Ganga pollution protest: Bizarre disappearance of Swami Gopal Das from Dehradun hospital puts doubt on govt's intent

Mystery continues to surround the disappearance of  Swami Gopal Das who had been fasting for the last six months to save the Ganga river. He was last seen on the evening of 4 December when he was admitted to the Government Doon Medical College (GDMG) in Dehradun having been brought there from AIIMS Delhi. His aged parents, Shamsher Malik, a farmer from Panipat district and his mother, Shakuntala Devi dismiss outright the district authorities' version that their son left the GDMG hospital voluntarily.

Apparently, when he 'disappeared’ from GDMG on a December night, he left behind his few belongings including his mobile phone. The two Dehradun policemen who had been assigned the task of keeping an eye on him were not with him at the time when he walked out of the hospital. Gopal Das, who has a PhD in Environmental Sciences and was a keen environmentalist, began fasting to save the Ganga on 24 June at Badrinath. He then moved down to Rishikesh where he continued his fast from Triveni Ghat in Rishikesh. And on 12 October, learning of the death of GD Agarwal (Swami Sanand) he decided to move to Matri Sadan to continue his fast from there.

Gopal Das. Image courtesy News18

Gopal Das. Image courtesy News18

Providing details of the case, medical superintendent of GDMC KK Tamta said, "Given the sensitivity of the case, the hospital administration immediately informed the local police about his arrival and two policemen had been deployed by the district administration to keep guard on him. Gopal Das was in a stable condition during his brief stay at the hospital. We provided him with a nasogastric (NG) tube when he arrived but he was adamant that he did not want any medication." Tamta also said that the hospital administration had provided the CCTV footage of his leaving the hospital to the police.

Gopal Das’ parents along with several activists insist that after his hurried discharge from AIIMS Delhi he was brought to Dehradun and dumped outside the district magistrate’s office.

"My son was not a dacoit that he needed to go into hiding. And even if he did want to leave the hospital, why would he leave his mobile phone behind?" asks his aged father. Malik further pointed out, "There is something very sinister about the way he was brought from AIIMS Delhi to Dehradun. The hospital attendants at AIIMS had informed him that the authorities did not want to suffer the embarrassment of having him around during the Winter Session of Parliament. If that was the case, why they did not leave him in his village with us."

On learning of her son’s disappearance, Gopal Das’ distraught 60-year-old mother Shakuntala went on a fast unto death at Triveni ghats in Rishikesh from 13 December. A week later, she has been persuaded to break her fast after receiving an assurance from the district authorities that they would intensify their search to find her son.

Both parents question the length to which the central and state machinery were misused to harass and torture their 40-year-old son as he was moved from one medical facility to another. "During the period of his fasting, he was moved in and out of more than a dozen hospitals. We follow the practices of Mahatma Gandhi and yet he was treated worse than a criminal," said Shakuntala.

Ganga activist Mallika Bhanot, a member of the Uttarkashi based NGO Ahvaan who was in regular touch with Gopal has kept a record of this harassment. "On 12 October, he was forcibly taken to AIIMS Rishikesh. Four days later, he was discharged and allowed to return to Matri Sadan when the following day he was again taken to AIIMS Rishikesh from where on 22 October, he was shifted to PGI Chandigarh. The authorities in PGI kept him in the ward with patients suffering from communicable diseases. Five days later, he was moved back to AIIMS Rishikesh only to be released on 1 November," said Bhanot.

"But this did not end his harassment because two days later he was referred to Jolly Grant Hospital in Rishikesh and then from there he was taken to Rishikul Ayurvedic college also in Rishikesh. From there, once again he was dumped back at AIIMS Rishikesh and then from there he was suddenly moved to an Ayurvedic facility in Sarita Vihar. By then he was so broken that he had to be admitted to the ICU at AIIMS on November 7," she said. "For a nation that owes its independence to non-violence fasts of Mahatma Gandhi, for the government to show such high handedness and animosity is shocking. He was within his rights to fast as an expression of protest and yet he was bundled from one place to another only to harass him and break his spirit."

SP Haridwar Mamta Vohra justifies the government’s decision to take him to AIIMS Rishikesh. "We are authorised to take whatever steps that are deemed fit to save his life. He was declared medically unfit so we got him admitted to AIIMS Rishikesh," said Vohra.

Nor do the top cops of Uttarakhand agree with the parents' version that Swami Gopal had been dumped outside the district magistrate’s office on a cold December evening. Both SSP Dehradun Nivedita Kukreti and Vohra insist that they had seen the CCTV footage provided by GDMG which shows Gopal Das walking out of the hospital.

Kukreti, whose office is located a stone’s throw from the GDMG pointed out, "I have seen the CCTV footage which shows him going out of the hospital. A missing complaint has been filed. So let us see when we are able to locate him."

But his parents and close associates are not willing to buy this explanation.

"A man who has been fasting for the last six months is hardly in a condition to simply walk out and disappear into the blue. Even when he was on his way to Dehradun after his discharge from AIIMS on 4 December, he took a video of how his two attendants were torturing him and making fun of him along the way. In this video, he expresses apprehension that he will be killed in the same way Swami Sanand was. My question to the government is that when Modi came to power, he had said, he was the son of Ganga. Then why he has not bothered to address the concerns of the seers and saints who are protesting and fasting to save the Ganga," said Malik.

Swami Sivananda of Matri Sadan which has been in the forefront of the fight to save the Ganga river also questions the government’s intent in not being willing to address the questions being raised by his community.

"Even during the Congress regime, the Sant community undertook repeated fasts and many of us were subjected to force-feeding. But no member of our community ended up losing our lives. Here this young sant Gopal Das was been tossed from one medical facility to another in order to break his spirit. It was obvious that the government wanted him out of the way because they do not want bad publicity," said Sivananda.

"Irom Sharmila, who wanted the AFSPA to be repealed in Manipur, was also kept alive by force-feeding for 16 long years. Here because of the ill-treatment meted out to Gopal Das, a man who was hale and hearty while fasting on the banks of the Ganga ended up suffering enormously simply because he wanted the government to take firm steps to end sand mining and to restore the smooth flow of the Ganga. Are these not legitimate demands?" asked Sivananda.

Environmentalist Ravi Chopra heading the People's Science Institute in Dehradun fears the worst.

"I am extremely worried. It is time the government make a statement explaining how a seer can just vanish in this extraordinary manner. There is no doubt that he was physically and psychologically harassed and we need to know why he was treated in this manner," Chopra said.

Medha Patkar, Swami Agnivesh, Rajendra Singh, Bharat Jhunjhunwala and several other leading activists have written an open letter to the government expressing shock at how the government made no attempt to dialogue with Gopal Das even though he had been fasting for 171 days. Instead, they kept transporting him from one hospital to another and kept pressurising him to give up his fast rather than make any attempt to understand his concerns.

"Exactly the same thing happened with Swami Sanand who ended up sacrificing his life after having fasted for 112 days. As Sant Gopal Das was brought in police custody to AIIMS Delhi by Uttarakhand police we hold the Governments of Uttarakhand and India directly responsible for his disappearance. We also demand that Government should enter into dialogue with fasting Saints. Right now Brahmachari Atmabodhanand is also sitting on fast at Matri Sadan, Haridwar," the open letter said.

Brahmachari Aatmabodhanand of Matri Sadan has also been on fast since 24 October. He too is also bearing the harassment from local authorities as also being subjected to forceful hospital admissions despite being stable in health.

His associate Brahmachari Dayanand pointed out, "Our fast consists of the sant taking some salt, warm water and honey. This helps to stabilise the individual and keeps him in good health. I myself had undertaken a fast for one month and was fine. This was what Swami Sanand was also taking and as long he was at Matri Sadan, he was normal. He would take regular walks and also do all his personal chores himself. But in the case of Brahmachari Aatmabodhanad too, the local SDM took him forcibly to AIIMS Rishikesh. Within two days of his admission there, he became seriously ill. Fearing the worst, we managed to get him discharged. We have brought him back to Matri Sadan, had him treated by a local doctor and have managed to stabilise him."

Shakuntala Devi is in no mood to be silenced. This doughty 60-year-old blames the government squarely for her son’s disappearance. "Till my last breath, I am determined to fight for the implementation of the Ganga Protection Management Act. My son lost his life for Ganga Mata. I too will not budge from Rishikesh till such time as the government concedes to our demands," she said.

Swami Gopal Das is the fourth swami to have undertaken a lengthy fast to save the Ganga. Swami Nigamand Saraswati fasted unto death in 2011 and Baba Nag Nath sacrificed his life in 2013 to save the river.

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Updated Date: Dec 24, 2018 12:30 PM

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