In the three and a half years since Maharashtra passed a law against such practices, there have been hundreds of cases against fraudulent godmen who thrived on the superstition and fears of many
When the 32-year-old Baba Kamble visited a self-styled godman in a remote village in Satara, Maharashtra, hoping to find a cure for his schizophrenic mother, Rameshsuresh “Baba" handed him a palm-sized stone.
The black piece of rock had a face drawn on it in sindoor—a pair of eyes, a moustache, and lips. The godman had burnt cigarettes, lemons and eggs, and had rubbed their ash on the stone while chanting prayers to invite a divine incarnate into it. After a few minutes, when he was done, he told Kamble, a resident of Pune, that all his troubles would now leave him. The rock, which would cost Kamble Rs2,000, was now a deity.
“And this god will listen to you," Rameshsuresh told Kamble, pointing at the stone. “Keep him in your house. Someone has practiced black magic against you. That’s why your mother blabbers incoherently, and that’s also why your father has taken to drinking. Tell him these problems. He’ll bring peace upon your home."
Optimistic, Kamble returned to his family. He placed the rock close to the other idols in his apartment, and the family, as prescribed, would “speak" to it.
Days melted into weeks, but the god didn’t seem to respond to Kamble. His mother’s schizophrenic tendencies persisted.
“The black magic seems to be really strong," Rameshsuresh responded to Kamble’s concerns, “We have to increase the strength of the gods in this rock. It will cost you Rs4,000."
Gradually, Kamble parted with a total of Rs12,000 in reviving the rock’s powers over the past four years. He didn’t believe in godmen, but kept visiting the “Baba" only to satisfy his ailing mother. A relative had told her about the godman, had convinced her that Rameshsuresh was indeed blessed with paranormal powers, and that he could turn rocks to personalized gods.
In March this year, the Bhuinj police in Satara arrested Rameshsuresh Bagal under the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act 2013.
Kamble’s case, however, is only one of the 400 such complaints registered against fraudulent godmen across the state in the past three-and-a-half years after the act was published in December 2013. In Kamble’s case, the losses were restricted to financial and emotional, but in several others, the repercussions have been far graver—human sacrifices, and sexual exploitation of men and women.
“More than 70% of the victims in these 400 complaints are women, and several of them have been sexually exploited," said Dr Hamid Dabholkar, son of slain rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar, who campaigned for 18 years to bring about the anti-superstition act. The bill was hastily passed four days after the senior Dabholkar was shot dead in August 2013 by two bike-borne assailants near his home in Pune.
Hamid added: “Women are most vulnerable to such godmen, and usually approach the babas for peace in their homes, male children or no children. The baba claims that since he is an avatar of the gods, he can impregnate her with a boy child."
“So, many women have been sexually assaulted this way. Also, on a few occasions, it is the families of these women who take them to the godmen, and unwittingly pave way for their oppression. Recently, a family from Panvel asked their daughter to be naked before a godman while he performed prayers to rid the family of their financial troubles, and bring about ‘showers of rains’. The woman approached the police, and the godman was arrested."
In another case with allegations of sexual exploitation, a 30-year-old married man filed a complaint under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code for unnatural offences against 60-year-old godman Shri Krishna Lad in April 2015.
In his statement to the Rahimatpur city police, the complainant alleged, “When I was sleeping in the common hall of the ashram, around 10.30pm, baba came and stood next to my mattress. Out of respect, I stood up, and he hugged me. He then took my hand, and started walking toward his room. I wanted to become a volunteer in the ashram. I had told him about it, and assumed that he wanted to speak to me about the same."
“But upon reaching the room, he threw me on his bed, unbuttoned my shirt, and started running his hand on my crotch. Even as I protested, he kissed my mouth, forced my pants down, touched my genitals... Scared, I rushed back to the hall."
“The next day, he said to me, ‘To become a volunteer, you will have to sacrifice a few things.’ I was extremely disturbed after that incident, and returned home. But even after I was back, I could not focus on anything, and ended up losing my job."
Social activists opine that although cases of exploitation at the hands of godmen are not unheard of in metropolises, such “babas" usually target people in remote areas where literacy is limited and beliefs in superstitions are still thriving, and people are more vulnerable.
Almost all these godmen, say activists, claim to be divine reincarnates or possess divine powers. Under that guise, they dupe thousands of followers. Publicity comes from word-of-mouth apart from advertisements in local newspapers.
Flaw in the implementation of the law
“The problem is that even the police shy away from registering complaints against such godmen," said advocate Ranjana Gavande, who has worked on at least 35 cases involving fraudulent godmen in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. “They believe that if the babas are indeed magical, they would be cursed for life."
“I remember visiting this ashram in Sangamner with a few policemen once, including female constables. Someone had tipped us about this 13-year-old godman, a ‘miracle healer’, who could also cure cancer and AIDS. When we reached, we learnt that the boy was acting at the behest of his father, asking followers to visit him at least 11 times to have their problems solved, and draining their pockets every time."
“When we confronted the adolescent boy, he did not let go of his sham, and started saying things like, ‘Agyaan balak, you do not understand anything. Go away. Don’t sin.’ A woman constable, who was accompanying us, got so influenced that she collapsed," added Gavande.
She added that the local police let the boy off after warning his father. Activists ensured that the ashram was shut, and the little divine incarnate was sent back to his eighth standard class, which he had quit to become a full-time guru.
Another problem, said Gavande, is that policemen are often not aware of the law. On several occasions, she has had to seek help of senior officers to get offences registered.
There is no guiding body, she said, to educate policemen about the law. Further, the common practice is to avoid registering a first information report (FIR) in order to evade doing further investigations. This aggravates the matter.
“At times, even the police are in cahoots with the godmen, drawing fat sums of money in exchange for a blind eye to their deceitful practices," said Ravande.
With the view to educate policemen about the act, the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), a volunteer organization which has been working for decades to bust such godmen in the state, has trained around 2,000 policemen across six districts in the past three years. Members of the organization stated that gathering evidence is tricky in such cases since there has to be proof that the godman’s acts led to physical, emotional, psychological or financial violation of the victim.
“These cases can get difficult to prove in courts of law," said Hamid. “Hence, there is a pressing need for a set of guidelines so that policemen have a thorough reference point when registering and investigating such cases. The law needs to be implemented properly."
“The demand for this act has existed for close to two decades now. But there was always opposition and debate since the rules ventured into grey area—of religious practices being called superstitious. Now that we are past it, we require a holistic and effective implementation of this law."
‘Cure’ for all ills
Avinash Patil, executive president for MANS, stated that in his 30-odd years of working on the issue, the organization has busted over 5,000 dishonest gurus across the state. In order to attract followers, he said, several godmen develop unique selling propositions, make innovative claims and offer bizarre methods of cure.
To illustrate, one Gomasha (cattle fly) baba in Kolhapur, who was an opium addict, would claim to rid followers of their troubles by removing dirt and insects from their ears. He would push a thin test tube already containing dead insects into the ears of his visitors, pull it out, and place the insect corpses on the visitors’ palms. At Rs10 a bug, the godman is said to have gotten richer by thousands over his years of practice until he was busted.
In another case, an oil-water baba in Umaraga claimed to cure all diseases—including paralysis, epilepsy and addictions—through a mixture of oil and water. The godman, who claimed to be a Christ reincarnate, would preach that the diseases were caused by “Satan", who had come to reside under the visitor’s skin, and rubbing the oil-water solution on the affected area would drag the devil out.
In case of more severe ailments, the godman would beat his visitors with sticks and shoes, pull them by their hair, and dance around, chanting prayers. The baba, Kantu Gaikwad, a mason, was subsequently arrested.
Another fraudulent godman—a transgender, who threatened his follower after he refused to pay—was arrested in February last year by the Talbid police in the state. The alleged conman, Atish Patil, called himself “Guruaai" and claimed to posses special powers since he was a transgender.
Believing the tales, Subhash Yadav, 46, a businessman, approached Guruaai to remedy his financial losses. He soon realised that Guruaai was cheating him. He saw the deceit in the arbitrary demands for money.
When he refused to pay up, it did not go down well with Guruaai. He went to his home, and started stomping his feet on the ground, beating himself intermittently.
“My gods will never pardon you," Guruaai yelled aggressively. “I’ll show you. I’ll make your mouth and nose bleed. I’ll ruin your children’s lives. I will make you like me, and I’ll make you clap your hands. You be careful now."
Bringing them to book
As for bringing these godmen to justice, advocate Gavande said that, of the 400 cases registered under the anti-superstition act in the state so far, only seven cases have been brought to trial. Of these, six witnessed convictions. The only acquittal saw the release of a godman accused of human sacrifice in Wardha. An appeal against the decision will be filed in the concerned high court, said Hamid.
“Of the 400 registered complaints, at least seven cases have been of human sacrifice, and at least four to five other attempts, which were prevented in the nick of time," Hamid said.
“In 2014, a local resident from Nashik informed us about suspicious activities in the home of his neighbour. He said the family had dug a huge pit in the backyard of their home, and some prayers were being offered. We reached in time and saved the eight-year-old boy, a relative’s son, who was to going to be sacrificed for financial gains for the family."
“The answers are in science," said Kamble after his encounter with the baba who handed him the piece of rock. “My mother is under a therapist’s treatment for schizophrenia now, and is doing much better."
Puja Changoiwala is a journalist and author of the true crime book, The Front Page Murders: Inside the Serial Killings that Shocked India.
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