THE POL­I­TICS OF SEX

Asaram Bapu is ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault but politi­cians seem ea­ger to pro­tect the con­tro­ver­sial god­man

India Today - - NATION - By Ro­hit Par­i­har and Uday Mahurkar

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

PAWAN BHAWAR

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