The life sketch on Asaram Bapu’s website uses the word ‘spiritual’ 20 times to describe him — ‘spiritual flower’, ‘spiritual fragrance’, ‘spiritual solace’, ‘seed of spiritual life’ and so on. But those who have known him way before his godman avatar claim the origins of his burgeoning empire can be traced back to spirits alright — but a different kind altogether.
Asumal Harpalani, a retired Gujarat IPS officer said, started out as a bootlegger.
He was born in what is now Pakistan’s Sindh province in 1941 but his family moved to Gujarat after Partition and settled in Ahmedabad’s middle class Maninagar area. And this is where young Asumal started his career, selling liquor in dry Gujarat.
“Even since I have known him, he has been a fake saint and a big land shark. He is married, has a son, who has turned out to be equally dubious. He is a blot on religion,” says veteran Gujarati journalist Devendra Patel, who has written extensively on Asaram.
Exactly when the transition from spirits to spiritualism happened no one can tell. But around the late 1960s Asaram Bapu made his debut as a godman.
The spotless white dhoti and kurta, and eventually a snow-white beard to match, made him look the part. And that combined with a growing list of quotable quotes, life tips — on everything from marital bliss to cures for cancer — and ashrams helped him sustain the air of godliness and win more and more followers every day.
Today, the 74-year-old Asaram Bapu has more than 20 million followers, 425 ashrams across 12 countries and more than 50 gurukuls across India, his website claims.
“In Gujarat, his rise also coincided with the rise of Hindutva forces. They helped each other for mutual benefits. But his presence is now equally strong in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, parts of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh,” said the retired IPS officer from Gujarat who had a run-in with Asaram.
And then a time came when the list of his exploits came to outstrip his claims of godliness.
The same Asaram who had once preached that “morality cannot survive in the absence of spirituality and materialism inevitably brings sorrow and misery” came to be known for his love for the good life.
And then came the scandals.
In 2008, two boys — Dipesh and Abhishek — studying in his Ahmedabad ashram disappeared. Their mutilated bodies were discovered a couple of days later on the banks of the Sabarmati river. “Our boys were killed and their organs were taken out to be used for black magic and then their bodies were dumped in the river,” alleged Praful Vaghela, father of 10-year-old Dipesh.
A massive agitation was launched against the Modi government, which was perceived to be hand-in-glove with Asaram. Finally, the state government was forced to set up an inquiry commission headed by a former high court judge and the CID (crime) was asked to probe the deaths.
Former ashram staffer Raju Chandak deposed before the commission and alleged that Asaram and his son were involved in black magic and tantric practices but Chandak was shot at and seriously wounded soon after his deposition.
That was not the end of it. That year, in Chhindwara town of Madhya Pradesh, two other children were found dead in the residential institution run by Asaram. Then there were controversies involving tax evasion and land encroachment.
Last week, a 16-year-old girl alleged that Asaram Bapu had sexually assaulted her in his Jodhpur ashram. This is the first time the godman has been directly implicated.
Will the ‘miracle-worker’ manage to blow away this controversy too?