“Ashu baba aayenge...” — this song has been an integral part of the monthly gathering (bhandara) of the Nurmahal-based Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan (DJJS). However, in the past two years, sect preachers have been using the song to make followers believe that their “clinically dead” head, Ashutosh Maharaj, would come out of deep freeze for the welfare of humanity.
In the wee hours of January 29, 2014, senior political leaders of Punjab had started getting calls from the sansthan, informing them that its spiritual head and founder had died of cardiac arrest. A few hours earlier, on the intervening night of January 28 and 29, an ambulance had been called from Ludhiana-based Satguru Partap Singh Apollo Hospital after Ashutosh complained of chest congestion. Following an examination, a team of doctors declared him dead.
However, the arrival of four Delhi-based DJJS leaders turned things on its head. The dera started claiming that Ashutosh was in “samadhi” (state of deep meditation) and he would come out of it “very soon”.
Two years on, dera managers continue to assure Ashutosh’s disciples that he will be back. The devotees themselves look forward to this ‘second coming’ as Ashutosh had told them: “My soul will disappear and return after completing a few important tasks of mankind.”
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After being declared dead, Ashutosh was shifted to a mortuary chamber hired from the local Bhootnath temple. Later, on the insistence of DJJS leaders, his body was kept in a freezer under a controlled temperature. However, sources in the dera claimed that in September last year, the body was shifted to a 12x15 ft glass room in the special enclosure where the sect head used to reside.
The room is guarded 24x7 by DJJS security guards. Only the sect’s top brass has access to the body. In January 2015, when the Punjab and Haryana high court had told the state government to give a status report on the body, officers of Jalandhar district were not initially allowed to see it. However, when the district administration took a tough stand, a one-time access to the body was granted.
An officer who saw the body in January last year told HT, “The body has turned completely black and shrunk to a great extent. It has been kept under observation of the sansthan doctors who inspect it on alternate days. A special chemical is used to ensure its preservation.”
The DJJS succession row, termed as the main reason behind the sect not admitting to Ashutosh’s death — in the absence of a worthy successor — has not yet been settled.
The dera is now being governed by DJJS leaders from Delhi. Local leaders, including Swami Arvindanand, who hails from nearby Bilga village, have been sidelined. However, dera officials say that the DJJS is already being governed by a Delhi-based registered trust and all its properties belong to the trust.
The case has witnessed several twists and turns, with Puran Singh, former driver of the DJJS head, and Bihar native Dalip Jha, who claims to be Ashutosh’s son, filing petitions in the Punjab andHaryana high court, seeking permission to perform his last rites and demanding a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into his death.
On November 30, 2014, a high court bench led by justice SK Mittal (now transferred as chief justice of the Rajasthan high court) had told the state government to make efforts to settle the issue amicably. The court had directed the DJJS to come up with a proposal to make a temple/shrine (samaad) in Ashutosh’s name and consider performing the last rites.
On December 1, 2014, the single-judge bench told the state government to perform the last rites within 15 days. However, the division bench later stayed the order. The next date of hearing in the case is February 24, 2016.
The state government has preferred to keep itself at a safe distance, calling a religious matter. “A government should intervene when there is a law and order problem. If the followers want to keep the body, how does it matter to the state?” said a senior government functionary.
Though the DJJS continues to give the impression that the sect is functioning normally even in Ashutosh’s absence, the Punjab Police’s CID (criminal investigation department) has witnessed a sharp drop in the number of visitors to the dera.
A senior CID official, who is tracking DJJS activities, told HT that due to the controversy over Ashutosh’s death, the number of political leaders usually visiting the dera has also decreased.
“Ashutosh was a spiritual leader whose knowledge of mankind was vast. Since there is no dera leader now of that stature, there is no point in making repeated visits,” said a senior BJP leader who has had an old association with the DJJS.
A Nakodar-based senior sect follower, who is in favour of performing Ashutosh’s last rites, said: “The DJJS may have its reasons to advocate the ‘samadhi’ theory, but the negative publicity has brought disrespect to Ashutosh.”