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Asaram Bapu convicted of rape: The reign of modern babas is sustained by deepening chasm between logic and faith

Today he would be known as a 'godman'. But at that time he was just the family guru.

I only knew him through family lore. Khyapa baba, it is said, miraculously saved my uncle as a boy when a piece of iron got lodged in his throat and could not be removed surgically. He voice became a breathy whisper few could understand. From a daredevil boy who scaled walls and climbed trees, he became a listless child who lay in bed for weeks. Renowned doctors of the day pronounced surgery as too risky. But the boy was drawn, my mother (his sister) says, to the wandering holy man in town giving Krishna katha talks.

 Asaram Bapu convicted of rape: The reign of modern babas is sustained by deepening chasm between logic and faith

File image of Asaram Bapu. PTI

The holy man too took a fondness to him. One day suddenly as he was playing on his grandmother's bed, my uncle vomited. There was a metallic clunk and they realised the iron piece had come out. He ran out of the room, jumped on his bicycle and started riding round and round the courtyard. At the same time far away in his ashram they heard Khyapa Baba had sat in a trance for hours, apparently writhing in pain, telling his disciples to keep away until suddenly he started to vomit blood. "Buckets and buckets," says my mother, though of course she had not been an eye witness. Then he cried "It is out" and fainted.

I don't know how much of this is true and how much is legend. But faith is an odd thing. My mother's very pucca sahib barrister grandfather became a devotee of Khyapa Baba. My uncle became a pilot and always carried a small twist of paper with the dried flowers and blessings of the holy man when he flew. Every year a letter of blessings came from the ashram to my mother. I am sure donations went by return mail. When my grandmother was sick with cancer, my mother asked for Khyapa Baba's help. This time he was of no avail but the faith persisted as long as he lived.

If Khyapa Baba had been arrested, accused of some crime, fraud, embezzlement, sexual molestation, my mother would have been distressed, even devastated. But I doubt anyone would have taken to the streets or beaten up journalists or blocked trains. Khyapa Baba did not have VIP clout, chief ministers did not come to seek his blessings. But there was also a comfortable ease with which people like my mother once moved between the religious world and the so-called secular one.

Now the coverage of the Asaram Bapus and Gurmeet Ram Rahims show an almost unbridgeable chasm between the two worlds. Their followers seem to live in a world of their own, impervious to logic, common sense, even fact. One of his devotees tells Business Standard  "Even if Brahma Vishnu and Mahesh came and told me that Bapu had done this, I would not believe them. I would say 'no', 'no' , 'no' an infinite number of times." Meanwhile the videos that circulate of a dancing twirling Asaram Bapu makes the rest of us wonder what in the world so many thousands saw in him. Just as we wonder about how anyone, no matter how devoted, could have sat through a Gurmeet Ram Rahim starrer. They seem more clownish than charismatic. We are unable to fathom their appeal and thus it is hard to report on their followers with any degree of empathy. I remember once going to cover Baba Ramdev's fast in Delhi for Firstpost. My editor warned me to listen to the followers and not snigger at them or their beliefs. I remember being moved by their devotion and their hospitality even as I could not believe in the object of their devotion. When Ramdev was rounded up at night in a midnight raid, one of those anguished devotees called me from a train in Gujarat to tell me about her shock and dismay. It was an unlikely moment of connection between our worlds but now we increasingly live in two worlds completely able to understand each other.

Special judge Madhusudan Sharma who presided over the Asaram Bapu trial lamented in his judgment that the godman had not only shattered the faith of his devotees but also harmed the reputation of saints among ordinary people. But in reality, the faith seems even more stubbornly impervious to law or logic. Former Gujarat IPS officer DG Vanzara, claims the victim was never raped and this was at worst a case of  "inappropriate touching" as if that was excusable. He views the case against Asaram Bapu as something not in the "interest of the country, Hindus or Sanatan religion." Ashok Singhal of the VHP had once declared "This is telling the Hindu community that we will finish your feelings towards a religious leader" as if a case against one godman is an attack against an entire religion.

Let's not forget this is not one isolated case of a young woman accusing Asaram Bapu. Many other sinister stories had been swirling around about land grabs, intimidation, black magic, forgery, and missing children from the ashram being found on a river bed with vital organs missing. But his VVIP clout trumped everything until now.

The verdict might bring a sense of justice to the accuser but it reinforces a sense of victimhood for the true believers. Now they threaten the BJP governments with dire consequences, accusing it of meddling with the judiciary, bringing up, without any sense of irony whatsoever, the dismissal of the Justice Loya case as an example. As a pliant flock, obeying his beck and call, they were very attractive to politicians. As an angry buzzing mass, they terrify them. That is why we had Section 144 imposed in anticipation of the verdict.

Media reports that the government in Madhya Pradesh is scrambling to remove Asaram Bapu's name from roundabouts and bus stands named after him. Pundits weigh the impact of this verdict on the fortunes of the Vasundhara Raje government. The Congress is gleefully circulating videos of Asaram Bapu and Narendra Modi saying a man is known by the company he keeps, blithely ignoring how its own government in Gujarat once allotted him over 14,000 square kilometres of land.

But all of this calibration of political fallout ignores something far more tragic. These super godmen have led to the rise of an army of followers who are now left rudderless. They have seen their leader drive straight to aircrafts without being frisked like an aam aadmi. No wonder they think he is invincible and they felt safe under his protection. They believe in him more than they believe in the state, the Constitution and the rule of the law and politicians, greedy for votes, encouraged that bubble of belief. My mother believed in Khyapa Baba but the power they believed in was the power of God, not the power of law-proof privilege. Today's super godmen have sold us the promise of the latter.

Now Asaram Bapu might be behind bars but what happens to his thousands of followers for whom he was everything, who thought (and many still think) he was above the law? That's a problem that Section 144 cannot solve.

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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2018 16:22:22 IST

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