For more than a month now, self-styled godmen are smarting under a media blitzkrieg in Odisha, where they have enjoyed loyalty of devotees and patronage of politicians for long.
It started on August 4, when a TV news channel aired a story on a controversial godman Sarathi baba holidaying with a woman in a five-star hotel, sparking violent protests in front of his ashram in coastal Odisha’s Kendrapara district.
On August 30, in a virtual action replay, violent protests erupted against another godman, Sura baba in front of his ashram at Jihinti village on the outskirt of Bhubaneswar following TV reports that the ashram was a den of vices.
Both Sarathi and Sura have since been arrested on charges of forgery, cheating, land grabbing, illegal confinement and arms act among others. In both the cases, law enforcing agencies did not have prima facie evidence against the godmen before arrest and evidence was gathered later.
Crime branch of police investigating both Sarathi and Sura have found similar patterns in the steady increase in their wealth and landed properties. Sarathi’s properties are estimated to be worth Rs 20 crore while Sura’s empire is said to much bigger.
“Both generated, even extorted, revenue from their devotees and turned them into personal wealth. Unlike Sarathi, Sura’s activities have roots in several parts of the country and we are investigating into it,” said BK Sharma, the state additional director general of police (crime branch).
In between covering Sarathi and Sura, competition among channels ensured that the spotlight shift to other godmen as well, with most stories having a heady cocktail of wealth, influence and women – a godman cozying up with a foreigner woman or another holding soiree with only women in company in an ashram built on government land. Covering salacious details helped shoot the ratings of the channels, some of them launched recently, to unprecedented heights, but it also raised questions of journalistic propriety.
“It is good that the media took the lead to demolish the myth of the self-styled godmen, but at the same time, reporting should have been more fact-based and less titillating. When we are reporting a crime, we must report the exact nature of it and need to draw a Laxmanrekha,” said veteran journalist Rabi Das.
Stung by repeated media coverage of godmen and opposition’s attack, the state government has ordered probe into the alleged encroachment of land by the so-called babas, especially in coastal Odisha.
“I have asked 10 district collectors to submit a report after inquiry. Our concern is to ensure that government land is free of any encroachment,” Cuttack revenue divisional commissioner Bikash Mohapatra told HT.
This has forced the godmen to scurry for cover. A well-known baba who is said to have a huge following, has abandoned his ashram, said to be built entirely on government land in Konark.
Many others have been lying low, but one Bhubaneswar-based baba running a chain of schools seem to have hit back at the media after a foreigner lodged a case against a TV channel head for harassment.
More than a hundred godmen have their ashrams in the districts of coastal Odisha, home to a large number of where temples and ‘maths’. But most of these low-profile babas are not rich or influential like their counterparts in other states. Very few like Sura or Sarathi flourish because of political patronage while a majority live in obscurity.
Sura baba’s sprawling 14-acre ashram have several temples, ponds and well-furnished houses for about 100 families, park and even a toy train. A former Odisha chief minister was a frequent visitor to the ashram, while a former prime minister too is known to have visited Sura baba, who used to foretell people’s future using a “miraculous” palm manuscript supposedly belonging to 16th century saint Achyutananda.
Thousands thronged Sura’s ashram to know their future and seek his blessings. The ashram had been notified as a revenue village as well as a tourist destination, but after Sura’s arrest, the government has withdrawn both the status.
“Worshiping godmen is a pan-Indian phenomenon and not confined to Odisha. Godmen flourish because of people’s urge to achieve instant success, fame and wealth without hard work,” said Bikash Mishra, who teaches sociology in Ravenshaw University.