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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Politicians in bed with India's 'pimp gurus'

South Asia
Mar 10, 2010

Politicians in bed with India's 'pimp gurus'
By Narendra K

GHAZIABAD, Uttar Pradesh - His silk robes, ornate turbans and high-end imported sedans belie his status as "god-man", a Hindu ascetic who guides people in their spiritual quest. In fact, the personalized carriage that chugs around a specially laid railway track in his ashram, as well as his sprawling farms, dairies, factories, bakeries, schools and floating, revolving restaurant, all point to a life of luxury.

Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim is the head of Dera Sacha Sauda, a religious sect in Sirsa (a city in the west of Haryana state, about 255 kilometers from New Delhi) that has millions of disciples. He is a prime example of why notoriety follows India's self-proclaimed "god-men".

When the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India's central

investigative agency, recently charged him in connection with the murder of Faqir Chand, a former associate in the Dera Sacha Sauda, his followers went on a rampage, bringing life to a standstill in parts of Punjab and Haryana states.

After passenger trains and the Punjab finance minister's bus were set alight, additional police forces had to be drafted in with fire extinguishers as rumors spread that the Baba's devotees planned to self-immolate.

It is not the first time that the police's attempts to detain Baba Gurmeet have led to riots. Last year, his private guards were accused of shooting a Sikh dead in Mumbai, leading to mass unrest. Disciples also protested in 2008 when the CBI implicated him in two murders and the rape of a sadhvi (female disciple).

The Faqir Chand murder is the fourth CBI case involving the Baba, who is 43. Chand has been missing for over a decade, but the case was only recently assigned to the CBI when Ramkumar Bishnoi, a man from Chand's village, approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court.

Baba Gurmeet is currently being tried for the murders and the rape case in Ambala, a city on the New Delhi-Chandigarh highway. The murder cases relate to the killings of Ramchander Chhatrapati, a local journalist, and Ranjeet Singh, a former disciple.

Chhatrapati would criticize Gurmeet's alleged misdeeds in his news reports, while Ranjeet Singh had accused Gurmeet of raping his younger sister. The CBI has charged Baba Gurmeet with arranging their deaths through his henchmen.

Try as it might, the CBI has not been able to detain Baba Gurmeet. While his co-accused cool their heels behind bars, Gurmeet has been granted bail and will testify in Ambala court through a video conference. Some say this is because, with his millions of disciples, Gurmeet is still very useful tool for local politicians.

Before the controversies, various leaders from political parties such as the Shiromani Akali Dal, the ruling Congress party and the Indian National Lok Dal, would all regularly visit him.

"Politicians still patronize him for votes. That is why his supporters can indulge in arson and rioting and the police stay away from him," said Anshul Chhatrapati, the son of Ramchander Chhatrapati.

Gurmeet's spokesperson, Aditya, denies the charges and says the media should instead focus on the charities financed by the Dera Sacha Sauda sect.

Besides Gurmeet, other religious gurus have recently been implicated in unsavory episodes that purportedly involved police and politicians.

Swami Nithyananda, a god-man who has a large following in the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu was last week filmed cavorting with an unidentified Tamil actress in a television sting operation - he is now on the run. His ashram has said the video footage, run by a television channel, is "fake".

Swami Bhimananda, a follower of the legendry guru Sai Baba, was arrested by police in February for allegedly running a high-end call girl racket in the city. Bhimananda allegedly used a temple in south Delhi for operations allegedly involving about 200 prostitutes, including air hostesses from a foreign airline and students. Bhimananda has been arrested on similar charges in the past.

Delhi police have said that contacts of the accused revealed from six diaries seized at the time of his arrest included the names of "100 high-profile policemen, politicians and bureaucrats, besides prostitutes". They added that Bhimananda, who media have dubbed the "pimp guru", had political ambitions and wanted to use his many followers as a vote bank.

The cases of Baba Gurmeet, Nithyananda and Bhimananda have re-affirmed the views of skeptics that India's self-styled god-men, despite their claims of spiritual or mystical powers, are simply confidence tricksters.

"Most of them are not [holy]. They're charlatans. I don't know why people fall for them," Dipankar Gupta, a former sociology professor at Jawarhalal Nehru University in New Delhi told Agence France Presse over the Karnataka sex scandal.

The nexus between the fake god-men and politicians and police is a vicious cycle, TN Jayachandran, former additional chief secretary of Kerala state, told the Thai-Indian news agency.

"God-men make their presence felt because those who have power and money search for temporary peace through them. These god-men, in turn, exploit these high-profile people and use them to expand their base and fame," he said.

Not all are dismayed at the recent scandals. Sanal Edamaruku, head of the Indian Rationalist Association, who has campaigned for years to expose false gurus, told the Straits Times that they are part of new awareness developing in India over the god-men. "I am very, very happy about it," he said.

Narendra K is a journalist based in Ghaziabad, India.


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