Being close to godliness is a deadly business in India.
Asaram Bapu is one of India’s most prolific self-styled Hindu gurus. His following is so devout that he’s referred to widely as the “godman.” But the 74-year-old hasn’t been able to preach at his 425 ashrams as of late. Since 2013, he’s been sitting in jail awaiting trial on multiple charges of rape.
Recently, key witnesses in his trial have been dropping like flies. So far, nine have been brutally attacked and three killed—the latest died on Saturday night. Is it coincidence? Or has the powerful godman’s omnipresence taken a sinister turn?
Bapu, with a bushy white beard and flowing white tunic, commands an enormous following in India. But his legacy is rife with scandals, starting long before he was a world-famous religious leader. In a police investigation reported by India Today, locals in his hometown allege that in the late 1950s, Bapu was a tea seller accused of murder, but was released for lack of evidence. After this, he allegedly fled the area and became a successful liquor bootlegger.
In 1972 Bapu began his guru practice and over the past 43 years his religious teachings expanded across the world. According to the Hindustan Times, he claims more than 20 million followers in 12 countries. “A Divine Soul who has illumined the whole world with the esoteric spiritual knowledge of the holy scriptures,” his Facebook page swoons, “making it lucid and interesting; has satiated not only India but the whole world with his ambrosial speech.”
But critics allege his teachings have a dark side. Tragedy hit Bapu’s ashram in 2008, when the bodies of two young male students were found murdered and mutilated by a river bank near one of his centers. Soon rumors were seeping out that his followers frequently used black magic in rituals. One staff member who spoke out about the rituals says he was almost wounded by a gunshot after relaying his testimony to police. Not long after, two children were found dead in the bathroom of a different Bapu-run institution.
A year after the deaths, a former employee of the ashram where the two boys were killed gave a statement that, he said, “revealed all wrongdoings within the ashram.” Soon, he says he began receiving threatening phone calls; two months later, he was shot, but survived.
Then came the sexual assault allegations against Bapu. In 2013, an unnamed 16-year-old girl came forward to claim that she had been raped while a student at Bapu’s ashram, where she lived at the girl’s hostel. She said he assaulted her while doing an exorcism.
“He had threatened my daughter to keep quiet else her parents would be in trouble,” her mother said at the time of the arrest. “He gave her the example of one of the principals of his ashram who went missing, never to return again.”
After his arrest, the prosecution described Bapu’s charge sheet as “foolproof” and worthy of life imprisonment. But Bapu claimed it was impossible that he’d committed the crime because he was impotent—even though a medical test done by doctors proved otherwise, according to the Indian press.
Two months after the initial claim, two sisters came forward to say that the religious leader and his son had repeatedly sexually assaulted them during their stays at the ashram between 2001 and 2006.
The principal of the girls’ school, where the 16-year-old claimed her assault took place, says he was in possession of a certificate that proved her date of birth and showed that she was underage at the time. He says he started receiving threats from Bapu’s followers telling him to tweak the dates. One morning, a bullet was delivered to him rolled in his newspaper. “It cannot be denied that our lives are in danger now,” he told the Times of India.
The deputy police commissioner of the state also says she began getting death threats from Bapu’s supporters after the police arrested men allegedly trying to destroy case records. Then, in February 2014, the husband of one of the sisters who filed the case against Bapu’s son was brutally stabbed in the back and face. Since then, the attacks on those cooperating with police have carried on with regularity, according to the Indian press.
In March, a former associate of Bapu’s had acid thrown on him, and in May, a witness who worked with Bapu for 12 years was shot by two gunmen and died of his injuries two weeks later.
On January 11, 2015, Akhil Gupta, who served as Bapu’s cook for nine years, and was apparently going to provide important testimony in the sisters’ case, was shot dead. Another witness to the minor’s alleged rape was stabbed outside the court in Jodhpur a month later.
This May, a former assistant to Bapu’s son and a key witness in the first rape case, was shot twice in the back at his home while his bodyguard was on a short break. (He survived the attack.)
A Hindustan Times poll found 95 percent of respondents judged the attacks to be a conspiracy. It’s something Bapu himself seems to take lightly. In May, while being transported into court, he was asked about his role in the string of attacks against his witnesses. “I am responsible for all the attacks in this world,” Bapu joked.
So far, at least 10 people have been questioned by police in connection with the violence, including a lawyer arrested for the May attack. Authorities say they have also recovered a haul of knives, acid, a laser gun, and a bottle of gasoline.
But the killings haven’t stopped. On Friday, 38-year-old Kripal Singh was shot by two gunmen on a motorcycle as he went to the grocery store. He was taken to the hospital, paralyzed from the waist down and underwent emergency surgery. But he died the next evening. In a final statement, Singh told a magistrate that three of Bapu’s associates had regularly threatened him with death for his involvement in the case. Singh had been working for the man whose daughter accused Bapu of rape. His wife threatened to commit suicide and kill her 5-year-old son unless the government gave them work and a security detail.
Police are already guarding the family of the girl who accused Bapu, and they’ve since added more security details. Even so, she has said that the guru’s supporters come into her shop and threaten to destroy her family.
In the eye of the storm, she has remained steadfast. “Even though the fight for justice will be long and arduous and often risky, I have decided to do it,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “First Asaram and his son raped many innocent girls and now they are trying to kill the witnesses to weaken the case. But all these attacks have made me stronger and I will keep fighting the battle till justice is delivered to me.”
She added feeling anger at “those who do all this in the name of being godmen.”
On a video posted Tuesday on his website, Bapu is being transported to court, as a crowd of white-clad practitioners race after the police vehicle. He waves benevolently out of the window bars, and once he gets outside he repeatedly raises his hands to the sky and clasps them in prayer. Then he navigates swiftly around his police guards to give the devotees who’ve come to see him a better view.