May 4, 2016

Sadhus oust Asaram camp in Ujjain

Rasheed Kidwai
The Telegraph
April 21, 2016

Ujjain, April 21: A mob of sadhus last evening vandalised a pandal erected here by controversial religious leader Asaram Bapu's followers ahead of the Simhastha, Ujjain's version of the Kumbh Mela that begins tomorrow.

The attackers, who were from the Nirmohi Akhara, a leading monastery involved in the Ayodhya dispute, questioned the credentials of the Gujarat-based Asaram, who was arrested on rape charges three years ago.

"Asaram is a black spot on religion. His presence would have spoiled the religious fervour. No one wants to be associated with such a disgraceful character," said Mahesh Das, a senior figure from the Nirmohi Akhara, defending the vandalism.

Das accused Asaram devotees of "illegally" building a makeshift ashram on land allotted to the Nirmohi Akhara on the Kshipra's banks, from where five crore pilgrims are expected to take holy dips over the next one month.

Several thousand camps have been set up over a 40sqkm area of government land, where more than 2,500 air-conditioners are protecting monks from the scorching 43°C heat.

About 200 men in saffron robes tore off photographs and hoardings featuring Asaram, currently lodged in a Jodhpur jail on multiple charges. They threw out Asaram's followers and "cleansed" the spot with the Ganga's waters, brought in containers.

Asaram supporter Ram Kumar admitted that the district administration had not given them any land to set up a camp.

"But we were counting on the Nirmohi Akhara to give us a portion of their vast space. It seems the spirit of tolerance and mutual respect is in short supply even in matters of faith," he said. Kumar stressed that no charges had been "proved" against Asaram yet.

Suresh Das, head of the Nirmohi Akhara, said he had requested Asaram's followers to move out on March 31 but his plea was rejected.

Sources said the administration had denied land to several spiritual leaders caught in controversies, such as Radhe Maa and Nirmal Baba.

However, Swami Nithyananda of Karnataka, accused in a sex scandal six years ago, has built a huge camp without having to face any protests.

Nithyananda has brought along a large number of foreign devotees from more than 25 countries, including Russia, America, China, Mexico, Germany, France and Spain.

Acharya Narendra Giri, head of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, the apex organisation for all Hindu monasteries, said that while everyone was free to participate in the Simhastha, it's the Madhya Pradesh government that had allotted or denied land.

"Please direct all your queries to the district administration," he said.

State transport and power minister Bhupinder Singh said the state government had followed "advice" from the seers and saints while allotting land. Senior bureaucrats, requesting anonymity, said all the camps would receive free power till the Simhastha ended on May 21.

The Ujjain Simhastha is one of the four legs of the Kumbh Mela, each occurring by rotation once every 12 years, the other three being the Kumbhs at Haridwar, Allahabad (Prayag) and Nashik.

Three auspicious shahi snans (royal dips) will be held this Simhastha: on April 22, May 9 and May 21. Tomorrow's snan will start at 4am, with the heads of the 13 leading akharas taking the lead.

Over 20 lakh devotees have already gathered. The whole of Ujjain is lit up with LED bulbs. Among the gurus assembled are a "Computer Baba", a "Gold Baba", a "Tablet Baba", a "One-handed Baba" and even a " Kutte Wala Baba (Baba with a Dog)".

Bittu Maharaj, the Gold Baba, claims to wear 4kg of gold and has dozens of security guards protecting him 24x7.

Computer Baba, Swami Namdev Tyagi, comes from the Digamber Akhara in Indore, 60km from here. He claims to have "a computer-like brain and a sharp memory". His ashram boasts the latest gadgetry and a chopper. Given a chance, Namdev says, he would "love" to take the shahi snan from a chopper.

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