Dhirendra K. Jha has been reporting on Hindutva for more than a decade. His critically acclaimed books on the subject include Shadow Armies: Fringe Organisations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva and Ayodhya , The Dark Night — The Secret History of Rama’s Appearance in Babri Masjid (co-authored with Krishna Jha). His latest, Ascetic Games: Sadhus, Akharas and the Making of the Hindu Vote , is a deeply researched account of how the Sangh Parivar managed to penetrate the secretive world of Naga Sadhus. He spoke to The Hindu about the role of sadhus in the demolition of Babri Masjid, and the impact of Hindutva politics on sadhus and akharas. Excerpts:
How did you think of writing a book on sadhus and akharas ?
My first encounter with akharas [sadhu clans] was in 2010. Along with my co-author, I was researching a book on Abhiram Das, the man who planted the idol in Babri Masjid in 1949. He was a sadhu who lived in Hanumangarhi, the largest monastic establishment in Ayodhya. It houses more than 600 sadhus and is the main seat of the Nirvani akhara . Since Das was a resident of Hanumangarhi, we kept going there to talk to people. That was our first encounter with the world of sadhus and akharas .
So Abhiram Das also planted the idea of this book in your mind?
Our entire effort was to understand the conspiracies that enabled the planting of the idol at Babri Masjid. Our investigations ultimately came out in the form of a book called Ayodhya, the Dark Night . But I continued my research on sadhus as I wanted to understand more about their secret world. Sadhus don’t open up in the first meeting. So you have to meet them again and again. Every sadhu you meet will at first give the impression that he is the real keeper of sacred knowledge. When you meet him four or five times, you begin to realise that there is something else that is driving this man. That something, in most cases, I have found, is greed. Greed for money, greed for power, greed for position. I was also struck by the presence of RSS and VHP elements in these akharas . A lot has been written about how RSS operates in the political space. We also know that the RSS’s ability to operate successfully in the political space rests largely on its ability to use religion in politics. But not much is known about how the RSS operates in the religious space. So the moment I saw this nexus, I wanted to delve deeper.
How difficult was it for the RSS to penetrate the akharas and the sadhu community?
RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar’s objective in forming the VHP in 1964 was to use it to mobilise a large army of sadhus for political purposes. The VHP could not make much progress on this in the first 20 years of its existence. But things changed in the early 80s, once it was given a new agenda: the Ram temple. The RSS also assigned 150 pracharaks to the VHP. In 1982, about a 100 pracharaks became sadhus — this was the beginning of the emergence of an RSS corps among sadhus, and this corps subsequently expanded. In 1986, we see the formation of the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti [hereafter Sant Samiti]. RSS guys will tell you that this is an independent body of sadhus, and that they have nothing to do with it. But the Sant Samiti consists of sadhus who were earlier pracharaks or swayamsewaks , and enjoy the patronage of the RSS-VHP. The VHP has created a fairly wide network of patronage in the world of sadhus, and the moment you get attached to that network, your future is secure.
Sadhus, by definition, are individuals with minimal material needs. Why would they need the ‘patronage’ of the VHP or anybody else?
The majority of sadhus are very poor, and to survive, they don’t need much more than a place to stay. But there is a small group that wants more. This group is active among the set of sadhus that takes all the decisions, and now members of this group are inspired by the RSS and the VHP. You must have read about Satyamitranand Giri, who founded the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar, and passed away recently. He was a friend of Golwalkar’s. He created a whole lot of pracharak -turned-sadhus. His disciples include Avdheshanand Giri, who laid the foundation stone for the Army school being constructed by the RSS in Bulandshahr. Avdheshanand is also the guru of Sadhvi Pragya.
People revere sadhus for their devotion to spiritual pursuits. But the picture you paint is of individuals who won’t hesitate to kill their own gurus for power.
That’s precisely what happened in Ayodhya. That is the hidden part of the Ayodhya story. We journalists have focussed a lot on the political side of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. We didn’t try to understand the impact it has made on sadhus. Today, there are many mahants in Ayodhya who don’t sleep in their temples because they fear that one of their disciples might kill them.
Did the sadhus have a role in the demolition of Babri Masjid?
They played a big role in L.K. Advani’s rath yatra of 1990. Advani was a BJP leader, but the yatra was managed mainly by the VHP and its network of sadhus and monastic establishments. This could happen because in 1989 there was a Kumbh in Allahabad, in which the Sant Samiti created conditions favourable for the rath yatra and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
During the 1977 Kumbh in Allahabad, far more sadhus went to the pandal where Indira Gandhi was speaking than to the VHP pandals. The VHP was nowhere in the picture. But at the very next Kumbh, held 12 years later in 1989, this changed dramatically, following the RSS infiltration into akharas . A dharma sansad was organised, and building a Ram temple in Ayodhya became a big issue for the first time. A call for donation of shila [brick] for the shilan puja was given, and this was how the ground was prepared for the temple movement. When this was followed by Advani’s rath yatra in 1990, sadhus, especially those associated with the VHP, participated in large numbers. After this, the VHP became confident of being able to mobilise sadhus. The sense of euphoria they had created in 1989 continued. So in 1992, when the Babri Masjid demolition happened, sadhus were involved in large numbers.
There are so many different denominations of akharas . Don’t you get confused?
I started my research in 2010. So it’s taken me a long time, almost a decade.
Are there theological differences between the groups?
If you take the Dasanami akharas , for instance, all seven are theologically the same. But you must study the origin of akharas to understand why there are so many. Akharas were set up as camps of mercenary soldiers. Since they provided services to princely states, separate groups started emerging, and today they are guided by their own respective distorted histories and mythologies. They might tell you, for instance, that they took up arms against Muslim invaders and the British. But the fact remains that they have fought for anyone willing to pay them. For example, Awadh was one of the main centres for akhara activities. In the third battle of Panipat, sadhus fought on the side of the Afghans, and against the Marathas.
One of the parties to the Babri Masjid dispute is Nirmohi akhara . How did it get involved?
Nirmohi used to occupy what was called Ram Chabutra inside the Babri Masjid complex. This was a platform in the outer courtyard, and Nirmohi used to control that platform. They used to claim that this was the birthplace of Ram. But after the idol was planted inside Babri Masjid, that became the birthplace of Ram, and Ram Chabutra began losing its significance. When the demolition happened, everything was demolished. Nirmohi akhara is the only akhara in occupation of a portion of land in the Babri Masjid complex.
How did they get to occupy it?
That happened after the 1857 uprising. The sadhus did not get involved in the war, and once the British defeated the Muslim rulers who had risen in revolt, a section of sadhus from Nirmohi akhara simply went and occupied that area, and the government did not object. Later, during the 1880s, Nirmohi wanted to build a temple there, but were not given permission.
What’s the nature of the relationship between the All India Akhara Parishad (AIAP) and the Sangh Parivar?
As a body, the AIAP’s power is limited to the Kumbh Melas. But of late, we find that it has started doing more. It has issued a list of fake babas, and in the Ardh Kumbh that took place earlier this year, it called for a boycott of the dharma sansad organised by the VHP. But the AIAP’s remit is quite limited. The VHP, on the other hand, is an overarching body, and in every akhara , it has a contingent of sadhus ready to do its bidding. While the AIAP managed to checkmate the Parivar at the Kumbh, the Sant Samiti delivered when it mattered. Soon after the Lok Sabha campaign began, it issued an appeal to all the sadhus associated with it to convince their followers to work in association with the RSS and the VHP in their respective areas, and persuade people to vote for the BJP. So the Sant Samiti is an important instrument through which the RSS and VHP influence the decisions of sadhus and akharas.
Iran, a theocratic state, has a Guardian Council, whose members include Islamic clerics, to advise the government. Do you foresee India also opting for a national advisory council of sadhus?
A national council? I don’t even rule out the possibility of a Third House of Parliament.
You have described how the number of shankaracharyas has grown exponentially in recent years. What’s the reason?
Money is one of the reasons. Also, despite much effort, the VHP-RSS could not bring all the five shankaracharyas — from the original four peethas plus one — to their side. Now, it’s the shankaracharyas who are on top of the Dasanami system. Suppose they take a position against the RSS-VHP, then RSS-VHP cannot attack them because these are dharma gurus. The RSS-VHP, therefore, backed the processes that led to a multiplication of shankaracharyas , so that the value of these five gets minimised. There are other reasons. The Kashi Vidvat Parishad, which gives out this title, split into factions, and those factions have been giving away this title based on their own considerations. You may have read that one of the accused in the Malegaon blasts, Amrit Anand Deb Tirth, was a shankaracharya .
How many shankaracharyas are there now? A dozen?
About a hundred.
Will it work if the Congress tried to cultivate its own set of ‘secular’ sadhus to counter the pro-RSS babas?
I don’t think so. For one, it will then have to do a different kind of politics — it would mean leaving its centrist space in the Indian polity. Secondly, the Congress has also been using sadhus. But there is a difference. With the Congress, individual leaders use individual sadhus, like Digvijay Singh used Computer Baba to do a yagna for him before the 2019 elections. But unlike the BJP-VHP-RSS, the Congress cannot promise any ecclesiastical status to the sadhus. The Sangh Parivar can make sadhus feel very important. The VHP, for instance, has a margdarshak mandal of sadhus. The meetings of the mandal, and the show of giving directions to the VHP, are meaningless, but they fill the sadhus with a sense of importance, as if they are driving the politics of the country — this is a feeling the Congress can never give them.
Given the increasing role of sadhus in politics and business, do you foresee a pushback?
No pushback is possible under the current regime. It’s only going to intensify further. You are going to see prominent sadhus more and more in public life. A new school is established and a sadhu comes and lays the foundation stone — this kind of thing will happen more often.