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Self-styled godman Asaram. Photo: PTI
Self-styled godman Asaram. Photo: PTI

Asaram case and the trend of corporatized religion

The blame for this should go to the law, social malpractices and the superstitious society

He was crestfallen. Moist eyes and a voice so hushed it appeared it was emerging not from the mouth of a person standing here, but from a deep cave. Speaking with a stutter, it wasn’t clear whether the person was talking to our correspondent or to himself: “My heartfelt thanks to the court. It has carried out justice. The sinner deserves the harshest punishment possible."

This person was none other than the unfortunate father of the girl who had been raped by Asaram, who is her grandfather’s age. At one time, the entire family addressed this self-styled saint as “Bapu". On the night of 15 August 2013, when the nation’s proud democracy was high on the celebrations of independence, her “Bapu" snatched away the girl’s innocence. That night pushed the family into such a blind alley of torture that some fresh air and light could only enter it last Tuesday after many years. Does the cycle of insult for this unfortunate albeit brave family end now? Is there anybody who can guarantee this? Our society is not known to hate rapists as much as it is for misbehaving with their victims.

On top of this, danger continues to loom over the victim’s family. One reason to say this is that this so-called saint is endowed with vast expanses of property and enormous material riches. Three witnesses have been murdered and many other witnesses attacked during the course of the trial. Inside the court, the nation’s most renowned and expensive lawyers had been arguing in Asaram’s favour. The poor family had to fight a fierce battle inside and outside the courts of law. They fought it and received what was due to them. For this, they deserve to be congratulated.

This news also comes as relief for the judiciary, which is facing a barrage of accusations from many quarters. Recently, the manner in which Salman Khan, Daler Mehndi and Rajpal Yadav were given bail right after sentencing raised a number of questions. This didn’t happen in Asaram’s case. If the higher courts don’t provide him relief, he’ll spend the rest of his life behind bars.

It isn’t only witnesses who were mysteriously killed and petitioners put under pressure. There were attempts by the “contract killers" of social media to push the media and the courts. Calling themselves supporters of Asaram, these people staged demonstrations at media outlets and tried to influence them. They were keen to come across as higher than the law and the nation. Despite this abuse of money power and people power, Asaram couldn’t be saved. Our system may be rotting, but it still has the capability to reignite hope.

Before this, the police had to face a lot of difficulty while taking other gurus such as Ram Rahim, Rampal and Ramvriksh into custody. In the violence that followed Ram Rahim’s arrest, 35 people were killed and hundreds injured. The question is, how can an immoral man establish himself as a saint? Why do people sink into this well of blind faith? The blame for this should go to the law, social malpractices and the superstitious society. This cocktail of factors has corporatized the market of blind faith. Every charlatan is free to set up shop in the name of religion.

A lot of debate has taken place about societal malpractices and superstitious society. At the moment I’d like to keep this limited to the Constitution and politics. All of us are aware that religious people, institutions and places of worship were exempted from tax stipulations for a long time. According to an estimate by the World Gold Council, India has gold deposits worth 22,000 tonnes. Of these between 3,000 to 4,000 tons are with temples alone. In the last financial year, the Tirupati Balaji temple earned an income of around Rs26,000 crore from temple offerings and other sources. Tirupati is a genuinely transparent religious institution. This is why this income could be revealed. Devils in the garb of godmen are unlikely to get you a whiff of their earnings. It is good that now all of them have come under the purview of tax norms. Religious institutions will have to pay goods and services tax on income more than Rs20 lakh.

Can this be possible? These imposters are more powerful than even politicians. Leaders from every political party visit them since the vote bank of their followers sees God’s will in their guru’s command. Their blessings are considered essential to win elections. The shastras talk about religion and morality in politics. But when they begin to be run by contractors, you needn’t be overjoyed about the Asaram verdict. One hopes this doesn’t prove to be just an intermission. A new army of players could be ready to take their place.

Shashi Shekhar is editor in chief, Hindustan.

His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin

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