Shahjahanpur: The Supreme Court had last week directed the Uttar Pradesh government to form a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe a law student’s claim of sexual harassment by Swami Chinmayanand, a BJP leader and former Union home minister of state.
The woman had released a video on 24 August where she can be heard alleging that she was sexually harassed by a “sanyasi” who is also the “manager” of her college in Shahjahanpur. “I have all the evidence against him, but please, Modiji and Yogiji, save me, my life is in danger,” she is purported to have said in the video.
The postgraduate student Monday addressed a press conference and alleged that she had been raped by the BJP leader who also physically exploited her for one year. She also alleged that the Shahjahanpur police were not registering the rape case.
This isn’t the first time that the Chinmayanand’s name has been mired in controversy.
In 2011, another woman had claimed that the BJP leader, who is also a close associate of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, abducted and raped her several times at his ashram in Haridwar. Chinmayanand was then freed of rape and abduction charges without any explanation or investigation.
A earlier report had also found that a school chaired by Chinmayanand had in 2014 forged documents to show that an underage victim of rape by controversial guru Asaram Babu was 18 when she was actually 16.
But these allegations against Chinmayanand seem to disturb no one in Shahjahanpur, where his “loose” reputation with young women is a somewhat pedestrian fact among local journalists and political leaders.
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One leg in politics, other in ‘spirituality’
The 2011 rape charges against him are known to everyone — from shopkeepers to students studying in his colleges. All this is easily overlooked because of the educational institutions he has built in the district.
Sanjay Kumar Baranwal, principal of Swami Sukhdev Law College which is one of the five education institutes in the Mumukshu Ashram of Shahjahanpur, said, “Since Chinmayanand came here, he has worked to make education more accessible.”
Chinmayanand is the leader of this ashram — a large estate in the heart of the district — which is more an education complex than a place of worship. Its walls are painted with the BJP’s ‘Save the Girl Child’ campaign slogan and a women’s helpline number.
A native of Gonda in UP, Chinmayanand had first visited the Mumukshu Ashram in 1971 — at the age of 24 — as a disciple of Swami Dharmanand who was the third (heir) to helm the mission and propagate teachings of founder Swami Sukhdevanand Saraswati Maharajji.
In 1962, Maharajji had registered a trust in his name — Sukhdevanand Trust — which would facilitate the mission’s growth and reach. It has even established a Hindu Jain Temple in Pittsburgh, USA. Parmath Niketan, the Trust’s headquarters in Rishikesh, calls Maharajji a “saint” whose “spiritual teachings” aimed to “preserve and disseminate the ethos of Indian culture and heritage”.
Chinmayanand was still a disciple of Swami Dharmanand when his interests in spirituality grew alongside his political ambitions. His first major engagement with politics was in the Jayprakash Narayan (JP) Movement that began as an uprising against corruption in the Abdul Ghafoor-led Bihar government.
The movement found support from several outfits, and Chinmayanand soon found himself in the company of leaders from the Jana Sangh.
By the 1980s, as the Ram Janmabhoomi movement began to gain prominence, Chinmayanand was well within the VHP’s fold and began agitating for the Ram temple in full swing.
In 1985, he, along with Mahant Avaidyanath — CM Adityanath’s predecessor and guru of the Gorakhnath temple in Gorakhpur — founded the Ram Mandir Mukti Yagna Samiti. The Samiti had played an integral part in organising the movement which ultimately led to the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. It had the support of the VHP, the BJP and the RSS.
Chinmayanand also rubbed shoulders with leaders like L.K. Advani and Ashok Singal while taking part in the Ram Janki yatras during the early days of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
Sadhvis and sadhus had flocked to participate in this movement, including prominent leaders such as Swami Ramchandra Paramahamsa and BJP MP Ram Vilas Vedanti. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement later concretised ties between politicians and religious establishments who share ideas of a “Hindu rashtra”.
This bond is still strong — Adityanath and Chinmayanand continue to visit each other’s ashrams regularly.
“The Sukhdevanand Trust in which Chinmayanand is a trustee is a big and influential organisation. There are no prominent swamis who have not crossed paths with it,” said Ram Prasad Tiwari, who works as an administrator for the Parmath Niketan.
When Chinmayanand’s guru, Dharmananad, died in 1987, he took charge of the two ashrams — the Mumukshu Ashram in Shahjahanpur and Dharma Ganga Parmath Ashram in Haridwar.
In 1991, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister, Chinmayanand was offered his first ticket to contest elections. He won from the Badaun Lok Sabha seat on a BJP ticket — despite having close to no connection with the district — riding on the Ram Janmabhoomi wave. He then went on to become a member of Parliament for a second time in 1998 from Machhlishahr and again in 1999 from Jaunpur.
In 2003, he became the first ‘sadhu’ to be appointed a Union home minister of state — a post he held till 2004 when he reported directly to Advani.
As his political clout strengthened over UP, so did his spiritual empire.
A ‘moneyed’ man
As of today, Chinmayanand is attached to 17 ashrams across Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, where month-long therapies cost $1200 (roughly Rs 86,200) per person. Some of these ashrams are affiliated to the Sukhdevanand Trust, while others are attached to the five other educational, religious, and charitable trusts of which Chinmayanand is either the chairman or a trustee. All of these are open to donations.
A former head of department at the Swami Sukhdevanand Post Graduate College in the Mumukshu Ashram told ThePrint that Chinmayanand is “moneyed”.
While students from the law college remember him as a friendly, generous, authoritative figure who would waive fees if students couldn’t afford it. “All you had to do was ask,” said an LLB student.
Several people, journalists, and political leaders, however, said Chinmayanand would recruit young women in need of financial security — typically below the age of 25 — but then go on to sexually exploit them.
“He’s done this with at least 25-30 women that I know of, across various ashrams. It’s true that he’s ruined the lives of many women. That girl is right,” said husband of the woman who had alleged rape by Chinmayanand in 2011.
ThePrint, however, was not able to independently verify these claims. It tried reaching out to Chinmayanand but his phone was unavailable.
The godman’s lawyer, Om Singh, however dismissed the allegation that he has sexually exploited anyone, and said the present case was “purely to defame” him. “This is being done to mar Swami’s image and is a clear attempt to extort him for his wealth,” he told ThePrint.
The police, meanwhile, said investigations were going on and refused to comment further.
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The law student’s case
The law student had gone missing for six days, soon after posting the clip on social media, and was found last Friday in Rajasthan by a team of the UP Police. The woman subsequently told the Supreme Court that she had escaped to save her life.
“Everything we had was spent on our children’s education. Today, we live like this, in a dilapidated house. We should never have sent her to that school when we knew about the previous case,” the woman’s mother had earlier told ThePrint.
Chinmayanand, however, has neither been summoned nor questioned by the UP Police in relation to the charges.
The Supreme Court had, last Monday, ordered that the law student be transferred to a college in Bareilly so that she could complete her LLM. She returned to Shahjahanpur on Saturday night, and the SIT probe is already underway.
The Allahabad High Court, which will monitor the SIT, will provide the woman and her family with protection if deemed fit.
‘He hasn’t been convicted yet’
Senior BJP leaders said Chinmayanand has become jaded with politics after he was refused a ticket in the 2014 general elections. The party’s Uttar Pradesh spokesperson Rakesh Tripathi also told ThePrint that the party has a “zero tolerance policy” for criminals, and that “action will be taken” if he is found guilty.
“Many a times allegations like this are made to tarnish images. He has not been convicted yet, so it would be unfair for us to take action now. He’s not part of the UP government either. So CM Adityanath should not be dragged into it,” Tripathi said.
Meanwhile, Chinmayanand maintains a firm grip over the functioning of his ashrams in Shahjahanpur and Haridwar. He has expanded the Mumukshu Ashram to include three more schools and colleges — the Devi Sampad Inter College, Swami Sukhdevanand Mahavidyala, and the Swami Shukdevanand Law College.
The reach of these colleges and schools extends beyond Shahjahanpur. The Swami Sukhdev Post Graduate College is affiliated with the much sought after Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Rohilkhand University in neighbouring Bareilly. The Devi Sampad Inter College is, likewise, affiliated with the Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya in Varanasi.
A local leader with the Samajwadi Party told ThePrint that Chinmayanand has always maintained close ties with officials in the state education board.
(With inputs from Prashant Srivastava)
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