Jalore: More than three decades ago, when a young Dalit man called Vagtaram left his family home and started a spiritual life on two bighas of land in Rajpura village of Rajasthan’s Jalore district, he planted a banyan sapling outside his one-room shack. Last Thursday, he allegedly tied two yellow dupattas on a branch of what is now a fully grown tree, and hanged himself.
When he died at the age of 60, Vagtaram was better known as Sant Ravinath of Bala Hanuman Ashram, located in Jaswantpura block of Jalore district. His disciples claim that he had spiritual clout but add that he was no match for Puraram Choudhary, four-time BJP MLA from Bhinmal, with whom he had allegedly been engaged in a dispute over a small piece of land right in front of the ashram.
The MLA, who owns a large chunk of land adjacent to the ashram, has claimed that a small portion of the ground in front of it is also his property. A road cuts the two properties. The guru didn’t deny this claim, his disciples told ThePrint, but only wanted the MLA to leave some land for a passageway to the ashram. Without the passageway, the entry to the ashram would be completely blocked.
While Choudhary told local mediapersons Monday that he agreed to give the passage to the ashram, Ravinath’s disciples tell a different story.
On 4 August, Choudhary reportedly brought a JCB machine to the ashram and without warning started digging the mud in front of it. Ravinath pleaded with Choudhary to stop, but he “kicked” him and “hurled casteist abuse”, his disciples allege. The FIR filed in the case also lists this sequence of events.
A deep trench can be seen near the banyan tree, exposing its thick roots. This destruction, those close to Ravinath claim, was the last straw for the priest.
That same night, Ravinath allegedly hanged himself, leaving behind a purported suicide note on his bed. The note, which is now in possession of the police, named three people — MLA Puraram Choudhary, his driver Dhan Singh, and Sant Bijnath, a guru who runs another small ashram next-door.
As the news of Ravinath’s death spread, his devotees and priests from all over the region gathered at the ashram, their mourning soon shaping into a protest against the MLA and his associates.
They refused to let the police pull down Ravinath’s body from the tree until an FIR was filed naming the three men mentioned in the note. For 30 hours, Vagtaram stayed suspended by his neck, his feet close to the trench that allegedly led him to take his own life.
The police, however, are treading carefully.
While an FIR has been filed for alleged abetment of suicide, house trespassing, criminal intimidation, and under various sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, none of the accused has been arrested yet.
“Since the case names a sitting MLA as an accused, it has been transferred to the crime branch of the police headquarters. A team from Jodhpur is now investigating the case,” Harsh Vardhan Agarwalla, Superintendent of Police (SP), Jalore, said.
The atmosphere in the village remains tense. When ThePrint visited Monday, more than 20 police personnel were stationed outside the ashram. Many of Ravinath’s followers have set up tents and water coolers at the site and have pledged to remain there until the accused are behind bars.
Ravinath’s guru, Sant Mangal Nath, has shifted here from Ahmedabad and plans to stay until the investigation is completed. Rumours are swirling, too, that key CCTV footage is missing from the ashram, and that there may even be foul play behind Ravinath’s death.
Meanwhile, the ruling Congress government in the state has appointed a three-member committee to independently investigate the matter.
Roots of the ‘dispute’
The “fight” between the Dalit guru and Choudhary had been going on for years, Ravinath’s disciples claim.
The FIR also records that matters had worsened of late, with Choudhary allegedly threatening and hurling profanities at Ravinath on several occasions.
A part of Choudhary’s land in the area, bought many years ago, allegedly falls right in front of the ashram. Ravinath’s devotees, meanwhile, explain that when Ravinath became a priest, the land was allotted to him by the government to set up his abode. But they have no proof of ownership.
A senior official of the state government who is privy to the land records with the revenue department confirmed this. The source added that although the ashram land belongs to the government, there is no clear demarcation of the land.
“Like many other ashrams on this road, Ravinathji also had his land here, but the deal happened many decades ago. The ashram has no record of this. All the ashrams on both sides of this road were set up the same way,” Jivaram Chauhan, a disciple of Ravinath, said.
The tar road leading to the ancient Sundha Mata Temple less than a kilometre from Ravinath’s ashram has become a hub of spiritual and commercial activity in the region.
Multiple priests have set up small ashrams on both sides of the road, the state’s first ropeway has come up near the temple, and large boards announce that a water park will be opened here soon.
“This place has become a tourist destination. People come from Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra to take a tour of the temples and the ashrams,” Chauhan said.
Ravinath’s supporters have alleged that, in the midst of this real estate boom, Choudhary had plans to open a resort and Ravinath’s ashram was getting in the way.
While Choudhary has made statements in the media that he was willing to part with some of his land for the passageway to the ashram, residents tell a different story.
“Ravinathji tried to settle the deal with Choudhary amicably. He only wanted a stretch for the entry to the ashram. He never called the police as he was intimidated by the MLA and he didn’t have documents of the land,” Chauhan alleged.
‘Kicked him, hurled casteist insults’
On 4 August, the matter reportedly escalated. Ravinath’s disciples claim that they witnessed Choudhary arriving with a JCB machine, which dug up the entire disputed area, making it impossible to access the ashram.
They alleged, as does the FIR, that Ravinath fell to the MLA’s feet and begged him to stop, but Choudhary kicked him and hurled casteist profanities at him.
The same evening, four men, including two policemen in plain clothes, Choudhary’s driver, and Bijnath came to the ashram again and “threatened” the guru, Ravinath’s disciples claimed.
Bijnath, who is also a Dalit, confirmed to ThePrint that he saw the MLA’s black car and a police car parked outside Ravinath’s house in the evening but denied going inside to threaten him.
By all accounts, though, Ravinath was visibly upset and five of his disciples stayed at the ashram overnight.
At some point during the night, it appears that Ravinath took his own life, but some ashram residents have voiced suspicions over what they have called “missing” CCTV footage.
‘No recording from 11pm to 5am’
The ashram is covered by eight CCTV cameras, out of which three are placed along the route that the priest is believed to have taken on the night of his death.
According to disciples who watched the footage, at 2.51 am, Ravinath can be seen walking up to the area behind the ashram where the toilet is constructed. This is captured in two cameras — one at the main hall and the other opposite the toilet building.
Ravinath’s disciples say a third camera, which covers the stretch from the toilet to the front of the ashram where the banyan tree is planted, has no recording from 11pm to 5am. The control switches of the cameras are in Ravinath’s room.
The police, however, deny that footage from one camera is missing.
“There is no footage that is missing. We have recorded the footage from all the cameras and the evidence is sealed and sent to the crime branch. There were more than 500 people at the ashram and not all of them saw the footage, so they are spreading this misinformation,” Agarwalla said.
But two of Ravinath’s disciples insisted to ThePrint that they had watched all the footage with the police at the time it was recovered.
“The third camera has no recording for a few hours. I watched it myself with the police. In fact, they only told me about it,” Kesaram, a disciple who stayed that night at the ashram, claimed.
The next morning, around 6am, Sub-Divisional Magistrate (Jaswantpura) Rajendra Singh spotted Ravinath’s limp body hanging from the tree while on his morning walk and alerted the police. This is when the disciples say they found out about the death. Besides the CCTV footage, the police also seized the purported suicide note written in Hindi.
The note has been sent for a forensic analysis and the report is awaited.
What the ‘accused’ claim
Over three decades or so, Sant Ravinath notched up a following from around the region. With money donated by devotees, he built a one-storey ashram and two temples next to it, but his followers claim he was no match for Puraram Choudhary, who has fought on a BJP ticket from Jalore district’s Bhinmal constituency in six assembly elections and won four times. He is currently serving his third consecutive term as MLA.
However, as far as MLAs go, he has maintained a relatively low profile.
“He has never sought a ministerial position from the party, nor has he ever demanded any developmental work as an MLA for his constituency. He is given the party ticket each time because he has an assured vote base among the Kalbi [OBC] caste. His is a safe seat for the party,” a politician from Bhinmal said on condition of anonymity.
The politician also alleged that the MLA was reputed to have a drinking problem, which is a claim that ashram residents have also made.
Choudhary on his part has denied all wrongdoing.
Around 7pm on 8 August, the MLA uploaded a five-minute video on his Facebook page, which shows him answering questions from local reporters about the controversy around Ravinath’s death.
“These are just allegations. Nothing has been proven yet. I don’t know if the saint was literate. I don’t know who has written the names (in the purported suicide note). Everything will be clear after the investigation. The sant asked for a way to the ashram, and I left a part of the land for him. The land is legally mine, yet I gave it to him because of humanity,” he claimed.
Thirty minutes later though, as ThePrint team reached his house, Choudhary’s aides said he had left the village along with his driver, who is a co-accused in the FIR.
The third person named in the FIR is Sant Bijnath, who, according to Ravinath’s disciples, functioned as Choudhary’s eyes and ears in the vicinity.
“Each time we would use the MLA’s space for any small function, Bijnath would immediately call him. He was jealous of our maharajji’s success and popularity. Very few people visited his ashram,” Bharat Kumar, a devotee from Malwada village, alleged.
On the evening of 5 August, when Ravinath’s body was pulled down from the tree, the police arrested Bijnath and kept him for two nights, in two different jails.
“We approached a lawyer and kept searching for him and finally found him in Jaswantpura thana on 7 August,” Ganesha Ram, Bijnath’s son, said. He was released on bail the same day.
Bijnath’s lawyer Ishwar Singh Deora explained that his client was kept in jail under Section 151 of the Indian Penal Code, which is for detaining people who are likely to disturb public peace, and not for abetment of suicide as mentioned in the FIR.
Bijnath denies having any role in the case.
“Ravinath and I are disciples of the same guru, so he is like my brother, but we were not on talking terms. I did not plot against him with the MLA,” he told ThePrint.
In the ashram’s compound, a makeshift samadhi (memorial) for Ravinath has been temporarily set up next to that of his wife Chandernath, who had become a sadhvi with him and died in 2020. A studio photo of Ravinath as a young saint sits atop his samadhi.
By Monday evening, the crowd had thinned at the ashram. The police had driven home that arrests could take place only after an investigation established a crime — a process that could take months.
In Ravinath’s room, his dogs Chetan and Likha, are sprawled on the floor. “They have not eaten since his death,” Kesaram said. “When we unleash Chetan, he runs down the same path that maharajji took when he was last seen.”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)