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What Draws People to India’s Fake ‘Godmen’?

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What Draws People to India’s Fake ‘Godmen’?

‘Godman’ ‘Bhole Baba’ draws Dalits, the poor and illiterate in droves. At his recent congregation in Uttar Pradesh, 121 followers died in a stampede.

What Draws People to India’s Fake ‘Godmen’?

FILE- In this Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016, file photo, Indian spiritual guru, who calls himself Dr. Saint Gurmeet Singh Ram Rahim Insan, rides a motorcycle as he arrives for a press conference ahead of the release of his new film “MSG: The Warrior Lion Heart,” in New Delhi, India.

Credit: AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal, File

When 121 people were killed in a horrific stampede in Hathras, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh on Tuesday, it reignited the discussion on the sway of self-styled “godmen” among the Indian masses.

The stampede occurred during a religious congregation of godman Narayan Sakar Hari also known as “Bhole Baba.” The organizers had acquired permission for 80,000 people to attend the event at the remote village venue but over 200,000 showed up. There were no safety measures in place.

The stampede was triggered when the godman’s followers scrambled to touch his feet and collect the colored powder he had trod upon. In the melee that followed, people were crushed underfoot.

The godman had exited the venue when the tragedy occurred.

Narayan Sakar, it has now come to light, used to be a constable with the Uttar Pradesh Police 18 years ago. He was then known as Suraj Pal and was suspended from the police force for sexually harassing a woman in Etawah.

Sakar belongs to the lower-caste Dalit community. Over time he became a religious preacher, established a palatial “ashram” (religious retreat) in his native village, traveled in a fleet of cars, and addressed his “satsangs” (congregations) dressed in a white suit and tie and sported sunglasses.

Bhole Baba is but the latest in a series of infamous godmen who enjoy cult status among the masses. They exploit the blind faith, especially of the poor and illiterate, amass wealth and lead lavish lifestyles. Quite a few among them have criminal records. They promise their followers miracle cures and faith healing in exchange for devotion.

Their stranglehold over their followers ensures that politicians flock to them in the hope of bolstering their vote bank. Politicians across party lines, be it the BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Nitin Gadkari or the Congress’ Kamal Nath are among the followers of Dhirendra Shastri of Bageshwar Dham aka Baba Bageshwar, for example.

The political connections of these godmen come in handy especially when they are in trouble. Following the recent stampede at Hathras, the organizers and volunteers of the event were booked and several people, including Bhole Baba’s close aide Dev Prakash Madhukar were arrested. However, Bhole Baba has not been named in the complaint registered by the Uttar Pradesh police. The godman’s close ties with several political parties in the state may have helped him.

A deep dive into the background of the devotees who swarm towards Bhole Baba, reveals that they are poor, landless, illiterate and belong to Other Backward Classes (OBC), lower caste Jatavs and Dalits; those who are deemed outcastes by the “varna” system of Hinduism. While Hinduism offers no equality between upper and lower castes and instead practices discrimination against Dalits, godmen cults give the latter a sense of empowerment, however fragile.

Yogesh Snehi, professor at Delhi’s Ambedkar University told the news portal Scroll that Bhole Baba’s popularity reflects the eagerness of Dalits to claim an alternative religiosity. Godmen, especially from their own lower caste communities, offer them this religious and spiritual succor. Women form a large segment of his followers and unsurprisingly many of those killed in the stampede were women and children.

Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) chief Mayawati, whose party represents Bahujan or Dalit interests, recently urged the “poor and Dalits to not get misguided by the superstition and hypocrisy of godmen like Bhole Baba to get rid of their poverty and to solve their problems.” Instead, she urged them to “follow the path shown by Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and take their destiny into their own hands.”

Several such godmen hailing from lower castes in Punjab and Haryana hold “deras” (congregations) and have millions of followers. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Insaan of Dera Sacha Sauda in Punjab enjoys god-like status among the lower caste Dalit Sikhs. Ram Rahim hit the headlines in 2017 when he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping two women disciples. In 2019, he was found guilty on two charges of murder. Despite these serious offenses, his popularity was largely unaffected and 38 people were killed in riots following his conviction.

Incidentally, since 2017, he has been released on parole nine times despite facing a life sentence. Further, underscoring the tremendous clout that fake godmen like him enjoy in the corridors of power, senior BJP leaders from Haryana joined one of the cleanliness campaigns that he held while out on parole.

Alongside their sermons, godmen like Ram Rahim carry out a range of social activities like conducting blood donation camps and campaigns against drugs and alcohol addiction so rampant in Punjab. Their devotees flock to them for solutions to problems ranging from health issues to unemployment, infertility or desire for a male child.

Ram Rahim has not shied away from displaying his massive wealth, starring in garish movies titled “MSG: The Messenger,” flashing his gold and watches, and riding fancy bikes flanked by a posse of security personnel.

These godmen have a hypnotic effect on their devotees. Their followers continue to worship them despite them being convicted and jailed for serious crimes. Their cult status prevails even on social media and through their YouTube channels.

The promise of social equality and dignity that these cults offer attracts followers. They are encouraged to shun their caste surnames and adopt general titles like Insaan (humanity). In fact, kinship is a strong factor binding the followers to these “deras.”

While ostensibly these cults are a reaction against casteist Hinduism, the godmen perceive themselves as incarnations of Hindu gods. So, Bhole Baba has often been construed as the Hindu god Shiva or even Krishna. Hindutva or Hindu supremacist groups like the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, therefore, are openly supportive of these cults whose practices are akin to Hinduism.

However, genuine Hindu religious seers and saints are alarmed by the activities of these fake godmen, who bring disrepute to Hindu sadhus and sanyasis (ascetics). In 2017, their apex body, Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad compiled a list of fake godmen, warned the public against them and called for a crackdown on such charlatans.

Apart from Gurmeet Ram Rahim, another prominent godman on this list was Gujarat‘s Asumal Sirumalani aka Asaram Bapu, who was handed a life sentence for raping a woman devotee as well as a teenager. The controversial godman has set up over 400 ashrams and 40 schools in India and abroad. Asaram faces a series of other criminal charges, including witness tampering. Equally notorious is his son Narayan Sai who is in prison too for sexual assault in a separate case.

The media has played an important role in hyping these cults. Mainstream Hindi news channels and regional networks give them primetime coverage as they draw large audiences that boost television TRPs. In the process, they give a fillip to superstition and irrationality.

A recent Netflix film, “Maharaj,” currently on OTT, highlights the shenanigans of an infamous godman Maharaj in Gujarat in the 19th century and how he exploited his women devotees.

It appears that not much has changed since then in India in the 21st century.