NEW DELHI: Asaram Bapu, who is now in 14-day judicial custody for allegedly having sexually assaulted a minor girl, began his stint as a preacher in the 1960s in Gujarat.
From selling coal to preaching
Born in 1941 in the Berani village of Nawabshah district, now in Pakistan, he came to Indian after Partition in 1947 along with is father Thaumal Harpalani and mother Mehangibai.
His father had a coal and wood business, which he took over for a short time after his father's death. He turned from a coal seller into a spiritual guru having learnt meditation and spirituality from his mother.
Has more than 400 ashrams
Today, Asaram is said to lord over an empire worth more than Rs 5,000 crore, claims to have close to 2 crore followers all over the world, and has about 400 ashrams, with hundreds of acres of land.
Asaram is married to Lakshmi Devi and has two children: a son, Narayan Prem Sai, and a daughter, Bharti Devi.
However, the journey hasn't been smooth for Asaram as frequent allegations of encroachments, land grabbing, black magic, attacking the media, exploitation of devotees, etc have been levelled against him.
He, however, landed in a soup in 2008 following the death of two 10-year-old cousins, Abhishek and Dipesh Vaghela, at his ashram in Motera, Gujarat. A chargesheet has been filed against him in the case.
Around the same time, two more boys, aged 4 and 5, were found dead at Asaram's Chhindwara gurukul.
The Indian Express report says a former disciple, at the hearing of a probe committee formed by the state government, alleged that the deaths of the boys could have been due to black magic.
Asaram says that black magic exists but insists he has never practiced it.
Bullying the media
The deaths of his disciples in ashram led to protests against Asaram in 2008. The report quotes a TV journalist who was roughed up by Asaram's supporters. "I was with my cameraman covering the attack when they beat us up," Gopi Maniar of Aaj Tak said.
Asaram was also offended by a daily named Sandesh which carried a cartoon criticising his behaviour at an airport where he created a ruckus. The owner of the daily was forced to clarify that no malice was intended towards Asaram and that it was a mere criticism.
Apart from the fear factor and his muscle power, Asaram's financial status too is phenomenally robust. With 400 ashrams around the country, Asaram has established 1,200 satsang kendras.
But questions were often raised over the manner in which Asaram and his followers acquired the sprawling spaces across the country.
According to an India Today report, Asaram's disciples encroached upon 30 acres of government land in Surat, worth Rs 125 crore. The land's previous owner objected to its use by Asaram as it was sold to the government only for embankment. He moved the court protesting the sale of the land by the government.
A huge chunk of agricultural land bought by Asaram and his family in Pedmala in Sabarkantha district in 2003 is entangled in a legal wrangle, says the report.
According to the Indian Express report, Asaram used to be close to Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who, in the wake of rising dissent over the Jodhpur rape case, has distanced himself from Asaram.
Among his admirers also are BJP leaders Uma Bharati, Raman Singh, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot and former chief minister Vasundhara Raje.
Like the BJP governments in Gujarat, the Congress governments too allotted land to the ashram during its tenure in Gujarat. In 1981 and 1992, the Congress government had allotted 14,515 sq m of land to Asaram's ashram.