Asaram Bapu’s journey from puritanical preacher to rape accused

The arrest of Asaram Bapu in a rape case in 2013 marked a remarkable – some say ironic—turnaround in fortunes for the self-styled godman based in Motera near Ahmedabad. Four-and-a-half decades ago, he had shot to fame by preaching about controlling sexual desire.
On April 25, a Jodhpur court will give its verdict in the case.
Asaram started his religious discourses from a small hut in 1971 on the banks of the Sabarmati, not far away from Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram. In two decades he amassed millions of followers and build hundreds of ashrams across India and in the US, Hong Kong, Canada and South Africa.
By 2008, Asaram’s empire was worth Rs 5,000 crore, according to a chargesheet filed by police in a separate case against him in Gujarat. His Sant Shri Asaramji Ashram Trust ran 40 traditional schools called gurukuls, a printing press that publishes material on his interpretation of Hindu religious scriptures and an Ayurveda unit that produces medicines, soaps, and shampoos.
“He marketed the spiritualism quite well. He would give food, utensils, and medicines for free to followers. But at the core, he grew into a true businessman with ownership of chunks of lands and also a huge investment in shares and the stock market,” a senior journalist said.
Asaram was born as Asumal Sirumalani on April 17, 1941, in Berani village in Sindh province, now in Pakistan. His family migrated to Maninagar in Ahmedabad after Partition and set up a business in coal and firewood. He dropped out of Jai Hind High School in Class 3 after his father died.
According to the biography Sant Asaram ki Jivan Jhankhi, published by his ashram, he ran away to an ashram in Bharuch before his wedding only to be persuaded to return by his family.
At 23, he again left for the Himalayas and found his spiritual guru in Lilashahji in Nanital. Lilashahji named him Asaram.
Asaram started his own ashram in Ahmedabad with just ten followers. Asaram’s next big stop was Surat, where he found a large number of followers among tribals.
As his followers grew, he attracted politicians to his crowded satsangs or religious discourses. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party governments in the state gave Asaram land to expand his ashrams.
His wife Lakshmi Devi, daughter and son Narayan Sai, who is in jail in a separate rape case, helped him manage the ashrams and other establishments.
Asaram’s troubles began in 2008 when the mutilated bodies of two cousins and gurukul mates Dipesh Vaghela (10) and Abhishek Vaghela (11) were found from the Sabarmati river bank near his ashram in Motera. Some vital organs were missing from the boys’ bodies.
Shantilal Vaghela, Abhishek’s father, staged an indefinite fast accusing Asaram of killing the boys for black magic rituals. He ended his fast after the administration appointed an inquiry commission by retired judge DK Trivedi.
Gujarat police booked seven of Asaram’s followers in 2009 for the death of the two children and filed a chargesheet against them in September 2012. Asaram was not implicated in this case and the BJP government is yet to table the inquiry commission’s report.
Asaram was also hit by a land-grabbing controversy in Surat. The matter is still sub-judice.
As he fell from grace, the BJP-led state government’s stance over his land holdings reflected its changing equation with him. The state government decided in 2009 to take back the land given to his Ahmedabad ashram. A year later, then revenue minister Anandiben Patel informed the state assembly that the nearly 68,000sqm plot had been taken back.
Finally, Asaram was arrested after a 16-year-old girl accused him sexually assaulting her at a religious retreat near Jodhpur in August 2013.
Two sisters from Surat came forward to register similar cases against Asaram and his son Narayan Sai just months later.
The sisters, who lived at Asaram’s ashram in Gujarat between 1997 and 2006, lodged separate complaints against the godman and his son, accusing them of repeated rape and illegal confinement, among other charges. Five others, including Asaram’s wife and daughter, were also charged by the police of abetting the rapes., Asaram’s official website, dismisses all allegations and cases against him, including land grabbing, black magic, murder and rape. It also provides updates about court proceedings in the cases. The Motera ashram still holds satsangs thrice a day and continues to attract followers.

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