The death of spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba has left a question mark on the future of the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust (SSSCT), estimated to have assets worth Rs 40,000 crore ($9 billion).
As Baba, who was chairperson of the trust, left no successor to the massive empire, his death might trigger a fight for succession among the trust members which include his nephew R.J. Ratnakar.
While some eminent devotees of Baba believe that with personalities like former chief justice of India P.N. Bhagvati on the board, the trust will carry on in a smooth manner various charitable work in India and abroad, they also fear the government might take over control in case of any rift among the members.
"There is no rift among the trust members but I can't say this about Baba's family members," a retired police officer, who is an ardent devotee of Baba told IANS on condition of anonymity. He said the government might take over if such a situation arises.
Ever since Baba was admitted to hospital with multi-organ dysfunction last month, speculation of differences among trust members were doing the rounds.
Ratnakar, son of Baba's brother, reportedly wanted cheque power which is presently with trust member secretary A. Chakravarthi, a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, who quit his job on Baba's advise to join his network.
Though not a member of the trust, Satyajit, Baba's personal caregiver, is allegedly trying to have a greater say in the financial matters as Baba had reportedly promised him last year a key post on the trust.
Reports in a section of vernacular media suggest that suitcases full of money and gold were taken out of Prashanti Nilayam, the ashram of Baba. However, some well-known devotees have denied the reports.
"Since all the contributions to the trust come in the form of cheques and it does not accept cash, there is no scope for misappropriation of even a single rupee," said former judge of Andhra Pradesh High Court J. Eswara Prasad.
According to Prasad, Bhagvati recently met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to brief him about the activities of the trust and to clear the air in view of the "rumours".
Sai Baba had formed the trust in 1972 to run the affairs of his massive spiritual empire. It is under SSSCT that dozens of trusts in about 160 countries are running educational institutions, hospitals, drinking water schemes and undertaking various other service activities.
Besides Bhagavati, Chakravarthi and Ratnakar, S.V. Giri, a former chief vigilance commissioner, Indulal Shah, a chartered accountant-turned entrepreneur and Venu Srinivasan of TVS Motors are members of the trust.
Ratnakar was inducted by Baba last year following the death of his father Janakiram. Nobody from the children of Baba's two other brothers and sisters have any say in the trust.
The trust always kept itself away from the media. Not much is known about the donations it receives from India and abroad, which are exempt from tax.
Since Baba's devotees include heads of states and governments, rich businessmen and celebrities. The trust is believed to have received donations running into billions of rupees from across the world. The lack of transparency, however, has given rise to suspicion.
Following the recent allegations, Ratnakar had denied any fund diversion. He also stated that all the foreign donations are deposited in a separate bank account as per the norms approved by the union home ministry under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 1976.
The trust runs the Sathya Sai University complex, the 220-bed Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, where Baba breathed his last; a world religion museum; a planetarium; a railway station; a hill-view stadium; a music college; an administrative building; an airport and an indoor sports stadium in Puttaparthi.
It also runs a specialty hospital in Bangalore, several other hospitals and dispensaries in the backward district of Anantapur. It also funded several drinking water projects, including one for 731 villages in Anantapur district, and Krishna water supply to Chennai.