New Delhi: The dusty town of Motera lies Less than 35 kilometers from the centre of Ahmedabad. lies now made famous by one of India’s best known spiritual gurus, self-styled godman and a an ally to the rich and the powerful. Nearly 42 years ago, a developing friendship with the powers that be in Gujarat earned Asaram Harpalani, the son a coal and wood seller, 10 acres of fertile agricultural land.
The land did not come to him all at once; it accumulated over the years as friendships strengthened. Harpalani, who was born in 1941 in Berami village of Pakistan’s Sindh province, set up a small ashram on the land, the first of over 400 ashrams that exist today across the world. Soon enough, this self-styled religious preacher dropped his surname and began calling himself Asaram Bapu.
His controversial intervention in the Delhi rape case—when he said “galati ek taraf se nahin hoti hai,” suggesting the victim of the sexual assault was equally responsible for the crime—has recently brought unwanted national attention to the man, but in Gujarat, Asaram and his Motera ashram have been in the eye of a storm since July 2008. The controversy involves the deaths of two ten-year-old cousins, Abhishek and Dipesh Vaghela, at the ashram’s Bal Kendra, on 3 July, a month after they were admitted there as students. On 23 January this year, seven disciples of Asaram accused in the Vaghela case were summoned by an Ahmedabad court.
After the mysterious disappearance of the Vaghela brothers from the heavily guarded Bal Kendra, the ashram administration, including Asaram and Darshan Sai, initially played down the seriousness of the incident. The parents of the children were told that they had run away home, a fact strongly contested by them. Praful Vaghela, father of Dipesh said that his brother Shantibhai and he enrolled their children at the Motera ashram for education.
Vaghela also told that he paid Rs 15,000 each but were not given pucca receipts. It was just a handwritten receipt. The children were given yellow T-shirts and white pajamas as uniform in the ashram. In that month, they visited them at least six to eight times. On 28 June, when they visited the ashram, their hair was tonsured and both had sandalwood tikas on their foreheads. According to him, the children told him that the tonsuring was done in the presence of Asaram. On the afternoon of 3 July, Shantibhai met the children at the ashram. At 9 pm the same day, Praful Vaghela received a call from the ashram administration inquiring if the children had come home. The Vaghelas went to the ashram and looked for the children. At the end of their futile search, Pankaj Saksena, the administrator of the gurukul told them to go around a peepal tree 11 times and ask for the children.
The family, Vaghela claims, wanted to file a police complaint, but the Ashram administration did not allow them to do so. The family waited out the night and proceeded to the Chandkeda police station the next morning. Two office bearers of the ashram—Vikas Khemcha and Ajay Shah—were already there at the police station. He said that his family was stopped from filing a complaint in the police
On the third day of the search, the ashram administration told the Vaghelas another bizarre story—the thumbnail of a 10-year-old gurukul resident had indicated that the missing children were at Kallol. Not surprisingly, that was not where the children were found. Their bodies were finally recovered from a dried-up riverbed close to the ashram.
Vaghela can still vividly recall the harrowing sight—his son Dipesh’s arms were missing from the shoulder down. All the internal organs were missing, only the hollowed out ribcage remained. His left leg appeared to be cut off at the ankle, the right leg seemed burnt. His nephew Abhishek’s body was half burnt as well. Instead of helping the family, the policemen harassed them and refused to register complaints against Asaram and the ashram. Asaram has always been the good books of the media. But when the media started reporting on the Vaghela case, many other skeletons started tumbling out of the ashram closets.
The incident added facts to the rumors of tantric practices by Asaram and his followe
Vaghela continues to maintain that Asaram and his son are involved in black magic and tantric practices, a claim he has made in his deposition before the Justice (retired) DK Trivedi Commission of Inquiry. The Commission, appointed by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to probe the deaths following the public outcry, has already been censured by the Gujarat High Court for going soft on Asaram and his son. The high court order on a petition filed by Asaram challenged the Commission summons to appear before it. When Asaram appeared before the Commission, after being summoned on six different occasions, he was accompanied by an entourage of slogan-shouting followers. Eyewitnesses say that even as the deposition before the Commission was on, Asaram would leave the room without permission, either to drink milk or address his followers.
Ashram spokesman Uday Sangani, an accused in the Vaghela case, dismisses the cases against Asaram and his associates as politically motivated. He says it is perceived that Bapuji is close to the BJP due to his Hindutva teachings, hence the Congress has started this harassment. He has been associated with the ashram for the past 17 years.
Asaram Bapu is controversy’s favorite child. Recently it is alleged that he kicked one of his disciples and used abusive language at one of his sermons.