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The rise and fall of the Indian Godmen, the celebrity gurus embroiled in rape allegations

The Telegraph
By Professor  

On April 25 Asaram Bapu, a feted guru whose followers extend around the world, became the latest of India's so-called Godmen to be sentenced for rape - bringing his celebrity status crashing down to earth and once again leaving the country poised for violence on the streets.

 

The 77-year-old, who has 400 ashrams around the world where he taught meditation and yoga, was given a life sentence for raping a 16-year-old daughter of one of his followers. In a case that bears worrying hallmarks of similar assaults, the girl was assaulted while her parents waited chanting his prayers in the belief she was being given "spiritual lessons".

 

Although tension remains high a week after Bapu's trial ended, the predicted rioting seen in the aftermath of similar cases has not materialised. The case, however, has rocked India once again, leaving questions hanging over the sometimes bizarre world of the influential babas who draw millions of loyal followers and have, up until recently, seemed to act with impunity.

Usually postulating a pick 'n' mix of vague spiritual platitudes with an ethos of material gain, these proclaimed gurus, babas (slang for father) and spiritual advisers have built their support among India’s poor families and western tourists for years.

 

Many have done this while simultaneously charming the establishment by making devotees of politicians and senior police officers. When Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh - the “Bling Baba” - was arrested and tried last year over the rape of two women, several police officers were detained for trying to spring him from jail.

 

Since the 1960s and the days of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who famously taught the Beatles to embrace their “spiritual side”, to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 70s, aka Osho, on whom a recent Netflix series, Wild, Wild Country is focused, the modus operandi of the Indian godman has remained largely the same: speak in wide and ambiguous statements, develop a cult following and ask for money. More recently some have added another common theme: have sex with devotees - consensually or, in some cases, not.

 

The babas' influence over politics and society in India, plus their wide reach among the diaspora and western converts, has helped them continue often unchallenged - solidifying the view that many of them are above the law. But in recent years, more and more of these babas are being prosecuted - usually for sexual crimes - despite their political connections. So is the golden era for the Godmen of India coming to an end?

 

Two years ago Mehndi Kasam became the first of the current crop of the Godmen to be convicted for sexual assault. The 43-year-old was jailed for life over the rape of seven girls. Kasim knew four sisters who had disabled sons and healthy daughters. He promised to “cure” the boys and asked their mothers to send to him their daughters for “remedies” that would ensure they too didn’t give birth to disabled children.

 

There have now been seven high profile trials of influential babas connected to sex offences in the past few years - and there are at least three more in the pipeline.

 

However, there are still difficulties with bringing justice. The babas have succeeded in instilling such fervent devotion that to put one on trial means the police and city officials often have to brace for civil disturbances on a mass scale. During the sentencing hearing for Bapu last week, the city of Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, was a ghost town as the centre was on lockdown.

 

In August, the riots that followed Singh’s conviction left 28 dead and hundreds injured. A raid in 2014 to capture the guru Sant Rampal required hundreds of police officers to fight their way through around 20,000 followers of the Godmen.

 

The belief and devotion for the babas runs deep. Dr Upasana Mahanta, executive director at the Centre for Women, Law and Social Change, in Delhi, says: “Many of them are preaching that it’s okay to be materially rich. They say things that traditional religious leaders won’t, and that probably speaks to a vacuum for many Indians.”

 

Dr Rakshi Rath, assistant professor at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities in Delhi, says: “Godmen are remarkably adept at addressing these vulnerabilities and in cultivating a sense of community in people. Together, they build up almost their own cultural systems in the movement.”

 

She adds: “In an infernal logic, the conviction may work in instilling their authenticity even more in the minds of the convinced followers. Psychologically people’s mistrust of the justice system, and the characterisation of their guru as a hero who has been wrongly convicted leads to the strengthening of support for the godmen.”

 

However, that logic may be put to the test more than ever in the current climate. Indians have been protesting en masse against sex assault laws in the country - especially over the brutal rape and murder of eight-year-old Asifa Bano. And with so many of these guru cases involving similar crimes, patience even among the babas' faithful may be at its limit. Indeed, India has just introduced the death penalty for child rapists.

 

“I do hope that it is a symbol of change”, says Dr Mahanta. “In the Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh case there were politicians and cops openly supporting him, the fact that he was convicted in spite of that is a message.”