THE POLITICS OF SEX
Asaram Bapu is accused of sexual assault but politicians seem eager to protect the controversial godman
In August last year, Asumal Thaumal Harpalani, popularly known as Asaram Bapu, the spiritual leader with a flowing white beard, had a close shave. His helicopter fell nearly 100 ft to the ground in Godhra, Gujarat. The baba and three others, including the pilot, escaped because they were wearing seat belts, and the machine didn’t explode. Asaram, 72, credited divine intervention for why he hadn’t met the fate of politicians in air accidents. “Chief ministers, ministers… no one knows where they vanished,” the baba gloated at one of his well- attended part- singing, partdancing pravachans.
But when it comes to earthly matters like staying ahead of the law, Asaram cannot do without his political connections. For nearly a week after a couple from Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh, accused the baba of sexually assaulting their 16- year- old daughter on the night of August 15, he has evaded arrest. The Rajasthan Police, which visited his Indore farmhouse on August 27, left after issuing him a summons for questioning by August 30, with the baba apparently meditating inside. On August 27, the Rajasthan Assembly took up four cases of rape, but stayed mum on the alleged sexual assault. Gulab Chand Kataria of the Opposition BJP justified the cautious approach, saying the baba is considered a ‘ saint’ by many.
GOD( MAN) OFTHE MACHINE
Born in Birani village, Sindh ( now in Pakistan), the baba was a cycle mechanic in Ahmedabad till the mid- 1970s. He now boasts of a Rs 8,000- crore empire, with 20 million followers.
The alleged assault took place at a farmhouse in Manai village outside Jodhpur. The victim was asked to enter the baba’s chamber unaccompanied, as part of a ritual to ‘ ward off evil spirits’. Asaram took her shirt off, fondled her breasts and asked her to perform oral sex on him, the teenager told Delhi Police in her August 19 statement. When she refused, he threatened her to ensure she did not raise an alarm.
Asaram has been charged under Sections 376, 342, 506 and 509 of IPC, Section 8 of Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act, and Sections 23 and 26 of the Juvenile Justice Act, which carry a maximum life sentence. “The allegations against me are dirty and baseless. I’ve been framed as part of a conspiracy,” Asaram told reporters at his ashram in Indore.
Jodhpur Police corroborates the accusation and rules out a conspiracy. The girl’s family were devout followers of Asaram, and the father, who runs a transport business, even built a small ashram for the baba outside Shahjahanpur. The girl, a student at Asaram’s ashram in Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh, confided to her parents only after she reached home the next day. When Asaram refused to meet them in Delhi, his next stop after Jodhpur, the family went to the police. Since then, the godman has constantly been on the move. He was closeted in his Indore ashram and later at his Surat ashram, where he celebrated Janmashtami before 50,000 disciples to prove that the controversies had not dented his following.
This new allegation adds to a lengthening list of alleged crimes against the baba over the past five years, not the least of which is crass insensitivity: On the December 16 Delhi gang rape, he said “the mistake is not one- sided”, implying the victim was to blame for her plight. Charges against him include sexual exploitation of women, land grab, organising attacks on disciples and amassing wealth via dubious means. In July 2008, the bodies of two boys, Abhishek Vaghela, 8, and Dipesh Vaghela, 9, students in his Ahmedabad ashram, were found on the Sabarmati riverbed with vital organs missing. A five- year probe into their deaths, suspected to be part of a black magic ritual, has been submitted to the Gujarat government.
IN GOOD COMPANY
However, even the ugliest of controversies has not diminished Asaram’s political following. In 2011 alone, he was state guest of seven Congress and BJP
ruled states. Chief ministers who have publicly feted him over the past two years include Chhattisgarh’s Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Mad- hya Pradesh and Parkash Singh Badal of Punjab. On August 22, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Uma Bharti said he was “being falsely targeted for opposing Sonia and Rahul Gandhi”.
In Rajasthan, Congress MLA Pratap Singh Khachariyawas was the sole voice of protest. He asked if fear of losing Hindu votes was behind the police going slow against the baba. Women activists say the state government gave Asaram enough time to ‘ work things out’. Asaram insists the accuser’s parents will seek apology for levelling such an allegation. Shahjahanpur police say they’re giving the victim’s parents protection from attacks by Asaram’s followers. The Union Home Ministry has written to the governments of Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh for reports on complaints against Asaram.
“He needs a strong alibi to counter the charges,” says Jodhpur Police Commissioner B. G. Joseph. BJP will not make Asaram a public issue for fear of offending women voters, but hope to encash on the anger of his followers against Congress. It may now be the baba’s turn to be used by politicians.
ASARAM BAPU AT HIS INDORE ASHRAM ON AUGUST27