Thursday, September 26, 2019

Our beloved Swamiji: Chinmayanand’s experiments with power and piety

With friends like Yogi Adityanath, opinion-makers in Shahjahanpur believe law can’t touch this Swami.

By Ayush Tiwari

Born as Krishna Pal Singh in 1947 in UP’s Gonda district, Chinmayanand had apparently left home when he was 20 to learn lessons in spirituality and religion from Dharmanand.

He had completed his education in Vrindavan. According to a booklet produced by the Haridwar ashram he now ‘manages’: “From 1967 to 1971 he [Chinmayanand] studied Gayatri and Tantra in Haridwar, Varanasi and Guwahati, and completed his M.A. (Philosophy) and Doctorate (Comparative study of Shankar and Arvinda).”

In the 1990s, Chinmayanand was looking after four educational institutions in Shahjahanpur -- one established by his guru and three by his guru’s predecessor -- and also managing the Member of Parliament (MP) portfolio. Chinmayanand won from UP’s Machhalishahr constituency during the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, and the Jaunpur constituency during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections that resulted in a third Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

In a biographical sketch dating back from the short-lived 12th Lok Sabha (1998), Chinmayanand described himself as a “political and social worker and religious missionary”. His hobbies include “reading, writing, travelling, gardening and yoga”. Although the sketch mentions that the Swami is associated with “several” spiritual, cultural and educational organisations, according to his website, he is associated with over 30 of them. This includes 8 trusts that manages, in addition to hospitals, dispensaries and a dozen ashrams in Rishikesh, Vrindavan, Haridwar, Mainpuri and Shahjahanpur. 

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In later years, when tensions arose between the Vajpayee-led faction and the VHP- and RSS-oriented factions in the government, Chinmayanand was made the Minister of State in the Home Ministry in May 2003 to appease the VHP.

Chinmayanand’s friendship with Adityanath has a history. During the Ramjanmabhoomi movement in the 1980s, Chinamayanand had worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Adityanath’s guru, Mahant Avaidyanath, the then head priest of the Gorakhnath Temple. The two had founded the Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Sangharsh Samiti.

In the years that followed, Chinamayanand had managed the Shahjahanpur branch of Adityanath’s saffron militia, the Hindu Yuva Vahini. A visitor in Chinmayanand’s schools and colleges will find plaques citing that Adityanath inaugurated an auditorium or a department on this day in that year. Even after he became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath came to Shahjahanpur in 2018 to inaugurate a school building in the Shri Daivi Sampad Inter College (SDSIC).

UP CM Yogi Adityanath with Swami Chinmayanand in 2017. | Courtesy: Yogi Adityanath on Twitter

In a cramped and creaky Shahjahanpur, Chinmayanand’s schools and colleges provide a sprawling contrast: big red and white buildings that overlook well-trimmed and lush green lawns with statutes of a goddess here and a saint there. The classrooms have high-ceilings and large portraits of a composed and stiff Chinmayanand and his gurus hang everywhere in the campus.

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The Swami Sukhdevanand Post Graduate College (SSPG) in Shahjahanpur.  

“The businessmen here are Chinmayanand’s and many are trustees of his institutions. Journalists here go to his events and receive his gifts. They send their children to his school. Over that he is very close to Yogiji. This man has economic, social and political capital,” a Shahjahanpur-based journalist told me, on an obvious condition of anonymity.

Chinmayanand has made good use of this capital. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he was one of BJP’s star campaigners in Uttar Pradesh. He had canvassed funds for the party, decided the distribution of tickets and publicly endorsed the controversial “Ramzaade vs Haramzaade” jibes by Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti. He had also tried to get his friend Asaram Bapu off the POSCO hook by allegedly fabricating documents to discredit the minor who had been assaulted by Asaram.

 In 2003, Chinmayanand had added a fifth educational institution in Shahjahanpur in his kitty. He started the Swami Sukhdevanand Law College (popularly known as the SS law college).

On August 23 this year, one of the students of SS Law College, a 23-year-old woman who had finished her LLB degree earlier this year and enrolled for LLM, posted a video on Facebook. In it, she claimed that a “big leader of the saint society” in Shahjahanpur who had “destroyed the lives of several girls” had been threatening to kill her family. She sobbed as she spoke, tears rolling down her eyes.

There was hardly any mystery about who the woman was referring to. “He is very powerful and the DM [district magistrate] and SP [superintendent of police] can't act against him," she said, adding that she had evidence against him.

The Swami Sukhdevanand Law College in Shahjahanpur.

In Shahjahanpur, Chinmayanand’s associates told Newslaundry that the accuser was one of Chinmayanand favourites. She was a “disciplined” and a “brilliant” student. The Swami had even arranged a job for her at the law college’s library for Rs 7,000 a month. She was given a room in the hostel. A picture even showed Chinmayanand celebrating the woman’s birthday and standing beside her as she cut a cake.

Chinmayanand with the accuser in an undated picture.

The woman went missing the next day. In Shahjahanpur, at her old, small and crumbling home, her father told Newslaundry that when she had last come home on Rakshabandhan, she had warned the family about the risks to her safety. “She had kept her phone switched off a day before she came to see us. She lives in the college hostel. When we asked her about it, she said that if I ever were to keep my phone switched off for more than 4-5 hours, papa you should know that I’m in trouble,” he said.According to the father, the SP displayed predictable behaviour. He said: “When we went to register an FIR against Chinmayanand, the SP asked me, “You should know what is good and bad. Do you realise who you are filing an FIR against?” In the FIR lodged on August 27, the woman’s father accused 72-year-old Chinmayanand of abduction and criminal intimidation.

In Shahjahanpur, the incident produced two types of responses. The common people would tell you that the Swami enjoyed local omnipotence and was capable of doing what he did. There was an acknowledgement of a darker side. Among the opinion-makers, that is, journalists and politicians, there was an instrumental silence about such an acknowledgement. The collective brainstorming in this circle was dedicated to how Chinmayanand will manage this problem, not whether he was the culprit.

“They all know he did it, but they will not dare to say it. They will keep showering praise on him and that’s that,” a senior journalist with a local paper told me.

What was uniform was the shaming of the woman and cheap gossip about her character and that of her family. In her neighbourhood, two young men sniggered when I asked them about her. “She has had many boyfriends,” they said. Snigger, snigger. “And she was anyway living with him (Chinmayanand) in the campus.” More sniggering. “The parents are to blame. If you keep a sweet outside, wouldn’t someone come and eat it?” Snigger, snigger.

The locality in Shahjahanpur where the accuser’s family lives.

“The journalists in Shahjahanpur are Chinmayanand’s patronised class. They will not and can not write against him,” said a journalist from a national magazine who boasts of writing against the Swami, even if it is from the safe distance of Lucknow.

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Another senior journalist working for a national Hindi daily told this correspondent that “a lot of resources are being dedicated to divert this issue”.

As the controversy trail-blazed through Shahjahanpur, Chinmayanand was away in Haridwar, in one of the ashrams where Sukhdevanand once spent his meditative summers. He was in a state of maun vrat (a vow of silence), we were told.

After being spotted in Delhi on August 28, the woman was found in Rajasthan on August 30. There was another man with her called Sanjay Singh. The police took them to Delhi, where the accuser met her family, who had also been brought there from Shahjahanpur. After she was produced in the Supreme Court on August 31, the bench said that she “doesn't want to go back to Uttar Pradesh till she meets her parents here and after the meeting, she will make the decision on her future course of action.” The apex court ordered the UP government to shift her and her brother to another college, and constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe charges levelled by her against Chinmayanand.

“He has raped me,” the woman revealed on September 9 with half a dozen mics hogging her face, which was draped almost entirely with a black dupatta. “He exploited me for over a year.”

“I have no problem answering questions but at least arrest him (Chinmayanand),” she added, her voice giving away anxiety and annoyance. “I was running for days, trying to save myself. The Shahjahanpur DM threatened my father...There is a threat from UP police."

On September 10, Amar Ujala reported that a “video of Swami becoming public on social media” where he is “getting a massage from a student”. The video’s screenshots were posted on a website called bhadas4media, showing an old man lying completely naked and receiving a massage from a younger woman. “The student recorded Chinmayanand being naked on January 31 through a hidden camera fixed in her specs,” the article claimed. The video has not been authenticated yet. 

In 2011, Chinmayanand had been accused of rape and kidnapping by a “sadhvi” in his ashram. Like in the latest case, he evaded arrest then even after a bailable warrant had been produced in his name. Last year, a report had noted that the “entire government machinery was trying to shield him” when the controversy propped up. The Swami’s accused and her husband had tried to confront him and the spat was caught on camera. But like a good friend, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had then given orders to the state’s law and justice department to withdraw the case against Chinmayanad days after allegedly meeting him at his Mumukshu Ashram in Shahjahanpur.

But the latest allegations have brought to fore a set of more complicated problems. The Swami’s latest accuser claims she has evidence against him. The national media too, as her family concedes, have taken her side. A video claiming to show Chinmayanand with a young student is doing the rounds on the internet and opinion-makers in Shahjahanpur are not sure how their Swami will get this monkey off his back. Will Chinmayanand, the super-saint of Shahjahanpur, the scion of a great sadhu tradition, lover of children, foe of Bollywood music and the demolisher of the Babri Masjid, manage to get out of this unscathed? We’ll have to let the investigation take its course, but will Chinmayanand?—Excerpted from News Laundry

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