Asaram

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Asaram
Image of Asaram
Born (1941-04-17) 17 April 1941 (age 79)[1]
NationalityIndian
Other namesAsaram Bapu
CitizenshipIndian
OrganizationShree Yog Vedanta Sewa Samiti
Criminal statusIn Prison
ChildrenNarayan Prem Sai (Son)
Conviction(s)Rape, 2018
Criminal chargeRape, Murder
PenaltyLife imprisonment
Capture status
Arrested
Partner(s)Narayan Sai
Date apprehended
1 September 2013
Imprisoned atCentral jail, Jodhpur

Asumal Sirumalani Harpalani (born 17 April 1941), popularly known as Asaram, is a controversial Indian godman (guru), currently serving a life sentence for the rape of a minor.[2][3][4]

Starting to come in the limelight in the early 1970s, he had established over 400 ashrams in India and abroad by 2013, and was popular among politicians and common people for his religious discourses (pravachan).

Multiple legal proceedings have been initiated against him, in connection with illegal encroachment, rape, and tampering of a witness. In April 2018, Asaram was found guilty of the rape of an underage girl and is currently serving life imprisonment in Jodhpur. In December 2017, Asaram was declared as a fake baba by Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, the apex organisation of Hindu Sants (saints) and Sadhus (ascetics) in India.[5]

Early life

Asaram was born on 17 April 1941, in the Berani village of the Nawabshah District in British India (present-day Berani Town is located in Jam Nawaz Ali Tehsil of Sanghar district Sindh Pakistan), to Menhgiba and Thaumal Sirumalani,[6] in the Bania caste.[7] His birthname was Asumal Thaumal Harpalani[8][9] or Asumal Sirumalani.[10][11]

Following the partition of India in 1947, he and his family moved to Ahmedabad, then part of the former Bombay State in India (now Gujarat), leaving behind their immovable assets in Sindh, where Asaram's father founded a coal and wood selling business.[1] Asumal had ran this business for a short time, after his father's death.[12] He received his formal education at Jai Hind High School, up-till class III, when his father died.

Introduction into spirituality

Asumal had a long history of escapades to ashrams, which commenced at the age of 15, eight days before his eventual wedding to Laxmi Devi.[11] In one such event, Lilashah, a local religio-spiritual figure had allegedly[13] ordained him as her disciple, over an ashram at Gandhidham,[7] and named him Asaram on 7 October 1964.[11]

Sources mention him to have been involved in a variety of professions ranging from selling liquors[8] and tea[10] to repairing cycles[9] and trading sugar,[14] prior to his establishment as a religious leader.

Personal life

Asaram and Laxmi Devi have two children, son Narayan Sai and daughter Bharati Devi. Their son Narayan Sai works with Asaram.[15][16]

Activities

Rise to prominence

According to his official biography, Asaram returned to Ahmedabad on 8 July 1971 and on 29 January 1972, built a hut at Motera, then a village on the banks of the Sabarmati.[11] Although his official biography doesn't mention it, Asaram had lived in Motera's Sadashiv Ashram for two years, before setting up his own hut adjacent to it.[17]

It was my great opportunity to have met him at a point in my life when nobody knew me ... From that time I have been receiving Bapu's blessings, have continued to receive his affection... Asaram's words had a yogic strength, and with trust in that yogic strength, the dream of crores of us in Gujarat will come true... I pray on Bapu's blessed steps, I bow to him. Sacred Bapu's love, his blessings, his best wishes will give me new strength. With that belief, I got the chance to come here, I consider myself lucky for it. I prostrate myself before blessed Bapu...

Narendra Modi — then general secretary of Gujarat BJP and later Prime Minister of India — speaking at a gathering of Asaram's devotees at Motera Ashram (2000).[7]
Scholars note Asaram to have played an important role in Modi's rise to power.[18][19]

He converted this hut into a small ashram in 1973, and started with 5–10 followers. With successive local governments from across the political divide, paying economic patronage to him including by grant of lands for expansion of his ashrams,[11][20][21] and a growing Hinduisation of the Gujarati society in the wake of Hindutva centered politics.[7][14][21] [a]

Numerous political leaders went on to swore allegiance to him through the decades; primarily in lieu of commanding the votes of his followers.[7][23][24] By 2013, Asaram claimed to have four hundred major and minor ashrams in India and 18 other countries, with over forty million followers.[20][7][25][26]

Teachings and views

Asaram's core teachings align with Hindutva-centred views. Ram Puniyani notes overt Brahminical tones in his teachings.[27]

Emphasizing upon the prominence of Brahmcharya[28][29] and Guru-Shishya relationship, it was instilled among the devotees, to accept Asaram (and his son) as infallible, be blindly obedient to them and not to question them about anything, whatsoever.[7][13] Physical violence is advocated for against any dissident.[13]

Asaram has been long vocal against increasing sexual liberation of the society and deemed the adoption of Western culture artifacts as corruption of morality.[29][30] Shri Yogi Vedanta Seva Samiti organized a Matri Pitri Poojan Divas ("mother-father worship day") on 14 February, as a form of protest against Valentine's Day, which is supposedly symbolic of a Western cultural invasion.[31][32][33] Asaram's proposal was supported by many prominent Indian politicians including union ministers and President Pranab Mukherjee.[34] In 2015, the Government of the Chhattisgarh state even institutionalized the practice, and directed all schools to observe Matru-Pitru Diwas ("mother-father day") every year on 14 February.[35]

The teachings are typically pre-recorded and broadcast through mass-media.[20] Asaram has also organized spiritual discourses all over India, whence his disciples are accorded diksha (initiation by a guru) by him. Around 20,000 students visited his satsang in Ahmedabad on December 2001.[36][37][38] He has also participated in shuddhi movements, and advocated against conversion to Christianity.[39][29]

Economic activities

Asaram runs an Ayurvedic medicine business.[29] Two magazines -- RishiPrasad, a monthly and Lok Kalyan Setu, a fortnightly -- sold about 14 lakh copies every month in 2008, incurring a net annual earning of around INR 7.50 crore.[13] Around three to four Gurupurnima functions, held per year, staked in donations ranging into crores of rupees.[13] Frontline valued his assets (2008) at about INR 5000 Crore.[29]

Gross economic mismanagement has been documented.[40]

Controversies

Land encroachment

Asaram had a modus operandi of occupying vacant plots of land, occupying it through illegal means including forgery of records[13] and unleashing a throng of devotees, when resisted by the state machinery.[7] A number of his ashrams have faced legal challenges, on grounds of illegal encroachment. Multiple state governments has razed ashrams to reclaim lands, that was illegally encroached upon (including by forgery of documents)[11][41][17][11] and there are multiple pending cases and investigations.[42]

In February 2009, the Gujarat Legislative Assembly had accepted of Asaram illegally encroaching upon net land of 67,099 sq. m, in Ahmedabad alone.[20] In February 2013, Serious Fraud Investigation Office recommended his prosecution in land-encroachment of worth INR 700 crore.[43]

Gurukul deaths

By 2008, 40 of Asaram's ashrams had gurukuls (residential schools) attached to them.[11]

On 3 July 2008, two boys went missing from Asaram's residential school (gurukul) in Motera (Gujarat).[20] The parents alleged that the ashram administration initially tried to restrain them from lodging a complaint with the police and that the police harassed them on receiving cues from ashram heavyweights.[20] On 5 July 2013, the boys' mutilated bodies were found on the banks of the Sabarmati river near the Ashram, with the ashram having conducted several futile religious efforts in locating them.[20] The incident led to unprecedented state-wide public agitations,[14] with allegations that the boys had been sacrificed by Asaram and his followers for black magic.[20]

Around same time, two more boys were found dead at a sister-gurukul in Chhindwara, (accommodating about 370 students), in quick succession.[20][44] There were widespread local protests with calls for closure and numerous parents chose to take away their wards as a result, especially after the ashram authorities tried to prevent any telephonic conversation between them.[45][46] The post-mortem report of the first death did not show any abnormality other than that of accidental death by drowning, and the parents accepted the results whilst giving Asaram and the Ashram authorities a clean chit.[47] Forensic investigation went on to reveal bite marks on the second body[14]; however, the parents chose to not hold the Ashram authorities of any negligence, and instead wanted a probe into an alleged conspiracy to defame the ashram.[45] A magistrate-level inquiry was subsequently ordered,[44] which held a fourteen year old fellow student of murdering both the child.[48] The ashram was soon shut for at least a week.[48]

The Narendra Modi-led Gujarat state government set up the Justice D.K. Trivedi Commission to probe the deaths in the Motera ashram and allotted a time-frame of three months.[49][44] The commission had been criticized by the High Court for its procedural biases towards Asaram[20]; the final report was submitted in 2013, but were only disclosed in 2019 by the state legislature, essentially exonerating Asaram of all charges but holding the ashram authorities responsible for negligence.[50] A concurrent CID probe, ordered on the behest of the High Court of Gujarat had already rejected the claims of practice of black magic, in 2010.[51]

Delhi gang rape comments

In January 2013, while addressing a gathering of his followers, Asaram commented of the 2012 Delhi gang rape victim to be as guilty as her rapists: "The victim is as guilty as her rapists… She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop… This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don't think so."[52][53] He went on to opine against harsher punishments for the accused in the Delhi rape victim case (under retrospective provisions), as he felt that the law had the potential to be misused.[54]

The comments were widely criticized.[55][56] Asaram states that his statements were distorted and misrepresented.[57]

Jodhpur rape convictions and imprisonment

In August 2013, a 16-year-old girl accused Asaram of sexually assaulting her on the night of 15 August at his Manai ashram in Jodhpur on the pretext of exorcising her from evil spirits.[58][59] The girl's parents, who were disciples of Asaram, filed a complaint with the police in Delhi, and a case was registered after the medical examination of the girl confirmed sexual assault.[60] The issue was discussed in Indian Parliament and a strict action was demanded.[59]

When Asaram did not appear for interrogation by 31 August, Delhi Police booked him under multiple non-bailable sections of IPC.[61] Asaram was in one of his ashram(s) in Indore when clashes broke out between his disciples and the journalists and policemen.[62] Eventually, the Jodhpur police arrested him on 1 September 2013 from his ashram,[58][63] and flew him to Jodhpur, where he was imprisoned.[64] Asaram was charged under Sections 342, 376, 506 and 509 of the IPC, as well as under Section 8 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) and sections 23 and 26 of the Juvenile Justice Act.[64] Before his arrest he got wide-scale support from Bharatiya Janata Party in the state of Madhya Pradesh, including local MLA Ramesh Mendola.[65] Ashok Singhal and Pravin Togadia, presidents of Vishva Hindu Parishad deemed the arrest to be an attack on Hindu religious sentiments; Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the ruling party and the Hindu Jagruti Manch organised violent demonstrations across the country, in protest.[29][66]

Asaram had dismissed the girl's allegations[67][68] and claimed of impotency, (which was subsequently proved to be untrue).[69][70] He has since been in jail and was denied bail 12 times.[71][72][73][74] The family of the victim allege that they received threats from Asaram's followers wanting the charges against him dropped.[64]

On 25 April 2018, Jodhpur Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Court convicted him guilty of the rape charges and pronounced a verdict of life imprisonment, along with a fine of ₹500,000 which was to be paid to the victim.[74] Two of his associates were awarded 20 years imprisonment.[75][2][76] He and the other co-accuseds went on to appeal for a suspension of the sentence in the Rajasthan High Court.[77] On 29 September 2018, the Court suspended the sentence of one of the co-accused;[78][79] however, on 23 September 2019, Asaram's plea for suspension was rejected.[4] A separate appeal on the premises of the merits of the judgement, is ongoing.[80]

Asaram continues to evoke blind devotion from his followers, who believes that he has been the victim of a conspiracy.[26][81][82]

Surat rape case

In December 2013, Asaram's son Narayan was arrested on charges of rape, after two sisters from Surat alleged that he and his father had raped them in Asaram's ashram during the mid-2000s.[83] The elder sister accused Asaram of repeated sexual assaults during 1997–2006 at the Motera ashram, whilst the younger sister accused Narayan of sexually assault during 2002–2005 at the Surat ashram. One of the sisters also alleged that Asaram's wife and daughter helped the two men exploit the girls.[84][85]

On April 26, 2019, Narayan Sai was convicted under Indian Penal Code sections 376 (rape), 377 (unnatural offences), 323 (assault), 506-2 (criminal intimidation) and 120-B (conspiracy) by Surat Court and sentenced to life imprisonment.[86]

Attacks against witnesses

From 2014–15, there have been numerous attacks against various witnesses and relatives of victims, in the Asaram case.[7][17][87][88][89][90][91][92][93]

Another witness Rakesh Patel, a former devotee and Asaram's videographer was fired at by vehicle born assailants in March 2014.[7] Less than a week later, another witness Dinesh Bhagchandani, who was earlier thrown out of the ashram on spurious charges,[13] was subject to an acid-attack but he managed to overpower one of his attackers; subsequent grilling revealed that the group were instructed by a devout follower of Asaram to assassinate witnesses in the case.[7] Raju Chandak, an erstwhile ashram secretary was shot at, after his deposition before Trivedi Commission.[20] Amrut Prajapati, a former aide of Asaram, who had turned against him, was shot and killed on 23 May 2014, after multiple prior attempts.[11][20][94][95][96] Narendra Yadav, a vernacular journalist who profiled multiple stories on Asaram's exploits was hacked on September 2014; he survived.[7] A former cook— Akhil Gupta, who was the prime witness in the Surat rape case, was shot and killed on 11 January 2015.[97][98] Rahul Sachan, another of Asaram's ex-personal-assistants, who turned witness in the Jodhpur as well as Surat case, was subject to a stabbing by one of Asaram's follower after a court-session in February 2015; Sachan alleged the act to have been gestured by Asaram, himself.[7] Months later, Sachan went missing and police have failed to find any trace, till date; he had filed a plea at the Supreme Court for police protection, after being subject to a bevy of death threats by Asaram's followers, having mentioned about bringing more victims to the limelight.[7][14] Mahindra Chawla, Asaram's ex-personal-assistant and witness in both the cases, narrowly missed an attempted murder on May 2015 and now resides under state protection.[85]

Notes

  1. ^ However Justice D K Trivedi Commission stated that there is no evidence of such rituals in one of his Ashrams at Gujarat.[22]

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