One line Rahul Sachan submitted before the judiciary was particularly chilling. “I want to live at least till I complete my testimony in the Surat and Ahmedabad cases,” the ayurvedic practitioner wrote in an affidavit filed as a witness in a legal suit against controversial godman Asaram, whose assistant he was for four years till 2013. That document he placed before the country’s apex court in July last year turned out to be Sachan’s last. The man went missing four months later. His whereabouts are unknown till date.
From stories of disappearances to assaults to murders, it has been a range of travails for the witnesses in cases against septuagenarian Asaram and his son Narayan Prem Sai, 41. Sensing the absence of a witness protection programme, the surviving among them approached the Supreme Court last month to get its guidelines framed.
There was high-voltage drama on August 31, 2013 when Asaram was arrested under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POSCO) in a late-night swoop. Eleven days before that, a minor and her parents filed an FIR in Delhi, accusing the 75-year-old of sexually assaulting her. As interrogation and custody became imminent, the ‘godman’ reportedly did a vanishing act. He did resurface—at an Indore function, where the police had to confine Asaram supporters in a compound before whisking him away.
Currently, the Supreme Court is hearing a case filed by four people, who claim to have survived ‘murderous attacks’ by followers of Asaram.
Barely four months later, his son was caught on a wintry night further upcountry. Police nabbed Sai, who faced similar allegations of sexual assault, at the Delhi border of Haryana in December 2013 after he hid for two months in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Since then, many of the old cases have surfaced and so have many of their former devotees and associates. For more than eight years, various charges have been levelled against Asaram, born Asumal Sirumalani in pre-Partition Sindh. The nature of the accusations ranges from crimes such as rape and murder to occult practices to economic offences in his Rs 10,000-crore empire Plus, the claims of hounding witnesses. Asaram, along with his followers and aides, repeatedly refutes all claims. The Supreme Court is currently hearing his bail petition.
According to records in 10 of these cases, witnesses, including a journalist covering Asaram’s case, have been assaulted and two killed till date. One is feared dead, while another—Sachan—is missing for more than a year now.
His disappearance on November 21, 2015, was preceded by an attack he faced in Rajasthan earlier that year. In February, an alleged Asaram follower stabbed Sachan at a Jodhpur court from where he had come out after deposing. Sachan subsequently managed protection from the Uttar Pradesh police, but sought a CBI probe into assaults and murder of key witnesses in a string of cases against the self-styled ‘godman’. The Supreme Court directed the trial court to provide Sachan security. An armed police constable deputed for him went on leave on November 21 last year, giving the charge to a colleague. Sachan has remained untraceable from that day.
Following this, an Indian-origin foreign lawyer filed a PIL before the Allahabad high court. New Zealand-based Bennet Castellino argued that the Uttar Pradesh police bungled the investigation. In August this year, the court directed the CBI to probe Sachan’s disappearance. The agency has started work.
If Sachan has gone “missing”, his predecessor—as Asaram’s personal ayurvedic physician—was murdered two-and-a-half years ago. Motorcycle-borne men gunned down Amrut Prajapati in Gujarat’s Rajkot in June 2014. A year before that, he told this reporter that “nobody dared investigate” Asaram’s activities. “You have seen photos of him with political leaders, chief ministers, former PMs and kingmakers,” he pointed out. “Do you think any police force will be able to take on a man with such power?”
In 2008, allegations of occult practices against Asaram and Sai surfaced in the public following the mysterious death of two pre-teen boys in their Motera ashram off Ahmedabad. The mutilated bodies of Abhishek Vaghela, 11, and his cousin Deepesh, younger by a year, were found in the Sabarmati riverbed near the ashram on July 5. An autopsy report said some of Deepesh’s organs missing: small and large intestines, stomach, spleen, kidneys and bladder. As the case proceeded, both the Gujarat HC and the Supreme Court held there was enough scientific reason to proceed with a charge of death caused by negligence—and not murder. Eventually, the state police submitted a charge sheet in 2012 against seven Asaram followers.
The bad press led to Prajapati parting ways with the ‘godman’. Both he and Asaram’s personal secretary Raju Chandak became key witnesses against the accused. It was a Gujarat government-appointed body headed by retired judge D.K. Trivedi that probed charges of occult practices against Asaram and Sai.
Currently, three witnesses and a journalist have filed a petition before the apex court. They claim to have survived “murderous attacks” alleged to have been carried out by followers of Asaram. The first petitioner is Mahendra Chawla, who was Sai’s personal assistant for four years till 2005. He claims the Jodhpur attack on Sachan was a case of mistaken identity and that “I was the real target”. The second petitioner, Naresh Gupta, is the father of a murdered witness Akhil Gupta, who was Asaram’s personal cook.
The third is the father of a minor, who Asaram allegedly raped. The man claims his son was assaulted despite police protection. The alleged attacker, Narayan Pandey, was arrested. He came out on bail, and allegedly murdered Kirpal Singh, a witness in the 2013 POSCO-charged case against Asaram. The fourth petitioner is Narendra Yadav, who was also attacked. As per him, Pandey wrote him threatening letters from jail. The petition asks for round-the-clock protection by central forces, investigation by a court-monitored SIT or the CBI into the murder and assault of witnesses, besides witness protection guidelines.
In May last year, two men broke into Chawla’s rented accommodation in a Haryana village during afternoon and shot at him. The first bullet hit a wall of the first-floor house near Panipat, while the second hit him in the shoulder. The hospital certified him 41% disabled. Shards from the buckshot await surgical removal. Initiated into Asaram’s organisation in 1996, Chawla became its full-time volunteer two years thence, performing odd jobs—till he was appointed as a traveling salesman, peddling Asaram-branded products on a truck. He went on to become Sai’s assistant after two assignments as manager of new ashrams in Rajasthan’s Kota and Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh.
Chawla vividly recalls his maiden meet with Narayan Sai. “He was bent over a fire one night in 2001 when I stumbled upon him on the (Sabarmati) river bank. Next to Narayan was a boy lying on the ground with a human skull on his chest,” he trails off. “The next day he was impressed that I didn’t question him about it. He appointed me as his PA.” Sai later “clarified” to him the boy was dead before being brought to him.
Sai allegedly wanted to induct Chawla into occult practices and gave him a handwritten note containing tantric mantras. The Trivedi panel reportedly ignored it, but the document—though not forensically verified—has been submitted with the Supreme Court, which issued notices on November 18. Sai, according to Chawla, took him and another youth to a black-magic practitioner in a Jharkhand temple near Rajrappa. “But the man refused to train us saying it would taint their souls forever.” Other occult practices at the ashram included Formula number 44, which was “administered to exorcise the possessed”, he adds.
Chawla now lives in a rented room in a village with two armed police constables guarding him. Lack of uninterrupted power and internet access has choked his livelihood avenues; he survives on a small allowance from his family. “I can’t live with them because it might put their lives at risk too,” he says.
Utsav Bains, Chawla’s lawyer, says that the police in his hometown earlier informed him of a plot to attack the lawyer as well. “The notion of killing eye-witnesses leads to impairing testification in court, infringing on constitutional rights,” he adds. After the Jessica Lal murder case (of the 34-year-old model shot dead in Delhi in April 1999), one thought blatant exhibition of pelf and power would end. But that is not to be.”
"But, according to Asaram's followers, his judicial remand is a mere trial by fire."
(Some locations have been withheld in the interest of witnesses’ security.)