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HindustanTimes Wed,17 Sep 2014
In the garb of 'spirituality'
Indrajit Hazra, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, September 12, 2013
First Published: 16:50 IST(12/9/2013)
Last Updated: 04:51 IST(13/9/2013)

The benign dictator, the strong lovable patriarch who can set everything right, the object of smiling veneration has been around for a long time in Indian politics.

The cultish appeal of Indira Gandhi as Goddess Durga vanquishing the country's external enemies, an image to be conflated as 'Indira is India, India is Indira' by sycophants in the 1970s, may have found its contemporary avatar in Narendra Modi's appeal as a bearer of tough love.

But this 'political' template - going back to Mohandas Gandhi and Subhas Bose, if one cares to check on popular iconography depicting these national heroes as part of a divine pantheon, and the ma-baap veneration of British rule 1 is borrowed from the older world of DIY religions, where millions seek out 'spiritual comfort' by making charismatic individuals their personal gurus or babas.

This isn't the 'judging by their performance' that we have started to see in democratic politics of late. This arrangement involving a 'life consultant' - tagged 'godman' once something fraudulent or negative is detected about the man - involves an exchange: for one's loyalty and trust, this shepherd will impart advice about how to lead 'a good life' (and avoid 'a bad life') to his flock, lighting up the prayer hall with a miracle here and a wondrous cure there.

But the religious cult leader is much more than a psychoanalyst with bhajans or a self-help consultant without a stolen Ferrari. By definition and arrangement, the prerequisite for being a follower of a godman is to be unquestioning and automatically trusting of him - something that comes easily to a society moored in the blind reverence of elders and parental figures. The 72-year-old Asaram Bapu, as his name insists, is such a father figure.

Speaking to his followers about the victim of the December 16, 2012, Delhi gangrape-murder victim in March this year, Bapu laid out his ethics, "She should have taken god's name and could have held the hand of one of the men and said I consider you as my brother and should have said to the other two 'Brother, I am helpless, you are my brother, my religious brother.'"

For someone revered by enough acolytes even after propagating such perverse advice, Bapu's alleged crime of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old daughter of two of his bhakts should not even strike as being a crime to him. But what is more worrying is that the thousands of his devotees probably think along this line too.

Even if Bapu's legion of supporters believe that he had raped the girl, they will be defending him. That is the nature of 'belief' in godmen as they ply their trade in that terminally grey area between secular law and ethics and a mass-hypnotised herd.

The very nature of a cult makes it an opaque box with its inhabitants prescribing to an omerta, a code of silence, about the goings-on within the fold. Predictably, Bapu's supporters are maintaining a 'maun vrat' after their leader's arrest. It won't be long before the victim's parents will come under the tried and tested defence of character assassination.

Last month, when anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in Pune by unidentified gunmen many people considered it a tragedy but a tragedy brought about by Dabholkar himself. Mutterings about his 'anti-religion' crusade totally sidestepped the truth about Dabholkar campaigning not against religion but for an anti-superstition law that, in his own words, didn't contain "a single word about God or religion" since the Indian Constitution allows freedom of worship and "nobody can take that away". The law he demanded was about outlawing 'fraudulent and exploitative practices'.

Bapu had 'diagnosed' the girl - whom her parents, Bapu's followers for over 20 years, had brought to him for a 'cure' - with demonic possession. Whether or not he is guilty or not of rape will be proved by the courts. But the fact that such a 'diagnosis' was made points to a far more demonic phenomenon that goes beyond Asaram Bapu's cult.

The anti-superstition law would have found Bapu guilty according to at least two -  assault under the pretext of removing a bhoot (ghost), and engaging in sexual activity after giving an impression that one has supernatural powers. The proposed anti-superstition Bill has found takers only in Maharashtra where it took Dabholkar's murder to be brought to the table. (It is yet to be passed by the assembly.) Such a law needs to be passed on a national level.

In 1873, Madhavchandra Giri, a mahant (manager-cum-guru) of the Tarakeswar temple in Bengal was accused of raping Elokeshi, the wife of Nobinchandra Banerji who worked in Calcutta while his wife lived with her parents in the temple town.

Encouraged by Elokeshi's parents, who wanted their daughter to bear a child, the mahant established a sexual relationship with the girl. Nobinchandra, upon hearing this nefarious arrangement from his frightened wife, decided to take her away with him to Calcutta.

But the mahant, with the approval of Elokeshi's parents, got his goons to stop the couple from fleeing. In a fit of rage, Nobinchandra murdered Elokeshi and then turned himself in to the police. While the mahant was sentenced to three years' rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 3,000, Nobin was initially pardoned after a huge public petition and was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment.

Some 140 years later, a similar 'scandal' finds itself getting media attention. Here again, there's a risk that the real issue - exploitation by cults propagating superstition - will be sidetracked by the 'detractors vs supporters' noise.

The victim's ordeal at the hands of an alleged rapist who continues to be venerated by thousands is tragic. But let this horrifying episode - likely to be just the tip of an iceberg - be used to swiftly pass a law that stops sanctifying crime hiding behind the white robe of 'spirituality'.


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