If the multiple deaths in the Vyapam case have created a furore in India like never before with the Supreme Court and the public demanding a thorough probe into the deaths and the examination and recruitment scam, the Asaram case has all the ingredients of becoming another Vyapam-like saga. Last week, 35-year-old Kripal Singh, a key witness in a Jodhpur case against the godman, was shot by unidentified attackers in UP’s Shahjahanpur district. In a statement given to additional city magistrate, Singh alleged that people connected to Asaram were threatening him.
In January, another witness, Akhil Gupta, was killed in Muzzaffarnagar. Now, police in both the districts have begun a joint probe to ascertain whether the two witnesses in the two separate rape cases against Asaram were killed by the same people. Apart from them, two persons have been killed and five grievously injured for standing up to Asaram and his son Narayan Sai, both of whom are in jail since 2013 after they were booked for rape.
While Asaram is not the first godman involved in illegal activities, India’s unfortunate love affair with such dubious people doesn’t seem to end. Sociologists say there is a difference between the gurus of yesteryear and the new ones: Unlike the earlier generation of gurus, who only wanted their followers to be spiritual, the contemporary godmen claim it’s possible, even desirable, to be both spiritually and materially rich. This fits in well with contemporary ideas of well being. The sudden profusion of godmen is a manifestation of the rise in the self-improvement culture, where a guru functions as a personal trainer, a sociologist wrote in this paper some months ago. But their popularity should never be allowed to be used as a shield to cover up their illegal acts.
Both the cases (Vyapam and Asaram) also underline the importance of having a strong witness protection law. India is finalising a Whistleblower Protection Act, but it does not have a provision to protect people like Akhil Gupta. In a country where conviction rates are abysmally low and witnesses turning hostile is endemic, the need for a strong witness protection law is hardly a game-changing idea. Along with the law, India also needs a well-staffed police force and judiciary to ensure that the law is properly implemented on the ground.