Narayan Sakar Hari (Bhole Baba) | Policeman-turned-preacher

The self-styled godman, whose gathering in Hathras witnessed a stampede on July 2, that left 123 people dead, has built a network of ashrams across Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring States

Updated - July 09, 2024 10:57 am IST

Published - July 07, 2024 01:20 am IST

Narayan Sakar Hari (Bhole Baba). Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Narayan Sakar Hari (Bhole Baba). Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

“He tried to stay under the radar as he went about his business,” said a retired police officer while explaining the rise of Narayan Sakar Hari or Bhole Baba from a modest hut to sprawling ashrams spread across Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring States. The statement usually used to describe a worthy intelligence officer fits Suraj Pal, the policeman-turned-preacher, who lost some of his carefully crafted cover when a stampede ensued after his holy gathering in Phulrai village in Hathras on July 2, leaving 123 dead and several injured.

Also Read: Hathras stampede: SIT submits report to Uttar Pradesh government

Born in a Scheduled Caste (Jatav) farmer family, Mr. Pal grew up in Bahadur Nagar in Kasganj district of Uttar Pradesh. He joined the U.P. Police as a constable, worked in the local intelligence unit in Agra, and took voluntary retirement in the late 1990s after “a spiritual awakening” made him shed Khaki for the whites.

When he was in service, he started making claims about divine experiences. In 2000, he was arrested, along with six others in Agra, under sections of the Drugs and Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, for creating a ruckus in a crematorium after claiming to bring back a 16-year-old dead girl to life. The case hit a dead end but his cult grew.

He shifted base to his ancestral village in Kasganj and spread the word about his special powers through direct marketing. “His agents, most of whom were women, would repeatedly share magical experiences like having seen a halo around his head with villagers and bring more followers into the fold,” said one of his schoolmates in Patiyali. Stories were spread about the healing quality of the water that comes out of the hand pumps at the ashram.

“At his ashram, one could see civil servants from his community camping on Tuesdays when the prasad (offering) was distributed in huge quantities after the satsang (gathering).” These followers in government services are said to have discreetly contributed to his empire and trained Mr. Pal’s volunteers and members of his private army in managing large crowds. They had created a general sense that they could manage their congregation without the local administration’s support until the stampede happened.

Several killed in stampede in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh

A sense of hope

As his following crossed a critical mass, Mr. Pal intertwined the symbolism of the Hindu faith with the Ambedkarite thought, where seeing is believing. He started dressing up in white attires, mostly Western outfits, and his simple discourses are designed to give the most vulnerable sections of society a sense of hope, a place of pride, and a prophet from their stock to look up to.

He refers to his popular identity of Narayan Sakar Hari in the third person. For the uninitiated, it appears that he is a devotee of Narayan (Vishnu) and Hari (Krishna) and Bhole Baba (Shiva), but to his followers, he is an incarnation of Parmatma (almighty). “Prabhuji talks of leading a virtuous life where there is no space for addiction and abuse,” said one follower.

Editorial |Avoidable tragedy: On the Hathras stampede 

Cutting through the divisions of caste and religion, Mr. Pal speaks of humanity in his preaching. “It is said five fingers are not equal but here, Narayan Sakar Hari has made you equal by weaving you into one thread by blessing you with virtue and noble action,” he says in one of his discourses. In another, he says, “Narayan Sakar Hari will reach you whether you call him from a mosque or a church, a hut or a palace. The only condition is to call him with an open heart.”

While he maintained a distance from the media and social media, locals say he has always been “very social” with the political and business class of the region. He crafts his message in a way that neither those who support the Ambedkarite thought nor those who swear by Hindutva ideology could dare ignore his influence on a huge mass of voters.

While the U.P. Police is being questioned for not naming Mr. Pal in the FIR registered in the case, it is interesting to note that no one from the victims’ families or the civil society has turned up to complain against him so far. Questions on the source of his lavish lifestyle and and his shifting base from Kasganj to Mainpuri and Dausa (Rajasthan) are not eliciting any responses for now. The narrative that is being built is that some “casteist miscreants” in the crowd generated the stampede.

A section of his followers felt that some casteist strongmen entered the Hathras congregation and engineered the stampede. In his first appearance after the incident, Mr. Pal also told the news agency ANI from an undisclosed location that he is confident that the government will take action against the upadravi (miscreants) in the congregation. It seems in line with the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s statement in Hathras where he addressed Mr. Pal only as a sajjan (gentleman) and didn’t rule out a conspiracy.

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