NEW DELHI: Asaram, the billionaire “godman” who lorded over lakhs of devotees across 400 ashrams in India and worldwide, will spend the rest of his life in jail for raping a schoolgirl, a court in Rajasthan said today.
His spectacular rise in the 1990s was aided by political “friends”, who were drawn by the potential votebank – Asaram’s millions of followers.
Born Asumal Sirumalani in Sindh in Pakistan, Asaram grew up in Ahmedabad, where he was forced to quit school early after his father’s death. In 1972, he set up his first ashram on the banks of the river Sabarmati. From that hut as a starting point, it took him four decades to gather an empire worth Rs. 10,000 crore and 40 million followers.
Since the days of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, high profile politicians have been close to self-styled godmen to woo voters. The gurus, in return, often gained considerable clout and have used it often to brazenly break the law.
Asaram owes much of his early growth to successive Gujarat governments — both Congress and the BJP.
It was in the Congress regime in 1981 and 1992 that he was allotted 14,515 square metres of land. In 1997 and 1999, when the BJP was in power, he was allocated around 25,000 square metres of land to expand his ashrams in Gujarat.
In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress government of Digvijaya Singh gifted Asaram prime land in 1998. The Congress veteran is seen bowing to Asaram in photos. Nearly 15 years later, in 2013, Digvijaya Singh publicly expressed regret about the land allotment, calling it a “mistake”.
Known to his followers as “Bapuji”, Asaram counted among his admirers former union minister Uma Bharti, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje of the BJP and ex-ministers Kapil Sibal, Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot of the Congress.
Uma Bharti had tweeted in August 2013 that “Asaram is innocent”.
The Congress has tweeted an old video of Asaram with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, commenting: “A man is known by the company he keeps”.
— Congress (@INCIndia) April 25, 2018
But Asaram and PM Modi are reportedly far from close; in 2012, without naming PM Modi, who was then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Asaram had made some remarks that were seen as a threat to throw him out of power.
In 2009, allegations emerged of Asaram occupying land illegally in Gujarat. Over 67,000 square metres of land was reportedly taken back by the government.
His political ties were souring over land grabbing charges. In 2013, the rape charges effectively ended his dream run.