Baba black sheep, how many crimes?
No sir, no sir, only divine rhymes.
Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Gurmeet Singh in jail
Asharam Bapu Asumal Sirumalani in jail
Baba Rampal Maharaj Rampal in jail
India, land of shady self-styled ‘Godmen’ and ‘Goddesses’
Once known as the land of snake charmers, India is also the land of crowd charmers. Not just crowd puller politicians, we have self-styled Godmen known as ‘Babas’ and self-styled Goddesses known as as ‘Maas’ and ‘Devis’ who are bigger crowd charmers or crowd pullers than most of the politicians. Jointly they – politicians and ‘Babas’ or ‘Maas’ – may decide course of Indian politics.
We do not know the number of such ‘Babas’ and ‘Maas’ but the list must be very long. Nor do we know how many of them have criminal records. Perhaps, the crime records maintained by the Government of India may give some information.
When we talk of ‘Babas’ with criminal records, several prominent faces flash before our eyes: Baba Ram Rahim (56, original name Gurmeet Singh, rigorous imprisonment for 20 years for rapes but many more heinous crimes becoming public knowledge), Asharam Bapu (76, original name Asumal Sirumalani, involved in several heinous crimes and financial frauds), Rampal Maharaj (66, booked for more than 45 crimes including murder), Ichchdhari Bhimanda (original name Rajeev Ranjan alias Shiva Dwivedi, accused of running sex racket with over 600 call girls), Nithyanaanda (on bail in rape case), and those who are no more (Chandraswami convicted for FERA cases, Rama Vriksha Yadav who had grabbed land, Balak Brahmachari from whose ashram bombs were discovered after his death), etc. etc.
These ‘Babas’ and ‘Maas’ run their empire behind the façade of religion and spirituality, the easiest way to attract God fearing people and who think that all their problems can be solved by the magical or divine powers of these ‘holy’ persons. As the famous Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776) had said: ‘all religious beliefs trace, in the end, to dread of the unknown.’ Caste and poverty also play a big role.
Ram Rahim, Asharam and Rampal
To keep the story short, I am concentrating only on the first three samples, viz. Ram Rahim, Asharam and Rampal. There are many things common to them.
- Besides claiming to be god men or saints, all the three are married and hoped to the founders of ‘Baba’ dynasties. They all started in humble way but over the time acquired real estate worth hundreds of crores of rupees and large number of followers. Asharam, who had less than 10 followers in 1973, owned 400 ashrams in India and abroad in 2013. Ram Rahim has 250 ashrams in India and abroad. Rampal has lesser number but his wealth was estimated at Rs. 100 cr.
- They lived in luxury and style which even most of the high net worth individuals cannot afford.
- They all lived in castle-like large ashrams. Barring the most confidant followers, no one had any clue of what was happening inside. Only when investigations started following public knowledge of heinous crimes, the outside world including unsuspecting followers, came to know that what was believed to be a ‘holy place’ was actually den of all sorts of crimes, mainly related to sex and money. The criminal activities were carried out in code words. For example, in Gurmeet Singh’s castle in Hissar, sending someone to ‘farm house’ meant that the person was to be crushed to death.
- They kept Illegal arms and maintained their own army of goondas to take care of any voice of dissent. These goondas carried out secret operations and if necessary by mixing in the crowd of devotees in the open. They had their own arrangements to mobilise and collect devotees to show their strength. In the days of mobile phones, it is very easy to send messages to lakhs of people to assemble at short notice. This is what Gurmeet Singh’s henchmen did before August 25. The size of crowd is increased by paying money to the poor. On August 25, we saw lakhs of followers, hired persons and unknown number of goondas carrying sticks, stones, legal and illegal arms, petrol bombs destroying public and private properties and vehicles in several cities, mainly in Haryana and Punjab. The violence resulted in at least 38 deaths.
- Until arrested after long wait, long after their crimes had become public knowledge and long after proceedings had been initiated, they had no fear of law. Asharam Bapu used to boast that his ashram was the safest place for all the criminals because no one had courage to enter. In 2012, when the Justice D.K. Trivedi Commission, appointed by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to probe the deaths in his ashram, summoned Asharam, he issued a threat to the Modi government that any further attempt to suppress him or his followers would result in Modi government being “thrown out”. Rampal Maharaj ignored 42 court summons and was ultimately arrested in November 2014 after a 30-hour-long battle with paramilitary forces. During those 30 hours, Rampal’s goondas, armed with stones, petrol bombs and other weapons, had tried their best to prevent the paramilitary from entering the ashram and arresting their guru. His arrest was followed by large-scale violence. Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s crimes became public knowledge in 2002 but he could manage to remain free for 15 years. The journalist who had exposed his crime of rape on May 30, 2002 was shot dead right outside his house on October 24 same year.
Political patronage enjoyed by Baba black sheep
- Most worrying is political patronage enjoyed by them. Charismatic hold over large number of followers made them ‘vote bankers’. Votes in their ‘accounts’ were considered transferable from one party to another and in return they got rewards mainly in form of land allotments and protection from legal action. It is real ‘quid pro quo’. Several prominent politicians patronised them for support. Prominent politicians including Lal Krishna Advani and Narendra Modi of the BJP and Sushil Kumar Shende of the Congress were among the disciples of Asharam. The Gujarat governments – led by Congress in 1981 and 1992 and the BJP government in 1997 and 1999 – liberally allotted land to him. The political patronage made them ‘power centres’ in their own right and attracted patronage of bureaucrats and police officers. The deadly combination of mask of a ‘holy man’, large number of followers, vast amount of wealth and patronage of politicians, bureaucrats and police officers made them unassailable. Very few had courage to make any complaint against the illegal and inhuman activities going on in impregnable forts and very few police officials and investigating officers had courage to investigate.
- Perhaps, those who know Haryana politics were not surprised when in the midst of apprehension of violence last week, the State Education Minister, though not concerned with the subject, declared that “Section 144 cannot be imposed on faith” When the State CM Khattar was announcing on the TV that all precautionary measures had been taken to maintain law and order, his facial expression left no doubt that he was only fulfilling a procedural formality and was most unsuitable to lead a state in crisis.
‘Colourful’ and powerful Gurmeet Ram Rahim
Of all the three, the most ‘colourful’ and powerful is Gurmeet Ram Rahim. Besides being a ‘God man’ with about 50 million followers, he is an actor, stuntman, director, singer, businessman, sex maniac and whanot. Here is a list, not exhaustive though, of his ‘achievements’:
- He has hired not only goons but also about 400 ex-army men to maintain a strong personal army.
- In 2015, the Indian Express placed him 96th in the list of 100 most powerful persons on the ground that he had about 50 million devotees.
- The Congress government provided him with Z+ security, a status reserved only for the VVIPs with the most serious threat to their lives.
- His son is married to the daughter of the Congress leader Harminder Singh Jassi.
- Between 2015 and 2017 he had acted in five films. Before that he had produced three albums of his songs.
- In the 2007 Punjabi state elections, he supported the congress party.
- Before the 2012 Punjab state elections, the present Congress Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, along with his wife and son, went to Gurmeet Singh for support. The Congress lost and in no time, Gurmeet Singh changed his political colour. In 2014 Haryana state election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself praised Gurmeet Singh and sought his support, which he did though it is difficult to believe that his followers vote blindly according to their guru’s diktat. Gurmeet Singh’s support to the BJP in 2015 Delhi assembly election did not work.
Growth of ‘deras’
Ram Rahim and Rampal Maharaj are products of the ‘dera’ culture of Punjab and Haryana. Those who have studied the ‘dera’ culture know that the ‘non-profit-social welfare organisations’, locally known as ‘deras’, emerged to counter the domination of higher castes of Sikh and Hindu communities. The low-caste people, especially Dalits, of these communities had been kept marginalised. Deras became alternatives to high caste dominated gurudwaras and temples. By promising to end caste-based discrimination and invoking Ravidass and Kabir, they attract socially marginalised castes. There are thousands of small, medium and large deras in Punjab and Haryana. Several deras are doing social service without getting into any controversy but black sheep like Gurmeet Singh and Rampal exploited the institution. Gurmeet Singh and Rampal themselves do not belong to the marginalized sections of the society but they exploited the situation. While maintaining the façade of social and religious service they used the institution to amass vast wealth through illegal means and became politically very powerful.
Instead of taking action against such deras’ indulging in illegal activities the ruling parties at the Centre and in the states preferred to use them for their political gains.
Warnings against mushrooming ‘deras’
It is not that no one had warned the government. About four decades ago, late Lala Jagat Narain, the editor of Punjab Kesri, had written several editorials to warn that one day these deras might become a big threat to law and order. Lala Jagat Narain was killed on September 9, 1981. According to a White Paper issued by the government of India, he was assassinated because of his criticism of Bhindrawale, another creation of politicians.
In 2007, news channel, India TV, had shown Gurmeet Singh’s ex-driver narrating horrible stories about criminal activities in the sprawling ashram.
In short, a number of factors helped crooks like Gurmeet Singh, Asumal Sirumalani and Rampal to become so powerful. The most important factor is the failure of the successive governments to foresee the danger from the balck sheep among the ‘Babas’ and ‘Maas’.
The activities of Gurmeet Singh, Asharam, etc. have proved how prophetic Lala Jagat Narain’s warnings were. In fact, such shady ashrams and ‘deras’ have become more dangerous now. They can be used by terrorists. The Haryana police suspect that terrorists had mingled with the violent crowds on August 15 to destroy public and private properties.
Whatever action has been taken against these crooks so far, the credit goes to a few brave victims who mustered courage to go public and a few honest and courageous police officers did their duty. As usual, the legal proceedings have been extremely slow but it was a courageous CBI judge who convicted Gurmeet Singh. The High Courts too have shown their guts and independence.
Need for a new law to deal with Baba black sheep
However, such actions even if resulting in conviction of black sheep operating as holy men or women are not guarantee of the end of the threat posed by them. It is high time to take strong measures to deal with the shady organisations masquerading as social and religious organisations and dangerous ‘Babas’ and ‘Maas’. It is unrealistic, rather naïve, to expect that there would be any social and religious reform movement to prevent emergence of another Baba black sheep like Ram Raheem or Asharam or Rampal. At least, not in the foreseeable future. We need a strong law to deal especially with the social and religious organisations, ashrams and ‘deras’ indulging in political and criminal activities.
In my opinion, a special law should include the following provisions:
- Total ban on social and religious organisations from indulging, directly or indirectly, in any political activity. Spirituality and politics must not be allowed to mix. One cannot behave like mediaeval Pope who was spiritual as well as temporal head. In Europe, the church was separated from the state after long movement. We should achieve the same objective through law. There should be total ban on politicians approaching religious and spiritual leaders of any religion for support in elections. Similarly, there should be total ban on the religious and spiritual leaders of all regions – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or any other religion –taking any interest, direct or indirect, in politics.
- All cultural and religious organisations or ashrams should be registered. Since it may not be possible to monitor activities of thousands of such organisations, activities of the medium and large organisations/ashrams must be monitored by a regulatory agency reporting objectionable actions to the government for appropriate action.
- No religious organisations and ashram should be allowed to occupy more than one acre of land. The building should not be far away from the main gate and no basement should be allowed.
- Every medium and large ashram which would be monitored should have CCTVs covering all activities.
- All religious organisations and ashrams having annual income of more than ₹ 5 lakh and/or more than five branches in the world must give complete information about their activities and finance on the website. The website should contain names of all the inmates of the ashram, details of any civil or criminal case or FIR against any inmate, details of bank accounts, annual budgets and donations, details of workers and arms, etc. The Aadhar numbers and PANs of all the inmates should be furnished to the government.
Since it would be unrealistic to expect the central government or state governments to take any initiative, we need strong public opinion and media pressure for such legal reforms. Such a law would be the most revolutionary game changer.
August 28, 2017
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