Famous as 'Laitaan wala baba' (the guru of divine lights) in the Nurmahal area, Ashutosh Maharaj had a chequered journey, marked by run-ins with radical Sikhs.
Ashutosh, who founded the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan (DJJS) in 1983, was born in 1946 at Nakhlor village in Darbanga district of Bihar, as per his passport. His original name was Mahesh Kumar Jhaw.
Having Brahmgyan (divine knowledge) and Dhyan (meditation) as the basis of his preaching, he came to Punjab in 1983 and lived at Haripur village in Nakodar subdivision with local resident Joginder Singh and NRI Balwant Singh, who helped him settle here.
Later, he purchased a 16-marla house from Shakuntala Devi of Mohalla Chhinbian in Nurmahal and formed the DJJS, which was registered in 1991 with New Delhi as its headquarters. He married Naveda Devi and had two children, who died in their childhood.
Having followers from all religions and classes, the dera owns more than 40 acres in Nurmahal and has 36 centres in Punjab. The DJJS also has a big following in Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Delhi. Unlike many other deras in Punjab, Ashutosh's major followers have been people from the educated class, besides the youth.
Due to his tirade against Sikh extremist groups, Ashutosh was provided Z+ security by the union home ministry (his dera in Nurmahal is getting security from the Punjab Police). A godman whose preaching was based on the Vedas drew the ire of radical Sikhs for donning the turban. His first face-off with Sikhs took place in 1998 at Khadoor Sahib, where he was not allowed to deliver a religious discourse. The SGPC has on several occasions exhorted Sikhs to boycott him.
In December 2009, a clash occurred between Ashutosh's followers and Sikh groups in Ludhiana, where one person was killed during police firing.
Because of the increasing clout of the DJJS in Punjab, the sect has been pursued by leaders from various political parties. Former chief minister Amarinder Singh, former prime minister late IK Gujral, former union defence minister George Fernandes and senior Akali leaders such as Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa are said to have visited Ashutosh's Nurmahal dera.
Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal's wife, late Surinder Kaur, had courted controversy over her visit to the dera. In the Badals' home district, Muktsar, the dera has a big following in Lambi (CM's constituency) and Malout.
At present, the DJJS have seven centres in the US, besides presence in Australia, Canada, Italy, Switzerland and other countries.