Mainstream, VOL LIII No 1, December 27, 2014 - Annual Number
Dhirendra Brahmachari to Rampal: Murky Babadom, Murkier Politics
Saturday 27 December 2014
by Navneet Sharma, Harikrishnan B. and Pradeep Nair
‘Babas’ or saints have always fascinated the understanding and lores of common life and common (wo)man. The Indian context makes it more colourful and piqued. India and being Indian has always been perceived through the lens shrouding mystery, religion and electoral politics. Babas and politics in India have a great relationship which is symbiotic to the two and together are a pest for democracy.
India has informally accepted the existence of Babadom—an empire run by the Babas—parallel to democratic governments and the judiciary of the country. The Babadom work hand in glove with political parties and business tycoons and run their empires smoothly. But at times, they come in visible confrontations with the mainstream state or political/religious entities, as in the recent case of Rampal and the siege at his Ashram in Barwala in Haryana.
India has a long history of spiritual quest by its sons and daughters, making it the birthplace of many major religions. Indian philosophy always places the ultimate spiritual quest above longing for material gains. This is the very USP projected by these Babas working as wholesale marketeers of Indian spirituality, wooing foreign clientele who are fed up with their culture of material success. However, at times it should strike a chord of irony, even for spiritual seekers, when these exponents of Indian spirituality hit the headlines for the illegal wealth they amass under many fictitious trusts and by running vast business empires ranging from Yogaschools to hospitals to pharmaceutical networks to gun factories. But just like the feudal king, the Guru is also somebody picked by the divine and thus beyond the scrutiny of normal logic.
Often, a major source of wealth for these conmen is the donations by devotees to the god incarnate in front of them. To keep the cycle running and out of their itch to do charity, most of these corporate godmen run medical colleges, media organisations or even schools which make sure that the children get the spiritual path right, instead of turning into ‘Maoists’ by going to government schools. The label of charity helps to hide the donations and other sources of income which come from both within the country and abroad. Many godmen/women in South India demand their full time devotees to donate everything they have to the Ashram, so that their spiritual quest becomes clear and simple.
In this rage to get a pie of the spirituality market flourishing under the growing insecurities of the middle class psyche, every corporate Baba in the country has turned himself into separate brands of spirituality and is bombarding the society with a range of products right from breathing courses to Ayurvedic toothpicks. However, if it looks like an irresistible urge to amass wealth by all means, it is not. Because money is just one factor which keeps the show going for these incarnates of spiritual showbiz.
The system of power in Babadom is a sophisticated maze of different social and political factors. The rise of a Babadom starts when a Baba establishes his legitimacy by winning over even a small group of core followers. Businessmen and politicians enter the picture then. A sting by a media organisation some years ago revealed that the Babas often try wearing the hats of the money-lender, power-broker or even a middleman in business and political disputes. As the following grows, politicians, irrespective of the colour of their ideology, make it a point that they appear with the Baba in public as part of winning over ‘public goodwill’.
This is an endless question of finding the actual king-maker in the game. Is it the godmen who make the political kings, or is it the political interests that help godmen flourish? For instance, in several cases States threatened activists or victims raising voice against certain godmen, using the totally irrelevant section 295A of the Indian Penal Code for hurting religious sentiments. While none of the Babas in the country has been so successful to found a religion and get it accepted by the Constitution of India [please note, budding spiritual entrepreneurs], slapping 295A points only to the fact that state considers them as strong as organsied religions.
However, this is not true for all godmen. Many fell from grace after a powerful stint, especially the likes of Dhirendra Brahmachari who were mentors of political leaders in power. It happens to others too, Asaram and Rampal being recent examples. Some observers have connected the rise and fall of Rampal with the way he raised his voice against the Arya Samaj which stands close to the incumbent saffron party both in the State and at the Centre. Despite the siege set up by him defying the court decree, the fact remains that he was not favourable in the eyes of the state. However, this does not mean that politicians are always having the last laugh in the murkier politics of Babadom.
Dhirendra Brahmachari, who can be counted as the first politically influential Baba in the history of independent India, never entered formal politics but exercised tremendous influence over government postings and Cabinet appointments and was often sought after by Indira Gandhi for backroom political dealings. For all the years when Mrs Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, Brahmachari maintained a very high profile, being the most privileged guru who can conduct Yoga classes on the national broadcaster—Doordarshan—then the lone television channel in the country. He acquired land worth millions in Jammu and constructed a sprawling Ashram there. Later on, during the Janata Government, the Shah Commission, which was set up to look into the excesses of the Emergency, noted that “the effortless manner in which Brahmachari was able to compel officials of Ministry after Ministry stands out as a classic example of how an entire administrative system was subverted by an errant individual”.
In the 1990s it was Chandraswami who influenced a number of political and diplomatic decisions during P.V. Narasimha Rao and Chandrashekhar’s governments. He was known as Rao’s political ‘guru’ and played an important role in the controversial arms deal where Adnan Khashoggi, an international illegal arms dealer, was involved. There was a saying in political corridors that Rao’s last appointment of the day was usually with Chandraswami. Chandraswami’s influence over political and government affairs in the 1990s can be seen every-where, from settling down core political conflicts to manipulations of governance and adminis-tration. Chadraswami too, like Brahmachari, built up a massive empire using his political clout.
The first Sadhvi who entered active politics was Uma Bharti. Though she won over public verdict despite initial failures, it was her active involvement in fuelling the demolition of the Babri Masjid that made her a political bigwig. This backdrop was her investment when she was picked for running various portfolios such as Tourism, Coal and Mines, HRD and Youth Affairs and Sports during the last NDA rule. Though once expelled from the party for indiscipline, Uma Bharti was made Union Cabinet Minister for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation when the Modi Government came into power. Uma Bharti’s involvement in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and demolition of the Babri Masjid has made her one of the most controversial successful sect Guru leaders of the Right-wing.
However, in the Babadom of India, there are Babas of every hue and shade. They range from Sri Sri Ravishankar, who repackages traditional Indian Yoga as commercial courses, to Ramdev, who proclaims that his Yoga exercises can ‘cure’ homosexuality. Mata Amrithanandamayi belongs to the fair sex of Babadom but enjoys tremendous state support in South India. Despite many allegations of sexual assaults and murder by her close followers, the corporate empire of ‘Amma’ runs smooth till date. She even enjoys the dignity of getting state help to sue the rationalist, who wrote a book against godmen, for hurting ‘religious’ sentiments. Among the legacy of godmen who kicked the bucket like other mortals are Sathya Sai Baba, who lured masses through tricks of the street magicians, or Bhagwan Rajneesh, who enlightened his disciples to poison people to rig the 1984 Wasco County elections which was important to muster more political power.
In North India, right from where Rampal put up a siege against the court summons on murder charges, another Baba—Ram Rahim Singh, head of the Dera Sacha Sauda—stays untouched, despite having similar rape and murder charges in his name, for he was instrumental in helping the BJP bag sizeable votes in many constituencies during the recent elections in Haryana. In fact, the Dera chief has switched his support back and forth between the Congress and BJP in the past.
Another ‘Yogi’, whose histrionics and contro-versies have kept him in the limelight of religious politics, is Yogi Adityanath who has been winning the Gorakhpur parliamentary seat since 1998 and is a four-time Member of Parliament. He is presently the in-charge of Gorakhnath Math in Gorakhpur. He was accused of provoking communal violence last year in Muzaffarnagar by giving incendiary speeches. Recently, he hit the headlines again for the campaign against ‘Love Jihad’, a term used by Rightwing groups to blame Muslim leaders to seduce and convert Hindu women into Islam.
Though Islam is a religion which does not allow worship of individuals or idols, or which did not allow any particular caste or family to keep the rights to be the clergy, opportunists from the community have been trying to cash in on the insecurities of the minority community. They have also tried playing the sectarian political game similar to that of the Babas. Syed Ahmed Bukhari, Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, Delhi, is a good example. He and his ancestors have used the clergy position for political blackmail often by urging followers to vote for the Janata Party, then for the Congress and at times for the Samajwadi Party. However, the height of irony is that the parties which entertained his support include the BJP also, back in 2004, when he urged his supporters to back the BJP.
Counting each Baba by name and notoriety may not be possible within the scope of this commentary. However, it can be seen that the pattern in which the Babadom functions and Babas flourish has a common pattern. India indeed had spiritual seekers like Kabir, Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Amir Khusro or Ravidas who influenced masses in India with their thoughts. However, their intention was never to turn themselves into brand icons to make money or to enter into the political ball-game through the backdoor of sectarian means, even at their pinnacle.
Babas in India, with their specific caste identities which rise from the margins, often make use of the ills of the rigid caste structure of Hinduism which is deep-rooted in the Indian society even across different religions, as the glue that keeps the core of their followers together. The very nature of the puritanical idea, of only certain upper castes being the real Hindu, pushes those on the margins into an identity crisis. This along with the insecurities generated by the social conditions of the post-liberalisation era make the middle and lower class people on the margins of organised religion to find solace in godmen whom they can easily identify with, as part of reclaiming their religious identity. This reclaiming of the identity, though a form of resistance by people on the margins against the oppressive hierarchy of the caste system across religions, has in fact made the Babas become powerful vote-banks, which the politicians cannot ignore.
This does not mean that the godmen actually have their own political ideologies. Almost all godmen in the country thrive in tandem with forces on the right side of the political spectrum. This is evident from the television channels owned by certain god wo/men functioning almost like the mouthpiece of the Rightwing political party and another godman using his extensive network of disciples collecting responses about the chances of a BJP Government while the campaign was at its peak. In most cases, with the subtle caste affiliations of the core following, the godmen are capable of setting strong political under-currents at least in some constituencies in some States, which makes it vital for politicians—both
in power and outside—to legitimise the existence of Babadom. Thus the state stands party to the process of legitimising godmen and their parallel empires, often mocking the existing system of governance as formulated by the Constitution of the country.
Though these power games and the sectarian politics that steers these are major factors that sustain the Babadom and leave it untouched, the present incumbents have contributed dearly to the making and maintenance of Babas in India by preparing a fertile ground in the social psyche. This plank becomes blatant when the popular Prime Minister of a country, wherein developing the scientific temper is enshrined as a fundamental duty under Article 51A(h) in the Constitution, boasts about the country’s scientific legacy by citing epics, thus giving more legitimacy in the social psyche to those who claim to have similar miraculous powers as the epical characters.
All Babas/Gurus or religious motivators share the belief with the (wo)man on the street that god is above the law and themselves being godmen or incarnates of god are above and beyond the reaches of the law. Almost all the modern-day Babas or practitioners of religious sect politics have been in conflict with the law at one time or the other. The state and people of India believe that the law is for the mortal and moral being whereas these Babas being immortal and amoral are beyond the law. Any insinuating remark or allegation against these Babas is a blasphemy. Though punishable by the Constitution as causing hurt to the religious sentiment, yet it is feared more for being taboo or social isolation. The stream of complaints against these Babas has swollen with the passage of time. These complaints range from anti-national activities to sexual/homosexual molestation, torture and rape. All these Babas have defied law time and again. The victim’s or the nation’s conscience arise against these after much harm is already done. The question more pertinent is: why is the ‘law’, the effective law, that is, the police, scared to take action against these Babas? Since all these Babas enjoyed close affinity with the political leadership of the day, it is unimaginable that a cop would arrest a Baba accompanied most of the time by Ministers, Chief Ministers, the Prime Minister, Governor or President. These Babas, being flanked by the law-makers of the state, get transformed into laws unto themselves.
Trying to decipher the belief-systems nurtured by godmen in India, it can be seen that it is not just a simple logic of adherents and non-adherents, as in the case of the belief-systems of organised religions. The devotees of Babas include ‘Baba-hoppers’ who do not belong to the core of Babadom. They often move from one Baba to another, keeping a ‘Guru-seeker’ status. These followers—a follower is someone who supports and is guided by another person or religion, unlike an adherent who is more loyal to the group—contribute to the mobs of Babadom. However, the members of the core group—the adherents—stay with the sect, conforming and often colluding with the whims and fancies of the Baba.
These Babas hardly ever wonder for an idea or any philosophy. Despite this, they get followers, that too in huge numbers. The question akin to what makes a leader is: what makes/compels one to be a follower of these godmen? This question is more social than philosophical. These Babas, though make religion look subaltern, carve out a niche for themselves in the process and thus evolve a sect, a sub-group which survives on the basis of the strength of the adherents. The adherents of a Guru or a sect thus evolve as an individual member of a crowd or mob looking for establishment of a social identity which is being catered to by these Babas in the guise of sectarian politics.
These Gurus and Babas seldom have any peculiar religious or spiritual ideas. This ambiguity, whether deliberate or not, helps in gathering a floating crowd which hardly has any common sharing of belief, but only share being members of the mob following a particular Guru. This further devolves the individual members of the crowd/mob following a Baba for responsibility to any particular moral/civil action, which is why free sex, drugs, prostitution, superstition and miracles co-exist along with celibacy, overt-religionism, vegetarianism, nation-building and altruism. It is asinine not to assume that the adherents of a Guru/sect will tolerate any argument/reason/law which doubts/suspects the Guru/Baba. It is like believing that a Communist Party card-holder becomes a member of the Bajrang Dal. This is only to affirm the idea that Babas and Babadom are another organised form of sectarian politics or backdoor entry of religion’s intervention into the secular-multiparty democratic politics where they play the role of retailers of opium for mass consumption.
Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh;
Harikrishnan B. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Writing, Central University of Himachal Pradesh; Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Head in the Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh.