Media came under attack once again in the country while in pursuit of truth and justice. On Saturday, the alleged followers of self-styled God man Asaram bapu threw stones and assaulted media persons who had gathered outside his ashram in Jodhpur to cover news about his followers reaching the town from across the country in support.
Asaram has been accused of rape of a minor girl, a student in one of his gurukuls. The girl had alleged sexual assault nearly two weeks ago, stunning the country as the medical check-up confirmed rape. The victim had been brought to the gurukul by her parents, devotees of the God man, to be rescued from ‘evil spirits’.
Following the complaint, Asaram was booked under Sections 376 (rape), 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) and 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty) of the Indian Penal Code and Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act. But the police were excruciatingly slow in following the case.
However, as the chorus for his arrest grew louder, the police and the political administration came under pressure to tighten the noose around the God man. The media had been at the forefront in demanding justice for the victim, even as her father’s threats of hunger strike in case Asaram was not arrested fell on deaf ears.
Asaram has not exactly been immune to such controversy in the past; the Gujarat police are investigating the mysterious murder and mutilation of two young boys in his ashram in April 2008. A massive agitation was launched following the incident against the Modi government too, which was perceived to be hand-in-glove with Asaram.
Finally, the state government was forced to set up an inquiry commission headed by a former High Court judge and the CID was asked to probe the deaths. Former ashram staffer of Gujarat, Raju Chandak had deposed before the commission and alleged that Asaram and his son were involved in black magic and tantric practices, but Chandak was shot and seriously wounded soon after his deposition. That was not the end of it. The same year, in Chhindwara town of Madhya Pradesh, two other children were found dead in the residential institution run by Asaram. Then there were controversies involving tax evasion and land encroachment.
But Asaram always managed to evade the law, supported firmly by his followers. In a series of rallies in various cities and towns following the rape charges, his devotees expressed pain at his persecution, some threatening nationwide revolt if the charges were not withdrawn. Aware of the support, the guru manages to laugh at the law. He has moved from Jodhpur to Ahmedabad to Indore. But law finally caught up with him. He was finally nabbed by a police team from Indore while he was giving a discourse to his followers at his ashram there.
Again, controversies are not new to Asaram. In January, after he was criticised for first saying that the young woman gang raped in a moving bus in Delhi could have saved herself by acting helpless and addressing the men as ‘bhaiyya’ (brother), and then suggesting that stricter rape laws could be misused by ‘bazaaru auratein’ (loose women), he amassed a large gathering of his female followers for an address titled ‘Does Asaram bapu really hate women of India’, and asked them on live TV if they thought he was against them. ‘No!’ came the resounding response, unsurprisingly. “Every time there is an accusation against me, the number of my followers goes up,” he had said in an interview to a local newspaper in Indore this week.
Issues of sexual assault and rape never seem to be the real issue when it comes to the numerous so called God men in India. Parallels can be drawn between the Mumbai gang rape of a journalist and the police’s swift action in the case and the one involving Asaram and others like him. The different treatment being meted out to such men sends a message to all spiritual gurus that their acts can go unnoticed, that their political connections will work in their favour. Last year, Swami Nityanand was also accused of rape and sexual assault but went free soon after, even as the victim alleged threat to her life. And such is the clout of Asaram that even after summons, he failed to appear before the police and laid his own terms and conditions under which he can be interrogated.
With the rise in cases of rape and the increasing pressure on the police to curb them, its action in the case will be watched with keen interest. The Centre has already made its stand clear by intervening in the case after the attack on media persons and demanding a report. Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari issued a statement saying: “It is very condemnable that the followers of a religious person have attacked the media. Nothing could be as despicable as this. Whenever incidents like these take place, all the facts and evidence are produced before the court. We hope that the investigation will come to a conclusion very soon and also, the people who were involved in the attack on the media should also be investigated.”
The attack was also criticised by prominent industry persons. Tweeted journalist Rajdeep Sardesai: “Camera broken and seized, journalist bleeding, Asaram ‘hides’ in Indore ashram! Spiritual immunity??? Shame.”
The Indian Journalists Union (IJU), the premier organisation of the working journalists in the country, also strongly condemned the attack. IJU President SN Sinha and Secretary General D Amar said the unprovoked and brutal assault on journalists ‘was meant to scare away the media’ and amounted to an attack on the freedom of the press. The IJU urged the Rajasthan government to “take strongest action against the culprits” to prevent any recurrence of such incidents, while also requesting the governments at the centre and in all states to ensure adequate security cover to scribes so that media could function fearlessly.
The attack on the media smacks of Asaram’s own insecurities and the growing fear of imminent arrest. It is also a telling comment on the culture of blind faith in the country where the number of crowd is enough to draw more to activities irrational and also illegal. Perhaps this also puts the recent day-light murder of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar into perspective; those questioning popular beliefs and fighting for reason and rationalism will always be attacked under the cloak of religion.
The freedom of media, the fourth pillar of the democracy, is important for the democracy’s survival itself. An attack to hush its voice or of any individual will not let its fire burn out or the quest for truth and justice diminish. As Camus said, “A free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom, a press will never be anything but bad”.
The author is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of exchange4media Group