Unlike the movies, not all the work done by spies is cloak-and-dagger or dangerous snooping in exotic locations. Some of it can be very mundane, such as checking the backgrounds of key personalities in a country and preparing a dossier to be sent higher up the chain.
Like the Central Intelligence Agency’s rather fanciful report from the 1990s on Sathya Sai Baba, which hailed the late spiritual guru with the distinctive Afro hairdo as a man who could “counterbalance the appeal of Hindu chauvinists and ethnic separatists”.
- A trove of 930,000 declassified documents, running into more than 12 million pages, recently posted online by the CIA provides fascinating insights into the way the US spy service covered India.
- Hindustan Times did a deep dive into the documents to find out how the CIA tracked important events and personalities in India over a period of more than five decades beginning in the late 1940s.
The 16-page report, titled Cultural Trends Study: India’s Sai Baba Movement, is among some 13 million declassified documents from the CIA that have been released online. The report was marked “Secret”, the agency’s second highest classification, and was not meant to be released to any foreign nationals.
The author of the report, whose name has been redacted, began with some key judgements, including the growth of a “worldwide mass religious movement” around the “alleged miracle worker” and the belief that Sai Baba’s “well-organised and financed movement…may even become another worldwide religion”.
After an exposition on cultural trends, the Hindu religion and the ‘sadhus’ and ‘sannyassins’ of India running into almost three pages, the report refers to Sai Baba’s claim to be the “Kalki Avatar”, whom the CIA operative likens to the return of Jesus Christ or the Muslim Mahdi who is expected to “create a new world of peace and justice”.
“In fact, he says he is the Biblical second coming. While such claims may be incredible, most of his devotees believe him,” the report states.
The report refers in a serious tone to the many “miracles” linked to Sai Baba, such as his ability to change his shape, read minds, and materialise objects such as jewellery, hot food and live animals with a wave of his hand, as well as ‘vibhuti’ (holy ash) and ‘amritha’ (nectar) exuding from the guru’s photos.
“Such claims have not been scientifically verified in a laboratory, although a team of western parapsychologists observed some of these events in a field study. While the scientific paradigm may reject the possibility of such capabilities, traditional Hindus accept them as entirely plausible,” the report states.
Sai Baba, who died at the age of 84 in 2011, was accused by detractors of resorting to conjuring tricks and sleight of hand. A 2004 BBC documentary, The Secret Swami, added to the controversies swirling around the guru with accusations sexual abuse.
The guru always denied these charges, describing them as “false allegations” by the “Judases of today”. Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a follower, once issued an official letter that described the allegations as “wild, reckless and concocted”.
The CIA report acknowledged this darker side, but stated that his “doctrine does have potential widespread appeal in a society riven by communal violence”. It referred to Sai Baba telling devotees that all faiths are equally valid and stated: “Since Sai Baba’s message supports the concept of a harmonious, multi-religious and multi-ethnic India, it has the potential to counterbalance the appeal of Hindu chauvinists and ethnic separatists”.
The report also referred to Sai Baba’s influence with “many Indian leaders”, including politicians who possibly saw the guru’s devotees as a large vote bank. “Nevertheless, Indian Prime Minister (PV Narasimha) Rao may be a devotee. He attended Sai Baba’s November 1991 combination birthday celebration, inauguration of the new hospital, and educational convocation,” it stated.
The report concluded, again fancifully, that the Sai Baba movement is “likely to eventually become another worldwide religion”, with its ample wealth, free healthcare and political influence allowing it to expand even after the guru’s death.
However, the author of the report was also hedging his bets – the last paragraph stated: “There is always the possibility, too, that the movement will collapse if Sai Baba is convincingly demonstrated to be a fraud.”