reportage Crime

Crisis of Faith

The nightmarish struggle to bring Asaram to justice

By PRIYANKA DUBEY | 1 April 2017

THE SESSIONS-COURT COMPLEX in Jodhpur was particularly crowded on the afternoon of 9 February. By 2 pm, around 200 people had gathered outside the building. They were of various ages and from a variety of backgrounds, though there were unusually many young women among them—some dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, others in crisp salwar kameez and light woollen cardigans. Many in the crowd had travelled from outside the city, and carried small rucksacks or cloth bags. One family told me that they had come from Gorakhpur, in Uttar Pradesh, a little more than 1,000 kilometres away; one man that he had come from Jalpaiguri, in West Bengal, nearly 2,000 kilometres away.

Just after 2 pm, police began to cordon off the entrance to the building, forming a semicircle and forcing the crowd away. More people kept joining the crowd, and as the throng swelled they kept their eyes fixed on the gate to the complex.

Before long, a large blue van with the words “Riot Control” emblazoned on its side pulled in. A flurry of activity broke out around it. Several people ran behind the van as it passed them, yelling, “Bapu! Bapu!” (Father! Father!) Police officers chased them away, swinging their wooden sticks and blowing their whistles. One young woman in a parrot-green salwar kameez ran alongside the van, clutching her handbag and smartphone. As the vehicle turned right into a lane before the court building, she stepped into its path, joined her palms and cried, “Bapu! Bapu!”

She smiled when she caught a glimpse of the elderly man she had called out to—the self-proclaimed godman Asumal Harpalani, better known as Asaram, who was seated behind the vehicle’s thickly grilled windows. The godman raised a hand in a gesture of blessing. The van turned sharply to avoid the woman, and drove on to the rear entrance of the complex. Police swarmed the area, preventing the general public and most of the media from approaching the court.

I jostled my way through the crowd and reached the rear entrance. Asaram emerged from the vehicle, pausing at the door to raise both his palms and bestow his blessings on anyone who happened to be waiting for them. The 75-year-old godman’s skin was pale, and his eyes were bulging and bloodshot. He wore a crisp white dhoti and kurta, a cream-coloured sweater and a navy-blue woollen cap. A white shawl hung from his shoulder, and he carried a walking stick. Flanked by around a dozen policemen, Asaram entered the court, where he is on trial for allegedly raping a 16-year-old girl at his Jodhpur ashram in 2013. Asaram is also accused of sexual harassment, wrongful confinement and criminal intimidation, and faces additional charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences, or POCSO, Act. In addition, he stands accused of rape in another case, filed in Ahmedabad. The younger sister of the complainant in that case has filed allegations of rape against his son, 45-year-old Narayan Sai, who is also a godman.

The police have been regularly shepherding Asaram from prison to court since the commencement of the Jodhpur trial, in December 2013. The crowds were even larger and harder to manage in the early days; though they are now somewhat diminished, those who do gather remain just as frenzied in their devotion for their guru.

The court building’s lift had broken down, so the police led Asaram to the stairs. A group of around 50 people—who had managed to sneak past the police and were gathered at the entrance of the building—began to chant, “Bapu! Bapu!” As Asaram strode up the steps, these people became increasingly agitated, raising their hands in the air, and standing on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of him. Asaram turned and extended a palm towards them. The shouts of “Bapu!” reached a crescendo—then the police moved in, and, blowing their whistles, swiftly dispersed the crowd.

ON A GREY AND DRIZZLY AFTERNOON in August 2013, I reached the town of Shahjahanpur, in central Uttar Pradesh. I was there to meet the father of the 16-year-old girl who had filed the case that is now being tried in the Jodhpur court. It had only been a week since the complaint was filed, and there had been an explosion of media attention on the family. The anxious father had stopped meeting journalists. After reaching the family’s house, I managed to persuade him to speak to me by sending in a handwritten request through a neighbour and friend of theirs.

I was led into the house through a rear entrance and introduced to a tall, well-built man wearing a cream-coloured kurta-pyjama. He was still visibly in shock over what had happened to his daughter, and, in the conversation that followed, he recounted his family’s ordeal, crying throughout into a crumpled handkerchief.

The family’s members had been committed Asaram devotees, and had donated money to help him set up an ashram in Shahjahanpur. “We worshipped him like our own god,” the father told me. Since Asaram often preached that children educated in his ashrams would grow up with desirable values, he and his wife sent two of their three children to an ashram school in the district of Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh.

On 7 August 2013, they received a phone call from the ashram about the girl. Her hostel warden, Shilpi, now a co-accused in the case, “told us that she is ill and that we should reach the Chhindwara ashram immediately,” the father said. The worried parents reached Chhindwara the next day and went to the girls’ hostel to meet their daughter. They learnt that she had had a fainting spell the previous day. “The warden told us that some evil powers had captured my daughter, and could be removed only by Asaram,” the father recounted. “She told us to meet him as soon as we could.”

The warden told them, however, that Asaram was not in the Chhindwara ashram, but in Delhi. The girl and her parents travelled to Delhi to meet him, only to learn that he had travelled on to his Jodhpur ashram. On 14 August, they reached the ashram in Jodhpur, and finally met Asaram. The victim’s father recounted that the godman assured them that he would perform a puja to rid their daughter of the evil powers that had entered her.

The next night, Asaram summoned the parents and the girl to his hut in the ashram. After chanting some mantras, he instructed the parents to leave. “He took my daughter inside the hut with him for the puja,” the father said. “We trusted him completely, so we left our daughter with him and started chanting bhajans outside.”

When the girl came out after approximately an hour, her father said, “she was crying and looked disturbed.” The parents asked her what was wrong, but she only asked them to take her back home to Shahjahanpur, which they did the next morning. Only once they got home did the girl give her mother an account of what had happened to her inside the hut. She, in turn, told her husband. “He made her drink a glass of milk and then started sexually assaulting her,” the father said. “He tried to force himself on my daughter but she resisted.” The charge sheet in the case contains more disturbing details of what Asaram allegedly did. It states that the godman took off his clothes and forced the child to perform oral sex on him, and kissed her body and hugged her even as she cried and resisted. It also states that he intimidated the girl by threatening to kill her parents and family members if she dared to speak to anyone of what he had done to her.

The parents were enraged. “We wanted to confront Asaram immediately,” the father said. “So we went to Delhi, where he was holding a satsang. But he refused to meet us.” After this, the family went to the Kamla Nagar police station, the nearest one to them at the time, and filed a complaint.

As he recounted these events to me in 2013, the victim’s father sounded angry. “I feel that I trusted Asaram so much I wouldn’t have believed my own daughter if I had not seen her myself that night,” he said. “I regret that she did not immediately tell us what happened to her, otherwise I would have picked up the stones that were lying outside his hut, and would have hit him right then.”

He was much more subdued when I visited him again, in December 2016. I entered a small office in front of the family’s two-storey house to see a man at a table sorting papers and signing courier dispatches. It took me several seconds to realise that this was the victim’s father. He seemed to have aged a decade in the three years since I had met him last; he had grown slighter, and had lost most of his hair.

Though he had once run a successful transport business and owned more than ten trucks, he had sold most of them to fund the legal battle against Asaram. His family members’ routine lives had been disrupted, since they had to travel often to Jodhpur to attend the trial. “The trial period is so difficult and painful I can’t tell you,” the father said. “What kind of life is this? We have to travel so often to a state that is not ours. That city is not our city, but we land up there every few days with bag and baggage. And the court gets over at five in the evening. What to do with the rest of the long days and long nights in that unknown city? We just lie there in a small hotel room thinking about what happened to us.”

He said that he hoped that the court would reach a verdict in 2017. Asaram “cheated us in the name of god while he was actually a monster in the garb of a saint,” he said. “Now all I want is a verdict and maximum punishment against him. All the prosecution witnesses have been cross-examined. Now only defence witnesses are left. I hope that the verdict comes in the next few months.”

The family was terrified for its safety because of a rash of attacks and killings of witnesses that had occurred after the girl’s complaint was filed. Among those killed was Kripal Singh, a close friend of the family and one of the witnesses in the case. The victim’s father appeared to mistrust his family’s own security guards, who had been assigned by the Uttar Pradesh government. Though I had been shown in by a trusted acquaintance, the father complained that the guards should have checked with him first before letting me through. “I can’t trust anyone in this situation, as you know,” he said.

The family’s members had begun to severely restrict their movements. The men—the victim’s father and two brothers—went out only when it was unavoidable, while the women remained confined to their home. His daughter had “been living like a prisoner for the past three and a half years,” the father said. “She cannot move out of the house. She is a young child and this is the time when she should have been investing herself in studying and in making a place for herself in the world. But she cannot move out of the house because of the innumerable threats that we face on a daily basis.” His sons, too, have suffered, and have been unable to pursue regular educations or take up regular work.

But though he was evidently exhausted by the fight, the victim’s father was determined to see the process through. “We will fight this battle to the end,” he said. “If they kill me, then my children will fight. We will fight till the last person is alive, but we will not leave this man. We will not back down until we get justice and he is sent behind bars forever.”

AS A SELF-STYLED GODMAN, Asaram is far from unique in India. Over the years, several individuals, such as Sathya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev have used the vulnerability of those seeking religious fulfilment to acquire millions of followers and build large devotional empires. The finer workings of these empires are usually hidden from view, with only occasional media reports offering some clues into how they are built, maintained and manipulated.

In Asaram’s case, partly owing to the extraordinary bravery of the alleged victims and witnesses who have spoken out against him, there is considerable information available about his rise and fall, his ashrams, and his conduct towards his devotees. Many details have become public since the Jodhpur victim filed her case in 2013. On piecing them together, what emerges is a story of a man who, by accumulating vast wealth and a mix of religious and political influence, acquired untrammelled power. But even as Asaram’s prominence grew, in his network of ashrams, life for many of his followers became an unspeakable hell.

Asaram was born Asumal Harpalani in April 1941, in the village of Berani, in the Sindh region of what is now Pakistan. Basant Rawat, an Ahmedabad-based journalist with The Telegraph who has reported extensively on Asaram, told me in an email interview that the godman belongs to the “Vaniya (trader) sub-caste of the Sindhi community.” After Partition, in 1947, the family moved to Ahmedabad, where Asaram spent many years of his childhood. According to his authorised biography, Sant Asaramji ki Jeevan Jhanki (A Glimpse into the Life of Saint Asaram), published by his own organisation, he became a disciple of the spiritual leader Lilashah in the mid 1960s. It was Lilashah, says the biography, who gave him the name Asaram.

In 1972, Asaram built a hut by the banks of the Sabarmati river in the town of Motera in Gujarat, around ten kilometres from Ahmedabad. According to Rawat, he did this after Lilashah “threw him out from his ashram in Gandhidam, a Sindhi-dominated coastal town of Kutch.” From this base in Motera, Asaram began propagating his brand of Hinduism, comprising simplified readings of scriptures and tantric practices that, judging by details later unearthed by investigators, seem to have included sinister rituals of the kind often described as black magic. “Asaram’s spiritual project was tailored to suit disillusioned, disempowered and disadvantaged people, mostly tribals and Hindi-speaking people in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh,” Rawat wrote. “His prescription: medicine produced in-house, spiritual discourses, chanting of mantra and devotion.”

Asaram expanded his empire from the Motera ashram, setting up new centres and attracting more followers every year. Apart from his discourses, an added attraction was “the free food and other facilities that they were offered whenever they visited the ashrams to attend discourses,” Rawat said. “In the tribal areas of Gujarat, southern Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, feasts were organised in which food, utensils and clothes were distributed.” Over the following decades, Asaram, along with his son, expanded his network to now include—according to Asaram’s own website—more than 400 ashrams, spread across 19 countries. Asaram claims to have 40 million followers around the world.

This expansion was aided by the fact that the Hindu right was growing rapidly in many parts of India, including in Gujarat. “The rise of Asaram has to do with the systematic Hinduisation of the Gujarati middle class post 1985,” Achyut Yagnik, a social scientist based in Ahmedabad, told me. “Initially, a lot of Sindhis, the Other Backward Classes, as well as middle-class Dalits, became his followers. Later, the upper-caste middle class also joined in.”

This expansion also involved several questionable acquisitions of land, according to Arjun Modhwadia, a former president of the Gujarat unit of the Congress party. Asaram’s “modus operandi was to capture empty government land, local municipality land and sometimes even private land, and then create pressure to regularise it,” Modhwadia said. “For example, Asaram grabbed a huge piece of land in Surat. When the Surat city municipal commissioner tried to repossess the land, thousands of Asaram devotees started creating a ruckus there—so much so that the commissioner had to come back.”

Asaram’s wealth grew to massive proportions over the years. In 2014, investigators estimated the value of this wealth at between Rs 9,000 crore and Rs 10,000 crore, “in the form of bank accounts and other investments including shares, debentures and government bonds.” This figure did not include the value of the land held by Asaram’s ashrams across several states.

As the number of his devotees multiplied, Asaram also attracted politicians, who realised that they could appeal to a large base of voters through him. Among the politicians who have been his followers over the years are senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders such as the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as well as LK Advani and Nitin Gadkari. Also among them have been the current and former chief ministers Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh, Prem Kumar Dhumal and Uma Bharti. Senior Congress leaders, too, have been Asaram’s devotees—among them Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath and Motilal Vora.

In an essay in the book The Guru in South Asia, the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, analysing the case of Indira Gandhi in some detail, wrote that relationships between politicians and gurus in India are not only seen as legitimate, but are “considered necessary for political legitimacy.” Of such gurus, he wrote, tantrics are considered “less legitimate than others.” Unlike mainstream Hinduism, tantrism “glorifies desire, notably in the form of sexual experiences, and instead of preaching non-violence, it permits animal sacrifice. It is also associated with the transgression of prohibitions and with black magic.”

But tantric gurus have nevertheless drawn politicians to them. “The affinities between tantrism and power (and more precisely the powers of tantric guru) explain why so many politicians resort to their services,” Jaffrelot wrote.

The most prominent politician to have professed devotion to Asaram is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose home city of Vadnagar is only around 90 kilometres from Motera. The politician and the godman established personal contact before either had attained national fame. In a video of a gathering of Asaram’s devotees at the Motera ashram that was held in the mid 2000s, Modi—then Gujarat’s chief minister—lavishes praise on the godman. “It was my great opportunity to have met him at a point in my life when nobody knew me,” Modi said. “From that time I have been receiving Bapu’s blessings, have continued to receive his affection.” Asaram’s words, Modi said, had “a yogic strength, and with trust in that yogic strength, the dream of crores of us in Gujarat will come true.” He added: “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 prostate myself before blessed Bapu.”

But politicians began to distance themselves from Asaram after 2008, when his reputation began to unravel. In 5 July that year, the mutilated and half-burnt bodies of two children were found lying in the Sabarmati river, next to his Motera ashram. The children, cousins named Abhishek and Dipesh Vaghela, had been enrolled in a school located on the ashram’s ten-acre premises.

Even as they reeled from this horrific tragedy, the boys’ family found little support from the government. Praful Vaghela, Dipesh’s father, told me that Asaram’s influence was so great at the time that the Gujarat police refused to file an FIR in the case at first. “It was only after we agitated and protested,” he said, “that the government finally handed over the matter to the CID”—the state police’s crime investigation department. “The FIR was filed on 21 July 2008,” he added.

In August 2008, the Gujarat government, headed by Modi, constituted a commission to investigate the deaths, headed by a retired judge of the state’s high court, DK Trivedi. The commission submitted its report in July 2013, but the findings have not been made public. The police, meanwhile, charge-sheeted seven office-bearers of Asaram’s Motera ashram in August 2012 for culpable homicide.

Vaghela told me last month that he planned to approach the Supreme Court to reopen the investigations. “Our case is still being dragged through the lower court here in Ahmedabad,” he said. “Whenever we go to the court, sometimes the public prosecutor is busy, sometimes the judge is on leave or too busy to hear the case. We don’t know what to do.” He demanded “a fresh investigation into the murder of the two boys by the CBI”—the Central Bureau of Investigation—“or any other reliable agency.” According to Vaghela, the Gujarat police “never investigated the case in the right direction. They wanted to shield the perpetrator.”

Vaghela blamed the state government for this. He held Modi particularly responsible—throughout his tenure, the chief minister also handled the home ministry, which oversees policing. “Everything was in the hands of the then chief minister,” he said. “But instead of ordering a fair police investigation, he constituted a commission. You tell me, why would he do so? Because Asaram had deep influence in Gujarat then.” He added: “If the Gujarat government had taken action back in 2008, maybe the lives of his present victims could have been saved.”

Since the Gujarat government drew no direct or indirect links between Asaram himself and the Motera deaths, it was only in 2013, when the Jodhpur victim filed her case, that the godman found himself ensnared in the criminal-justice system. Then, in October 2013, two sisters from Surat filed cases of rape, intimidation and wrongful confinement against Asaram and his son, Narayan Sai. Sai was arrested in December that year.

Investigators began building their cases. The testimonies of the alleged victims were central to each case, but police also spoke to a variety of witnesses to build a detailed picture of events, as well as of the conduct of the accused at the ashrams. These included former followers of Asaram, family members of the victims, and friends of these families who were privy to the details of their involvement with the ashrams. In the Jodhpur case alone, the prosecution identified more than 50 witnesses to help the case.

Then, witnesses began to be attacked.

On the morning of 28 February 2014, the husband of one of the Surat sisters was stabbed multiple times as he walked to his home. The injuries were serious, but he survived. Within a fortnight, on 10 March 2014, Rakesh Patel, a former devotee and videographer of Asaram, who had become a witness in the Surat case, was stabbed in the city by attackers on a motorcycle. Patel survived. Less than a week later, two men on a motorcycle threw acid on a textile trader named Dinesh Bhagchandani, who was also a witness in the Surat case. Despite his injuries, Bhagchandani managed to overpower one of his attackers and hand him over to the police.

The police’s interrogation of this attacker, Kishore Bodke, revealed that he was acting on the instructions of Basavaraj Basu, a devout follower of Asaram from Karnataka’s Bijapur district. “During interrogation, the accused told the police that they were 12 who came to Surat on 18 February with a target to attack the prime witnesses,” the then commissioner of the Surat police, Rakesh Asthana, said in a press conference. “We suspect that the attackers might be given financial help from the ashrams. These arrested five attackers are not contract killers. They are followers of Sai.”

The next to be targeted was Amrut Prajapati, an Ayurvedic doctor who worked with Asaram for 15 years before parting ways with him in 2005. Prajapati had gone on to become a vocal opponent of Asaram and a key witness in all the cases. On 23 May 2014, a man posing as a patient entered Prajapati’s clinic in Rajkot. Just as Prajapati was about to examine him, the man raised a gun and shot the doctor in the throat. Prajapati died 17 days later.

The next person targeted was Narendra Yadav, a Shahjahanpur-based journalist who had written a number of stories on the cases against the godman and his son. On 17 September 2014, as Yadav walked out of his office, he was stabbed by two unknown assailants. He survived.

A few months later, in January 2015, 36-year-old Akhil Gupta was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle as he was walking to his home in Muzaffarnagar. Gupta had worked in Asaram’s Ahmedabad ashram, supervising cooking and helping with accounts, before leaving and becoming a witness in the Surat case.

Witnesses were unsafe not only in their homes and workplaces, but also in the very courts to which they went to testify. Around a month after the attack on Gupta, on 13 February 2015, 41-year-old Rahul Sachan, a former personal assistant to Asaram who had become a witness in all three cases, was attacked outside the Jodhpur sessions court. According to Sachan’s statement to the police, late that afternoon, as Asaram was led out of the court after the day’s proceedings, he gestured to a follower nearby and, running a hand across his throat, indicated that he should attack Sachan. At this, the follower, later identified as Satya Narayan Gwala, moved towards Sachan, and, just as Sachan was about to board a police vehicle, stabbed him in the back repeatedly. The attack left Sachan partially paralysed. On 25 November 2015, he mysteriously went missing—he has still not been found.

Thirty-seven-year-old Mahendra Chawla was the next to be attacked. Chawla, a former personal assistant to Sai, was also a witness in all the cases. On 13 May 2015, two attackers shot him in his village, in Haryana’s Panipat district. Chawla is now partially disabled and lives under police protection.

Less than two months later, on 10 July 2015, 35-year-old Kripal Singh, a friend of the Jodhpur victim’s family, was shot dead in Shahjahanpur by two motorcycle-borne assailants while he was returning home from a local market. Singh, a witness in the Jodhpur case, had testified in court just a few weeks earlier.

Only the next year did the police make their next major breakthrough in the cases of the attacks on witnesses. On 15 March 2016, after a two-year manhunt, the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad arrested a follower and close confidante of Asaram’s named Kartik Haldar from a hideout in Chhattisgarh.

His interrogation revealed that Haldar, who described himself as one of Asaram’s “fidayeen,” had planned and participated in the killings of Prajapati, Gupta and Singh. He also told the police that he had collected Rs 25 lakh from the godman’s devotees across the country, and that he planned to use that money to buy an AK-47 rifle to kill witnesses. He also confessed that he planned to “bomb” the assistant commissioner of police Chanchal Mishra, the investigating officer in the Jodhpur case.

IN ALL THESE INSTANCES, the state failed to protect witnesses whose lives were under threat. The case of Asaram’s former personal assistant Rahul Sachan is particularly bleak, considering that in August 2015, six months after his attack and three months before he went missing, he filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court to put on record the fact that his life remained at risk, and that the state had provided him with inadequate protection.

The affidavit makes for haunting reading now. Sachan declared that he had been “receiving constant threats” to his life “by people who claim to be acting at the behest of the Accused.” After much effort, he wrote, “I have been provided by the UP State Government with Armed guard for 8 hours during day time.” Outside those hours, he was unprotected. “During night, I get no sleep as I am in constant fear of death by the accused firing squad,” he wrote. “I sleep during day time when my guard is around.” The police, he stated, had told him that the assault on him could not “be linked to a larger conspiracy and linked to the accused.” In light of how serious the threat was, he wrote, “I seek armed guards to protect me who are under some central agency rather than the state governments.”

Sachan declared, “My life is slowly ticking away and all because I choose to ensure that justice prevails and womenfolk, especially, are not harassed and abused.” He claimed that he had had seen Asaram “mesmerising gullible minors and womenfolk,” and stated, “I want to live at least till I complete my testimony in the Surat and Ahmedabad cases.” He added: “At the rate of which witnesses are being killed or attacked it is my death wish that before I am killed such accused be exposed and justice prevails.”

The details of Sachan’s disappearance on 25 November, too, suggest that the state behaved with shocking callousness. In an interview to the Indian Express, Vijay Bahadur, one of the policemen assigned to protect him, said, “I have come to know that Sachan had reached Qaiserbagh bus stand along with gunner Amit” on the evening he was last seen. Bahadur said Sachan then told his gunner to return. “He caught a bus and left for somewhere,” the policeman stated. “Since then he has gone missing.” Bahadur took over the duty of guarding the—now missing—Sachan soon after, but did not tell his superiors about his absence till 20 December, almost a month later. “Since November 30, I have been visiting Sachan’s rented house at Thakurganj but found it locked every time,” he told the Indian Express. Bahadur also claimed that Sachan’s phone had been switched off for the entire period.

In his plea for security before the Supreme Court, Sachan was represented by Bennet Castelino, a Mumbai-born lawyer who divides his time between India and New Zealand, and is enrolled in the Maharashtra and Goa bar councils. In an email interview, Castelino remembered Sachan as “a simple man who stammered while talking, very gentle and affectionate person.” Sachan chose to speak up against Asaram, he said, because “he lived with a guilt complex that even though he knew Asaram sexually violated women and children, he was helpless as he was blinded by his faith to his Guru. He used to hear the wails of children and when he questioned his so called guru he was told that the girls were attaining salvation by this physical violation.” For years, Castelino wrote, Sachan “was too afraid to expose the Guru. He lived with this guilt until the Jodhpur and Gujarat victims exposed this Godman.”

Castelino explained that Sachan was in touch with many other families “whom he knew were violated by Asaram,” and that “more victims were to come forward.” He added that, with Sachan’s disappearance, this now seemed unlikely. “He did not succumb to the devotees’ pressure and was willing to pay the price to cleanse his guilty conscience.”

Sachan never wavered, despite receiving threats and offers of bribes, Castelino told me. “A gentleman who I knew through a common friend who claimed to be close to the RSS offered me 50 crores to stop the legal battle,” Castelino said. He relayed the offer to Sachan. “Just to test Rahul I told him, take the 50 crores and settle in New Zealand or any European country. Immediately he told me that he would never do such a thing.” Castelino said he tested Sachan on other occasions, too, but “at no stage he bent from his fight.”

UNSURPRISINGLY, OTHER WITNESSES REMAIN wary of coming forward with their stories. In January, I contacted Sai’s former personal assistant Mahendra Chawla. We spoke over the phone several times, but only when a trusted common friend vouched for me did he agree to an in-person interview. I met him on a chilly morning in January, near his home in a village in Haryana. He arrived on foot at our meeting point, accompanied by a gunner. We then walked to his house and sat on plastic chairs in a sunlit corner of a porch, while the gunner hovered nearby.

Chawla was 18 years old in 1996, when he was drawn into Asaram’s universe. “I come from a very religious family,” he told me. One day, after attending a programme held by the godman, “I, along with my brother and his wife, all three of us, took guru diksha”—a ceremony in which they accepted Asaram as their spiritual leader. “After that, I started listening to his sermons on his radio cassettes and reading his magazines.”

Within a year, Chawla decided to join Asaram full time, initially at an under-construction ashram in Panipat, where he helped with manual labour. He rose quickly through the ranks. He was posted to a warehouse on the premises of an ashram in Ahmedabad, from which Asaram’s branded products, such as cassettes, magazines, medicines and incense sticks, were dispatched for sale at various locations. He was later assigned to oversee sales from a vehicle that carried products from the Ahmedabad ashram to local markets.

In 2001, Asaram sent Chawla to his ashram in the Lakhawa village, in Rajasthan’s Kota district. He was designated the manager of the ashram, which was spread over of seven acres. “I developed the area by using drip irrigation and a biogas plant, and by planting trees all around,” he said. “As a part of my duty, I had to update Asaram directly about the affairs of the ashram on a biweekly basis or sometimes even weekly,” he said. He began “calling Asaram directly on his phone,” he added. “From there, I also got in touch with Narayan Sai.”

Chawla then accompanied Sai to Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh, where a new ashram was being set up. Soon, he said, Sai realised that he was a capable worker, and appointed him his personal assistant.

His exposure to the horrors of Asaram and Sai’s ways began not long after this. One night just before Diwali in 2002, Chawla said, “I got up in the middle of the night to go to bathroom. As I stepped outside my room, I saw a man sitting in the middle of the ashram’s porch. There was a small stream that flowed in front of this side of the ashram. When I went a bit closer, I saw that the man was Narayan Sai. He was sitting in front of a fire, and I saw a human body laid down in front of him. He had kept a human skull on the chest of the body.”

Adhering to the discipline enforced in the ashram, “I said pranam and sat down at a distance,” Chawla told me. “Then Sai asked me go back by saying ‘Vighn mat karo’”—do not disturb me. Chawla said he returned to his room and slept.

Early the next morning, Sai came into his room and asked him what he had seen the night before. “The sun had not risen yet and I remember it was the hour before dawn,” Chawla said. “I told him that I saw him sitting in front of a fire with a body lying in front of him. I also saw a human skull lying on the chest of that human body. Sai then told me that the body was of a small child who had been brought dead.” Chawla added that Sai explained to him that most people who saw the sight that he did would have died immediately, or lost their sanity. Chawla, Sai said, had survived because he had been blessed by his teacher. Sai then asked him if he had any questions about what he had seen. Chawla replied that he did not.

Chawla conceded that it might seem odd that he did not raise an alarm or question Sai. He said that at the ashram, “we were taught that we should always obey the guru, never question him, never question his intentions and never ask him anything. I was trained not to ask any question in that ashram system of brainwashing.” Two books published by the ashram, Guru Bhakti and Guru Geeta, were key to instilling this idea, he added.

By Chawla’s account, Sai seemed to have decided that he could be trusted, and attempted to convert him into a practitioner of the “black magic” that he himself practised. “Later that same day Sai gave me tantric mantras,” Chawla told me. “These mantras were written by Sai himself, on his own letterhead. The page had mantras like maran mantra, vashikaran mantra and vaani avrudh mantra”—intended to kill a person, control them and prevent them from speaking, respectively. “Sai asked me to practise these mantras but I never did,” Chawla said.

Sai made another attempt to convert Chawla into a practitioner of his “magic.” “After a few weeks, he took me and another young devotee from Udaipur to Rajrappa,” Chawla said. “It’s a place near Ranchi and is famous for its temple of Chinnamastika Mata”—a deity who carries her own severed head in one hand. “This temple is also known for black magic and tantric practices.” At midnight, Chawla recounted, “Sai took us to this temple and asked the old tantric who was there to educate both of us in black magic. But the old tantric refused, saying that black magic is a hurdle to salvation. He said that he had himself destroyed his own life due to black magic and now did not want two young boys to spoil their lives.”

Chawla remained shaken by the memory of Sai sitting with the child’s corpse. “I don’t know if the child was really bought dead, where the child came from, where his body went, where the skull came from and where it was disposed,” he said. “I don’t know anything. But I did see Sai performing black magic and using tantric practices on a small child.”

By this time, Chawla’s responsibilities had expanded. He organised Sai’s rallies and speeches, planned his travels and ensured that money was collected after each engagement.

At the ashram, Chawla said, “we had no proper sleeping hours, were never given proper food, and we used to be sent back home if we fell sick.” In winters, followers did not receive sweaters or other woollens. When Chawla asked about this, he was told that his body belonged to his guru, and that he had no need for sweaters. Regarding payment, Chawla said, “we never got a single paisa for our years of work.” In fact, he said, his mother occasionally sent him money, but “they used to take that money away from me also,” insisting that “everything I own belongs to my guru.” At the same time, “Asaram and Sai themselves would eat the choicest of food and wear the best clothes and most expensive woollens.”

Chawla’s first clue to Sai’s behaviour with women devotees came from Sai’s driver, with whom he struck up an acquaintance. “One day, Sai’s driver told me in a sad tone that Sai is not the saint that we think him to be,” Chawla said. “He told me that wherever we are, on tours or in ashrams, after everyone is asleep, Sai asks him to bring different women to his hut or wherever he is staying.” The driver told Chawla that he was disgusted with having to do this. “Sometimes he would ask the girls to sit in the trunk of the car, and sometimes ask them to kneel on the floor next to the back seat,” Chawla said.

The driver told Chawla that Sai abused and raped these women. “Then after a few weeks, we were in the Yeoor village of Thane for Sai’s sermon programmes,” Chawla said. “After his sermons, he was staying in a farmhouse in the village. That was the first time his driver showed me that Sai was sexually abusing a female devotee.”

After this, Chawla said, he witnessed similar incidents several times. “The driver would bring girls and then had to drop them off early in the morning, sometimes even as early as 2 or 3 am,” he said. All the women, he added, were devotees of Asaram and Sai, who were systematically brainwashed and then sexually abused.

This brainwashing often involved the use of Hindu mythology, according to Chawla—a point he has also made in court testimony. “Sai used to tell these women that he is Lord Krishna,” he said. “His regular explanation was that in their past births the women were born as gopis and Sai was Lord Krishna, but that he couldn’t lead them to their final salvation, which is why they were born again. He used to make them believe that he was actually not physically exploiting them but giving them his blessings and freeing them, once and for all, from the miseries of this world.”

Chawla left Asaram’s employ in 2005, and attempted to lead a normal life away from the ashrams. But after the Motera case came to light in 2008, he decided to speak up about what he had seen.

Then, Chawla began to receive regular threats from devotees of Asaram in Haryana. These intensified to such an extent that he shut down an insurance business he had set up, and remained at home. One day in 2013, he was visited by the sarpanch of his village, along with an Asaram devotee and two other men. “All four came to my house and started threatening me,” he said. “One of them, who is an old follower of Sai, openly threatened me by saying, ‘Bapu aur Sai ke khilaaf bolne walon ko ek ek karke khatam kar diya jayega.’” (All those who dare to speak against Sai and Babu will be finished one after the other.)

They also offered him money. “They came with a sky-blue suitcase, which was full of one-thousand-rupee notes,” he said. “One of them told me to take the money and forget everything. But I refused.”

The attack on him took place two years later, on the morning of 13 May 2015. The police gunner who had been assigned to him was on leave that day. Chawla was sitting near the half-closed door of his first-floor rented accommodation, when he heard footsteps on the stairs outside. “I peeped out of the door and saw two men with guns climbing up,” he said. Among them, Chawla said, was one of the men who had visited him in 2013 with the sarpanch.

Chawla quickly tried to shut the door—a double-door which could open in both directions—but the men had reached the top of the stairs by then, and pushed to try and open it inwards. He recounted that one of the men shouted, “Sai ke khilaaf gawahi deta hai?”(You dare to testify against Sai?)

Chawla managed to push the door open outwards, shoving the men aside briefly. He dashed out and climbed onto a ledge that hung over the entrance to the house on the ground floor. “Before I could jump down, the shooter caught my collar and tried to fire,” he said. “I pulled away and tried to jump. Just then he fired, but the bullet missed me and got stuck in the wall.” Seizing his chance, Chawla jumped from the ledge to the ground floor. “But before I could move he fired another shot from above, hitting my back,” he said. “I immediately fainted and they ran, thinking that I was dead.”

After surviving the attack, Chawla attempted to protect himself by applying for a gun licence. He was deeply disappointed by the police’s response. “I complained so many times but the police never took me seriously,” he said. “They humiliated me so much whenever I went to them asking for a gun licence. There is no witness-protection programme in place. With the police and the administration not cooperating, what do you expect from a witness? Why should the burden of standing for the truth only be on our shoulders?”

IT WAS NOT ONLY WITNESSES such as Chawla who feared that the state was failing to protect them. In March this year, just after voting for the Uttar Pradesh election ended, the Shahjahanpur-based journalist Narendra Yadav, who had survived a knife attack in September 2014 and been given police protection afterwards, told me that his security cover had been withdrawn. He had been informed that all available security personnel were needed to protect politicians who were campaigning for the election. “But now that the voting is over, I don’t know why they are still not reinstating my gunner,” he said. “I feel so scared that often I drive holding a gun with one hand, and the steering wheel with my other. It’s very dangerous because I am so scared that even if a person comes to say hello, I might end up shooting them out of fear and shock.”

I met the 44-year-old Yadav in early December, in a park in the centre of Shahjahanpur. He insisted on showing me around the park before we sat on the grass to talk.

Yadav, who is a reporter with the daily Dainik Jagran, told me that he filed a total of 287 stories on Asaram between August 2013 and September 2014. Shahjahanpur is a conservative place, and his stories played an important part in building support for the victim. But, inevitably, he also began receiving threats for his work.

At around 10 pm on 17 September 2014, Yadav recounted, he was leaving his office after filing his daily stack of news stories. He wore a safari suit, as he usually did, and carried a small bag slung across his shoulder. The bag contained a thermos with hot water that his wife had given him because he had been coughing for the past few days.

Yadav reached his car and moved to open the door when a hand grabbed his head from behind and yanked it backwards. At first, Yadav said, he thought that it might be a friend playing a prank. But suddenly, he felt metal against his neck, and a moment later he realised that he had been cut and was bleeding profusely. Then, the attacker slashed him once more.

Looking back later, Yadav realised that he had been improbably lucky to survive. Because he suffers from chronic pain in his neck, he usually holds it stiff and straight. As a result, the attacker, who was using a sickle, could not pull his head back far enough to expose his neck completely, and the sickle made a long cut that ran across Yadav’s chin. On the attackers’ next attempt, the blade struck the belt of the bag hanging from Yadav’s shoulder. After that, “some divine intervention happened and I screamed as loudly as I could,” Yadav recounted. “And then I snatched the sickle from his hands. There was blood all over us. My whole safari shirt, face and hands were all soaked in blood. There was blood on the attacker’s hands as well, so the sickle slipped from his hands. Before I knew what was happening, he jumped on a bike just a few steps away, where a rider was waiting for him, and both of them fled.” Yadav was immediately taken to a hospital, where he received 48 stitches on one cut and 28 stitches on another that ran from his cheekbone to his neckline.

To Yadav’s horror, the state police responded to the attack by investigating him and members of his family. “I kept saying that this attack was a conspiracy of Asaram and his devotees,” he said. “My friends and family kept saying the same. I told the police that I used to get threats and bribe offers to stop my coverage. But they didn’t listen to me. Instead, the whole investigation turned towards me. The cops dug around for fictional affairs by me and my wife, historic feuds in my village, etcetera. They even did lie detector tests on my family members, but nothing came out.”

The police’s response was particularly shocking given that Yadav himself gave them a lead to a man who had threatened him. A few weeks before the attack, he recounted, a devotee of Asaram’s from Kanpur paid him a visit. “He came to my office and posed as a fictional Rahul Yadav from Badaun,” Yadav said. “He gave me a parcel and said, ‘Ye Bapu ne sadbuddhi ka prasad bheja hai aapke liye. Nahi chapoge to naas ho jayega aapka.’” (Bapu has sent this gift of good wisdom for you. If you do not publish this, you will be destroyed.) The packet had a copy of Asaram’s mouthpiece magazine, Rishi Prasad, and other glorifying promotional material.

A few weeks after the attack, Yadav saw the same man sitting in front of the Shahjahanpur victim’s house, near a shop across the road. “I saw him and immediately recognised his face,” he said. “Then I went to the gunner deployed outside the victim’s house, and we went and asked his name. He said he was Narayan Pandey from Kanpur. We immediately handed him over to the police, but nothing substantial happened.”

Only much later, after the murder of Kripal Singh, the friend of the Shahjahanpur family, did the police uncover a possible link between Asaram and the attack on Yadav. While investigating Singh’s killing, the Shahjahanpur police contacted the Gujarat police, which had recently captured Kartik Haldar, the man who described himself as one of Asaram’s fidayeen. “During his interrogation by the Gujarat police, Haldar had accepted that he was involved in hatching the conspiracy of attempting to kill a Shahjahanpur-based journalist,” Yadav said. “He said that he was doing so on the order of Asaram.”

IF WITNESSES, JOURNALISTS AND OTHER ASSOCIATED with the cases against Asaram fear for their lives, the victims themselves are, understandably, doubly terrified. In mid February, I contacted the younger of the Surat sisters, who had accused Sai of raping her in the city ashram. After we exchanged text messages for three weeks, she agreed to speak to me. Though she lives under the protection of four guards, she still feels that her life is at risk. “I am not that scared about myself, but I feel concerned about my husband and my children’s lives,” she said. “They have not done anything wrong and they should not suffer because of me.”

The woman’s account of her time at the ashram tallied with Chawla’s description of how Asaram and Sai’s victims were brainwashed and then sexually exploited.
Like the Jodhpur victim, the Surat sisters were also from a deeply religious family. Their parents, who were regular visitors to Asaram’s ashram in Surat, began to take the girls along for sermons and other gatherings. “We did not particularly want to go to the ashrams and camps at first,” the woman, now 32 years old, told me. “Like all kids, we just wanted to play and be on our own. But our parents used to take us with them regularly. Then, slowly, we got into the ashram by attending Asaram’s camps and listening to his sermons.”

In 1996, the family sent the elder sister, who was 16 at the time, to Asaram’s ashram in Ahmedabad. “She went there for a 12-day anusthaan,” she said. “It is a process in which the devotee has to live in the ashram for 12 days, perform puja and chant mantras continuously.” At the end of this, she recounted, when their mother went to Ahmedabad to pick up her daughter, Asaram’s wife, Lakshmi Devi, refused to send her home.“Kya karegi ab sansar me jakar? Itni acchi ladki hai, yahi guru ke charnon me rehne dijiye ab ise” (What will she do in the world now? She is such a good girl, let her live in the feet of the guru), the younger sister said her mother was told.

The mother was too much in thrall to Asaram and Sai to protest. “What could my mother have done alone?” the younger sister asked. “So she came back without my elder sister and they kept her in the Ahmedabad ashram.”

It was a sign of the intensity of their devotion that, despite having their elder daughter kept away from them, the girls’ parents remained believers in Asaram and Sai. A few years later, in 2000, “I went to a camp of Narayan Sai in Surat with my parents,” the younger sister said. “I was 16 then.”

At the Surat camp, she said, Sai singled her out and asked her to visit his ashram in Meghnagar, in Jhabua. When she met him, “he made an indication to a sevika”—a female devotee. It appeared as if this devotee “understood that Sai had shown his interest in me.” The sevika, the victim said, “immediately came to me and started brainwashing me,” saying that “there is nothing in this outer world, whatever there is, it is at the feet of the guru.”

Other devotees who witnessed Sai’s actions, too, understood that he had singled her out. “So when I was standing in a queue in the ashram, some of them came up to me and asked me where I was from, and then gave me prasad,” she said. “They said that I should eat the prasad myself and not share it with anyone, just to make me feel special.”

Later, she travelled to the Meghnagar ashram. “When I went there it was chilly winter, and the ashram was still being built,” she said. “I was asked to help in the construction. So I, along with six or seven other girls, actually helped in the physical construction of the ashram.”

During this period, her communications and movements were restricted. “We were kept in confinement and my name was also changed,” she said. “They did not allow me to go back home to meet my mother or to speak to my parents on the phone. It was torture.” The assignation of a new name helped cut victims off from the outside world. “So even if someone from my family would have come to look for me, they wouldn’t find me because they would have asked for the girl with my original name, and that girl was not there anymore,” the woman said.

In 2002, she accompanied Sai on a tour to Bihar and Nepal. (She said that Mahendra Chawla was also present on this tour.) The attention Sai paid to her intensified after this trip, she said. “After we came back to Surat from the Nepal tour, one day he called me and asked me to come to the Surat ashram,” she said. He gave her the phone number of one of his sevaks—male devotees—and asked her to call him before she arrived. The sevak told her to come to the ashram and meet Sai without telling any of the other devotees about the meeting. “He said that if I told other girls that Sai wanted to meet me personally, then they would feel jealous and complain that Sai does not meet them but is meeting me,” she said. “I now realise that all this was a strategy to create a sense of false competition among the sevikas and make them feel special about meeting Sai personally.”

On reaching the ashram, she followed these instructions, and was led to Sai’s cottage from a rear entrance. There, she met Sai, who “held my hand and said, ‘Sansaar me kya rakha hai. Tumhara jo bhi hai guru ka hai. Tum pichle janam ki gopi ho aur main Krishna, aur main tumhara sansaar kaat raha hoon’ (What’s in the world for you? All that is yours is your guru’s. You are my female devotee from a previous birth and I am the incarnation of Krishna, and I am leading you to the path of salvation).”

The Surat victim often witnessed Sai being aggressive with other women in the ashram. In particular, she said, he would hurl abuses and beat women he found talking to men. “Once when Sai’s wife was talking to the ashram manager for some work, I saw him come out and give her four slaps on her face in front of everyone,” she said. “He was a bad-mouthed person and used to hurl lot of verbal abuse on everyone whenever he used to get angry. Whatever he used to do with women was ‘prabhu ki leela’”—god’s will—“but if any woman in the ashram dared to even speak to any male, she would be beaten up.”

Towards the end of our conversation, the woman got choked up as she recounted one afternoon in 2002 when she says Sai raped her. “I don’t know how you are going to write this,” she said. Both Sai and Asaram, she said, “used to force women to perform oral sex. They are perverts and would force women to even take the ejaculation of semen in their mouths.” She paused here, then continued. Sai, she said, “forced me to drink his semen. I was very scared and I did not knew exactly what I should do.” The two years of brainwashing made it impossible for her to resist, she said. “We were taught not to question the guru so it was not easy for me,” she said. “But I was very scared and I felt bad. He behaved very badly and cruelly with me.”

Around a year after the incident, when she was working as the manager of an ashram in the municipality of Himmatnagar in Gujarat, she decided to escape from Asaram and Sai’s clutches.

“When I said for the first time that I wanted to leave the ashram and go back home, his other sevikas caught me up, tied my hands and feet and locked me up inside a room in the ashram,” she recounted. “I cried through the night.” The next day, Sai came to meet her. “He beat me up mercilessly,” she said. “He used his legs and hands to hit me all over my body and hurled filthy abuses. He said, ‘Jayegi ashram se? Kyon jana chahti hai ashram se? Kya karegi ab bahar jakar?’ (You will dare to leave the ashram? Why do you want to go from the ashram? What will you do outside?)”

After this, the woman devised a plan to escape. She phoned her brother and asked him to come to the Himmatnagar ashram to pick her up. She instructed him to tell the ashram authorities that their mother was very ill—a story that she too would give them. “I explained everything to my brother,” she said. “He came to the ashram after a day to pick me up. I knew that Sai would not let me go any other way. He would accuse me of theft if I ran away and would beat me and lock me up if I asked for permission.”

The strategy worked. “Sai spoke to my brother when he came to pick me up,” she said. “My brother told him the same story of my mother’s illness. Then he allowed me to go for ten days.” She quickly packed her bags and handed over all the accounts that she was managing to another woman and left.

When she did not return to the ashram after ten days, Sai sent some sevikas to her. These devotees visited her home and pressured her to at least to speak to Sai on the phone. When she called him from a public telephone, “he yelled at me for not coming back.” She insisted that she could not return because her parents did not wish her to go.

She recounted that Sai then said she needed to return to at least settle the ashram’s accounts. She explained that she had handed over all the accounts. “But he said that I should explain them to him face to face,” she said.

She agreed to visit the ashram with her parents. A few days later, they set out for Himmatnagar, even though her father was unwell. “It was seven in the evening by the time we reached Himmatnagar,” she said. “The ashram is 15 kilometres away from the town, so we decided to spend the night at a relative’s house in Himmatnagar.” She phoned Sai and informed him that she had arrived, and would visit the ashram the next day. “He asked me the address of where we were staying and then hung up,” she said. “We called it a day and went to sleep.”

At around 2 am, “Sai sent a jeep full of his devotees to the address where we were staying,” she continued. “We were on the terrace and there were shops downstairs. They gathered downstairs and started shouting. They hurled abuses at me and started throwing stones at the building.” According to the woman, they yelled, “Bahar nikalo usko, yahi chipa ke rakha hai.” (Bring her out, she is hiding here.) “We were all very scared,” she said. “Then they went away. We passed the night somehow and took the first bus back home as dawn broke.” She said she and her parents continued to receive threatening messages from Asaram and Sai in the days that followed. She was relieved that they had not gone directly to the ashram, as their lives would have been at much greater risk there.

A few days later, the woman’s sister, too, returned home from the ashram in Ahmedabad. “She was also tortured a lot,” the younger sister said. “We did meet once or twice in between while we were both staying in different ashrams, and I remember her telling me that I should go back.” Despite their similar traumas, they “couldn’t find an opportunity to talk properly in between,” she said. After they were reunited in 2007, “we shared our ordeals with each other. But we could not gather the courage to tell this to our parents, so we kept quiet.”

It was only in early October 2013, after the first case was filed against Asaram, that the sisters—each of whom is now married, with children—gathered the courage to make their own police complaints. They told their mother about the horrors they had suffered just a few days before filing the complaints; their father, who suffers from a medical condition, still does not know about them.

The younger sister said that she took the decision because of the support of her husband, and because both she and her sister felt reassured when Asaram was arrested and later denied bail. “When the Jodhpur child-rape case broke, we were sure that the police would never be able to arrest Asaram,” she said. “We were following the case closely on TV. We thought, even if he is arrested, he will get bail in two hours. But the Jodhpur police did arrest him from Indore, and when he was denied bail even from the high court and Supreme Court we thought we should speak up now.”

OVER THE YEARS, Asaram has hired some of India’s best known and most expensive lawyers to defend him in the Jodhpur case—the one that has drawn the most attention among the three cases filed against him. In part this is because it was the first case filed, but it is also because the Jodhpur case includes charges under the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences, or POCSO, Act, as well as the Juvenile Justice Act. Among those who have defended Asaram are Ram Jethmalani, Raju Ramachandran, Subramanian Swamy, Sidharth Luthra, KTS Tulsi, Salman Khurshid and UU Lalit. Battling this army on behalf of the Jodhpur victim are two low-profile lawyers from the city, PK Verma and PC Solanki.

The lawyers of the prosecution told me they had both received threats, and offers of cash bribes to the tune of crores of rupees to stop fighting the case. “But we obviously sent away those who came with monetary offers with a warning,” Verma said when I met the two at Verma’s home in Jodhpur in February. “And we are not scared of death.”

Among Verma and Solanki’s achievements in these cases has been to ensure that all of Asaram’s bail applications—six in the trial court, three in the Rajasthan High Court and two in the Supreme Court—have been denied. Solanki pointed out that the godman’s lawyers have, to date, also raised more than 40 petitions in the trial court and high court. “First they challenged the charge sheet, then they challenged court’s cognisance of the offence, then they challenged the appointment of the special public prosecutor,” Verma said. Solanki added: “They agitated over every small point at higher courts, including the refusals of bail. But all the orders, with two or three exceptions, were in the prosecution’s favour.”

Verma told me that he and Solanki had taken on the Jodhpur case as a mission. “We are fighting for the truth,” he said. “We are not doing this for money. It is a scenario where the defence is spending lakhs on each hearing, but the victim’s father is not in a position to pay huge sums of money to anyone.”

The lawyers proudly recounted anecdotes about facing off against the likes of Jethmalani, Tulsi and Swamy. Solanki said he was particularly excited to take on Jethmalani when he travelled to Jodhpur to argue for Asaram’s bail in the Rajasthan High Court. Jethmalani, he recounted, attempted to argue that the girl was not a minor, and, therefore, that POCSO did not apply in the case. This claim was easily shown to be false. Jethmalani also argued that since the charge sheet did not mention penetration, the charges did not amount to rape. “But then he was informed that after the enactment of the new POCSO act, the definition of rape has also broadened in the IPC,” Verma said. “And penetration is no longer required for the crime to constitute rape.”

Jethmalani also argued that the victim’s medical examination was carried out before the FIR was filed, which he claimed was contrary to criminal jurisprudence. This argument, Verma said, persuaded the judge at first. “But then the learned counsel had either not read POCSO or was concealing the knowledge of section 27 of POCSO,” he said. “The law enables the investigating officer to conduct the medical of a sexually abused child even before filing of the FIR. This is the mandate of law and Mr Jethmalani was speechless. My arguments were accepted and Asaram was denied bail by Rajasthan High Court.”

KTS Tulsi had challenged Verma’s role as special public prosecutor in the court where the case was being heard, arguing that his appointment had not been notified—that is, published in a government gazette and thus brought into the public record. “We told him that you have not been properly briefed,” Verma said. Solanki pointed out that Verma already held a gazetted post—that of Jodhpur’s deputy director of prosecution—and thus his name did not need to be notified again. “When we said this, he immediately stopped,” Verma said.

The prosecution lawyers also threw a spanner in the works when Subramanian Swamy appeared to argue for Asaram in 2015. Solanki recounted that Swamy began by declaring to the court that he had learnt that the former chief justice of India, RM Lodha, was from Jodhpur, and that Swamy himself, during his time as union law minister in the 1990s, had recommended his elevation to the Supreme Court. It was an entirely inappropriate remark, one that could be interpreted as being aimed at influencing the court. The lawyers then came to the technical question of whether there was any legal impediment to Swamy appearing in the case, since he was not an enrolled advocate. To this, Swamy boasted that he had uncovered the 2G scam and toppled governments, and that, in the course of doing so, he had appeared in court several times as a pleader. “But then we filed a preliminary objection saying that he has no locus to argue the case,” Verma said. Solanki added: “Swamy immediately shouted at me, saying, ‘Why?’”

Solanki pointed out that the Supreme Court’s Harishankar Rastogi case, which Swamy was relying on to argue his point, actually worked against him. “The judgment says that whenever an accused wants to get his case pleaded by a person who is not an advocate, he has to move a motion before a court and then the court will decide if the pleader can argue the case or not,” Solanki said. “I asked him, where is the motion by accused, Asaram? Has he requested in front of this court, in written or oral, that Mr Subramanian Swamy should argue his case?” The prosecution did not object to Swamy’s appearance, but insisted that he follow the proper procedure. “We made him wait for 40 minutes till an application came from Asaram from Jodhpur jail,” Verma said.

Solanki said that he and Verma drew inspiration from the courage of the victims and witnesses who were standing up to Asaram. They have watched the Jodhpur victim undergo the gruelling process of appearing in court repeatedly over more than two months. Her father and mother appeared in court over 20 days and one month, respectively. The investigating officer in the case, Chanchal Mishra, had to appear in court regularly for more than a year. Their collective grit, the lawyers felt, will ensure that the godman is punished. “Asaram ke apradhon ka ghada bhar gaya hai,” Solanki said—his vessel of sins is full.

FROM THE DAY I SPENT at the Jodhpur court, it was evident that Asaram’s followers’ feverish devotion was not in the least bit dimmed by the sordid allegations against him. “What more can I say?” asked a police officer I met at the court. “Even after Asaram’s arrest in August 2013, people continue to worship him here. His devotees still fast on full-moon nights and break their fast only after worshipping him at the gate of the Jodhpur jail.”

Asaram initially expected even the police personnel escorting him to subordinate themselves to him. “When the trial had begun, he was so frustrated that he would regularly curse the constables,” a senior police official who has worked on the case for around three years told me. The godman seemed to believe that he could intimidate them with his alleged divine powers. “He would glare at them sternly and then say, ‘Main tumhe bhasm hone ka shraap deta hoon.’” (I curse you to burn to ash.)

But even if the police shrugged off the godman’s curses, “the sad part is that common people trust his ‘divine-powers’ fraud,” the official said. “The hundreds standing outside in his support even after three years of the trial are a living testimony of his influence.” One police officer told me that some unscrupulous lawyers had set up something of a side business in the Jodhpur court, granting devotees access to the building to catch a glimpse of Asaram in exchange for money.

As the court’s working day drew to an end, the crowd began to grow again in anticipation of Asaram’s appearance. I waited upstairs, outside the entrance to the courtroom. At around 6 pm, Asaram was led out. As he walked slowly across the front porch, our eyes met for a few seconds. He then proceeded downstairs and was escorted back to the blue van.

As the van bearing the godman and his police escort moved towards the exit gate of the court complex, men and women once again ran behind it, crying, “Bapu! Bapu!” One young woman picked up a fistful of soil from a patch of earth over which the vehicle had passed, and touched it to her forehead.

I visited the Jodhpur jail later that night, curious to see if Asaram’s devotees were gathered there, too. The outer walls of the jail had been graffitied by his followers, with words such as “Bapu” and “Guru kripa,” or teacher’s blessings. A group of Asaram’s devotees slept near the jail’s main gate. To protect themselves from the bitter cold, they had tied translucent polythene sheets around their bodies. Seen from a distance, they looked like corpses lined up in a mortuary, awaiting disposal.

THE SESSIONS-COURT COMPLEX in Jodhpur was particularly crowded on the afternoon of 9 February. By 2 pm, around 200 people had gathered outside the building. They were of various ages and from a variety of backgrounds, though there were unusually many young women among them—some dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, others in crisp salwar kameez and light woollen cardigans. Many in the crowd had travelled from outside the city, and carried small rucksacks or cloth bags. One family told me that they had come from Gorakhpur, in Uttar Pradesh, a little more than 1,000 kilometres away; one man that he had come from Jalpaiguri, in West Bengal, nearly 2,000 kilometres away.

Just after 2 pm, police began to cordon off the entrance to the building, forming a semicircle and forcing the crowd away. More people kept joining the crowd, and as the throng swelled they kept their eyes fixed on the gate to the complex.

Before long, a large blue van with the words “Riot Control” emblazoned on its side pulled in. A flurry of activity broke out around it. Several people ran behind the van as it passed them, yelling, “Bapu! Bapu!” (Father! Father!) Police officers chased them away, swinging their wooden sticks and blowing their whistles. One young woman in a parrot-green salwar kameez ran alongside the van, clutching her handbag and smartphone. As the vehicle turned right into a lane before the court building, she stepped into its path, joined her palms and cried, “Bapu! Bapu!”

She smiled when she caught a glimpse of the elderly man she had called out to—the self-proclaimed godman Asumal Harpalani, better known as Asaram, who was seated behind the vehicle’s thickly grilled windows. The godman raised a hand in a gesture of blessing. The van turned sharply to avoid the woman, and drove on to the rear entrance of the complex. Police swarmed the area, preventing the general public and most of the media from approaching the court.

I jostled my way through the crowd and reached the rear entrance. Asaram emerged from the vehicle, pausing at the door to raise both his palms and bestow his blessings on anyone who happened to be waiting for them. The 75-year-old godman’s skin was pale, and his eyes were bulging and bloodshot. He wore a crisp white dhoti and kurta, a cream-coloured sweater and a navy-blue woollen cap. A white shawl hung from his shoulder, and he carried a walking stick. Flanked by around a dozen policemen, Asaram entered the court, where he is on trial for allegedly raping a 16-year-old girl at his Jodhpur ashram in 2013. Asaram is also accused of sexual harassment, wrongful confinement and criminal intimidation, and faces additional charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences, or POCSO, Act. In addition, he stands accused of rape in another case, filed in Ahmedabad. The younger sister of the complainant in that case has filed allegations of rape against his son, 45-year-old Narayan Sai, who is also a godman.

The police have been regularly shepherding Asaram from prison to court since the commencement of the Jodhpur trial, in December 2013. The crowds were even larger and harder to manage in the early days; though they are now somewhat diminished, those who do gather remain just as frenzied in their devotion for their guru.

The court building’s lift had broken down, so the police led Asaram to the stairs. A group of around 50 people—who had managed to sneak past the police and were gathered at the entrance of the building—began to chant, “Bapu! Bapu!” As Asaram strode up the steps, these people became increasingly agitated, raising their hands in the air, and standing on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of him. Asaram turned and extended a palm towards them. The shouts of “Bapu!” reached a crescendo—then the police moved in, and, blowing their whistles, swiftly dispersed the crowd.

ON A GREY AND DRIZZLY AFTERNOON in August 2013, I reached the town of Shahjahanpur, in central Uttar Pradesh. I was there to meet the father of the 16-year-old girl who had filed the case that is now being tried in the Jodhpur court. It had only been a week since the complaint was filed, and there had been an explosion of media attention on the family. The anxious father had stopped meeting journalists. After reaching the family’s house, I managed to persuade him to speak to me by sending in a handwritten request through a neighbour and friend of theirs.

I was led into the house through a rear entrance and introduced to a tall, well-built man wearing a cream-coloured kurta-pyjama. He was still visibly in shock over what had happened to his daughter, and, in the conversation that followed, he recounted his family’s ordeal, crying throughout into a crumpled handkerchief.

The family’s members had been committed Asaram devotees, and had donated money to help him set up an ashram in Shahjahanpur. “We worshipped him like our own god,” the father told me. Since Asaram often preached that children educated in his ashrams would grow up with desirable values, he and his wife sent two of their three children to an ashram school in the district of Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh.

On 7 August 2013, they received a phone call from the ashram about the girl. Her hostel warden, Shilpi, now a co-accused in the case, “told us that she is ill and that we should reach the Chhindwara ashram immediately,” the father said. The worried parents reached Chhindwara the next day and went to the girls’ hostel to meet their daughter. They learnt that she had had a fainting spell the previous day. “The warden told us that some evil powers had captured my daughter, and could be removed only by Asaram,” the father recounted. “She told us to meet him as soon as we could.”

The warden told them, however, that Asaram was not in the Chhindwara ashram, but in Delhi. The girl and her parents travelled to Delhi to meet him, only to learn that he had travelled on to his Jodhpur ashram. On 14 August, they reached the ashram in Jodhpur, and finally met Asaram. The victim’s father recounted that the godman assured them that he would perform a puja to rid their daughter of the evil powers that had entered her.

The next night, Asaram summoned the parents and the girl to his hut in the ashram. After chanting some mantras, he instructed the parents to leave. “He took my daughter inside the hut with him for the puja,” the father said. “We trusted him completely, so we left our daughter with him and started chanting bhajans outside.”

When the girl came out after approximately an hour, her father said, “she was crying and looked disturbed.” The parents asked her what was wrong, but she only asked them to take her back home to Shahjahanpur, which they did the next morning. Only once they got home did the girl give her mother an account of what had happened to her inside the hut. She, in turn, told her husband. “He made her drink a glass of milk and then started sexually assaulting her,” the father said. “He tried to force himself on my daughter but she resisted.” The charge sheet in the case contains more disturbing details of what Asaram allegedly did. It states that the godman took off his clothes and forced the child to perform oral sex on him, and kissed her body and hugged her even as she cried and resisted. It also states that he intimidated the girl by threatening to kill her parents and family members if she dared to speak to anyone of what he had done to her.

The parents were enraged. “We wanted to confront Asaram immediately,” the father said. “So we went to Delhi, where he was holding a satsang. But he refused to meet us.” After this, the family went to the Kamla Nagar police station, the nearest one to them at the time, and filed a complaint.

As he recounted these events to me in 2013, the victim’s father sounded angry. “I feel that I trusted Asaram so much I wouldn’t have believed my own daughter if I had not seen her myself that night,” he said. “I regret that she did not immediately tell us what happened to her, otherwise I would have picked up the stones that were lying outside his hut, and would have hit him right then.”

He was much more subdued when I visited him again, in December 2016. I entered a small office in front of the family’s two-storey house to see a man at a table sorting papers and signing courier dispatches. It took me several seconds to realise that this was the victim’s father. He seemed to have aged a decade in the three years since I had met him last; he had grown slighter, and had lost most of his hair.

Though he had once run a successful transport business and owned more than ten trucks, he had sold most of them to fund the legal battle against Asaram. His family members’ routine lives had been disrupted, since they had to travel often to Jodhpur to attend the trial. “The trial period is so difficult and painful I can’t tell you,” the father said. “What kind of life is this? We have to travel so often to a state that is not ours. That city is not our city, but we land up there every few days with bag and baggage. And the court gets over at five in the evening. What to do with the rest of the long days and long nights in that unknown city? We just lie there in a small hotel room thinking about what happened to us.”

He said that he hoped that the court would reach a verdict in 2017. Asaram “cheated us in the name of god while he was actually a monster in the garb of a saint,” he said. “Now all I want is a verdict and maximum punishment against him. All the prosecution witnesses have been cross-examined. Now only defence witnesses are left. I hope that the verdict comes in the next few months.”

The family was terrified for its safety because of a rash of attacks and killings of witnesses that had occurred after the girl’s complaint was filed. Among those killed was Kripal Singh, a close friend of the family and one of the witnesses in the case. The victim’s father appeared to mistrust his family’s own security guards, who had been assigned by the Uttar Pradesh government. Though I had been shown in by a trusted acquaintance, the father complained that the guards should have checked with him first before letting me through. “I can’t trust anyone in this situation, as you know,” he said.

The family’s members had begun to severely restrict their movements. The men—the victim’s father and two brothers—went out only when it was unavoidable, while the women remained confined to their home. His daughter had “been living like a prisoner for the past three and a half years,” the father said. “She cannot move out of the house. She is a young child and this is the time when she should have been investing herself in studying and in making a place for herself in the world. But she cannot move out of the house because of the innumerable threats that we face on a daily basis.” His sons, too, have suffered, and have been unable to pursue regular educations or take up regular work.

But though he was evidently exhausted by the fight, the victim’s father was determined to see the process through. “We will fight this battle to the end,” he said. “If they kill me, then my children will fight. We will fight till the last person is alive, but we will not leave this man. We will not back down until we get justice and he is sent behind bars forever.”

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Priyanka Dubey is a staff writer at The Caravan. 

READER'S COMMENTS

9 thoughts on “Crisis of Faith”

Fabulous article. The rise and fall of a self declared man.. How every society has mixed of blind and inspiring people.. And the way it’s penned down.. Literally swept land below my feet. Haat off maam..

Dear Mr Mahapatra u r one of those unfortunate being whose not had d good fortune of Bapujis darshan,satsang,and exp of His divine aura.No wonder u have bcom a victim of media trials agnst Hinduism and Bapuji.U r visualising dis event as portayd by Bikau Media ,whereas devotees r enriched wiz their personal experience with Bapuji.

Totally biased article, crookedup story line , with misinterrupted facts. Such stories & articles keep on coming in print & electronic media which are sponsered by those institutes & people ,who don’t want the saint to come out.
Truth shall always win no matter how late it might be.

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Great reporting Priyanka.. Informative yet riveting. Impressive visually descriptive style of writing. These babas are a tragedy which keeps repeating itself in India. Seems like a limitless supply with equally limitless demand. It would be a mistake to dismiss the cause of this phenomenon simply as ignorance of the masses. There is a deeper decease inflicting Indian society and culture. This is just another expression of – what educated people like us who read and write these Narrative essays call – “spiritualism”. This is a problem which cannot simply be solved by exposing A baba – which we absolutely should. However, for every one Baba exposed, there are hundreds lurking behind every village and small town in this land of Yogis and Sadhus.

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