats at bay by implementing rules with all resources at their command,” Agrawal further added.