Our beloved Swamiji: Chinmayanand’s experiments with power and piety
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Our beloved Swamiji: Chinmayanand’s experiments with power and piety

With friends like Yogi Adityanath, opinion-makers in Shahjahanpur believe law can’t touch this Swami.

By Ayush Tiwari

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Sometime in the 1940s, Swami Sukhdevanand Saraswati, a sage from Uttar Pradesh’s Shahjahanpur, realised that Hindu society could only be replenished if its subjects were raised in a strict Bharatiya milieu.

Sukhdevanand was in his forties, and he had spent many summers of his adult life in Rishikesh, meditating and sermonising in the company of disciples and other saints. For the remaining part of the year, he would wander across North India and spread his ideas on culture, asceticism and renunciation.

In Sukhdevanand’s mind, the Bharatiya milieu could only be germinated through an educational project. For this, he chose his home Shahjahanpur: Sukhdevanand had already set up an ashram there, and it was also where his magazine Parmarth was published. Most importantly, Sukhdevanand saw the town’s Gandhi Faiz-E-Aam College (popularly called GF college), established in 1947, as a site where Muslim culture was practised and propagated.

Soon after Indian Independence, Sukhdevanand inaugurated the Daivi Sampad Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya in Shahjahanpur as a first step to counter this supposed Muslim sphere of influence over education. Two years later, in 1951, he saw the establishment of Shri Daivi Sampad Inter College (SDSIC). In 1964, he established the Swami Sukhdevanand Post Graduate College (SSPG).

“Soon after he found the Sanskrit college, Sukhdevanandji had realised that not many people were interested in a Sanskritic education,” an employee at SSPG told Newslaundry. “So both the inter and degree colleges were meant to rope in students through modern education — in Math, Science, English and Arts.”

Swami Sukhdevanand (1901 – 1965). | Courtesy: Parmarth.org

By the time Sukhdevanand passed away in 1965, he had established three educational institutions in Shahjahanpur, three ashrams (in Shahjahanpur, Rishikesh and Haridwar), a “Hindu Jain temple” in Pittsburg, US and a Swami Sukhdevanand Trust in 1962. The trust was given tax-exempt status by the government of India.

Swami Dharmanand, Sukhdevanand’s disciple from UP’s Bulandshahr, succeeded him after his death. As the Managing Trustee of the Swami Sukhdevanand Trust, Dharmanand established the Shri Shankar Mumukshu Vidyapeeth (SSMV) in 1989.

The SSPG employee in Shahjahanpur told Newslaundry: “As opposed to the Muslim culture in colleges, the good schools in Shahjahanpur were mostly convent schools. They were Christianised. So SSMV was started to generate a shift in Shahjahanpur from Christianised schools to a Hindu Sanskritic one.”

In 1991, Dharmanand passed away. He was succeeded by a 44-year-old Hindutva firebrand from Jaunpur called Swami Chinmayanand. Born as Krishna Pal Singh in 1947 in UP’s Gonda district, Chinmayanand had apparently left home when he was 20 to learn lessons in spirituality and religion from Dharmanand. 

He had completed his education in Vrindavan. According to a booklet produced by the Haridwar ashram he now ‘manages’: “From 1967 to 1971 he [Chinmayanand] studied Gayatri and Tantra in Haridwar, Varanasi and Guwahati, and completed his M.A. (Philosophy) and Doctorate (Comparative study of Shankar and Arvinda).”

Unlike his predecessors, Chinmayanand had stakes in matters both sacred and secular. In the mid-70s, he had participated in the JP movement and rallied against the corrupt state government in Bihar and eventually against PM Indira Gandhi, who had in the past shared the stage with Chinmayanand’s guru and his associates. He was also associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an organisation founded in 1964 to bridge the gap between the Hindu religious establishment and the Hindutva-driven Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Throughout the 1980s, the VHP had led a nation-wide movement to mobilise Hindus for the Ramjanmabhoomi cause — to build a grand temple at the site of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, where Lord Ram was supposedly born. Thomas Blom Hansen, a historian of Hindu nationalism, writes that the VHP’s primary objective in the 1980s was to establish a “national Hinduism”. This was to be accomplished not just through the movement to construct the Ram temple, but also through the consolidation of “Hindu society,” the propagation of Hindu values of life, creation of a network comprising NRI Hindus, and the return of those who had left the Hindu fold.

“In the 1980s, Ashok Singhal, the patron-saint of the VHP, used to drop by at Shahjahanpur very often. That’s when he and Chinmayanand met and became friends,” says Jayesh Prasad, a BJP politician and nephew of Rajiv Gandhi’s aide the late Jitendra Prasad.

In late 1980s, Chinamayanand was given the charge of national convenor of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Sangharsh Samiti — a group tasked with mobilising people for the movement. Prasad claims that besides being dabbling in the Mandir politics of the 1980s, Chinmayanand was also fixing the educational infrastructure in Shahjahanpur.

He illustrates his point through an anecdote. “When Rajiv Gandhi had once visited Shahjahanpur in the 1980s, local politicians had asked him to set up a urea fertilizer plant in the town so it could bring some jobs. We even asked for 80% reservation in jobs for the locals. He agreed to our demands and the plant was constructed. But no local in Shahjahanpur applied for a job there because no one was qualified. That was the state of education in the district. Swamiji has been a boon for education in Shahjahanpur.”

Prasad also corroborated the institution’s conception as a Hindu institution: “Swamiji sees them as Hindu schools and colleges, on the other side of the supposedly Muslim GF college here. About 99% of students who study there are also Hindus.”

It was in the course of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that Chinmayanand met and established a chemistry with then BJP supremo Lal Krishna Advani. When the VP Singh government fell in 1991, the BJP gave Chinmayanand a ticket to contest from Badaun in Uttar Pradesh. Chinmayanand defeated former Union Minister Sharad Yadav by a margin of 15,000 votes. The party won 119 seats in the Lok Sabha elections that year. The communal tensions that Advani’s rath-yatra left in its wake, combined with the pageantry and success of agitational Hindutva politics, had put sadhu-politicians like Chinmayanand in the Parliament.

And when the Babri Masjid was brought down in December 1992, Chinmayanand was there too. He was part of the core “Joint Common Enterprise” that the Liberhan Commission blamed for the structure’s demolition. Only nine days before the Babri Masjid was demolished, Chinmayanand had communicated to the Supreme Court, as part of an affidavit by the UP government, that the kar seva scheduled for December 6, 1992, would pose no threat to the law and order situation in Ayodhya. The Supreme Court had believed him and others and given them a go-ahead. 

In 2009, the Liberhan Commission’s report had noted: “It stood established before me beyond reasonable doubt that the Joint Common Enterprise was a pre-planned act for demolition under the immediate leadership of Vinay Katiyar, Paramhans Ramchander Dass, Ashok Singhal, Champat Rai, Swami Chinmayanand, S.C. Dixit, B.P. Singhal and Acharya Giriraj. They were the local leaders on the spot and the executors of the plan conceived by the RSS.”

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In the 1990s, Chinmayanand was looking after four educational institutions in Shahjahanpur — one established by his guru and three by his guru’s predecessor — and also managing the Member of Parliament (MP) portfolio. Chinmayanand won from UP’s Machhalishahr constituency during the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, and the Jaunpur constituency during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections that resulted in a third Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

In a biographical sketch dating back from the short-lived 12th Lok Sabha (1998), Chinmayanand described himself as a “political and social worker and religious missionary”. His hobbies include “reading, writing, travelling, gardening and yoga”. Although the sketch mentions that the Swami is associated with “several” spiritual, cultural and educational organisations, according to his website, he is associated with over 30 of them. This includes 8 trusts that manages, in addition to hospitals, dispensaries and a dozen ashrams in Rishikesh, Vrindavan, Haridwar, Mainpuri and Shahjahanpur. 

In parliament, Chinamayanand had been a consistent voice for the Mandir. In this, he had the company of his friend, Gorakhpur MP Ajay Bisht, popularly known as Yogi Adityanath. They had argued that the construction of Ram Mandir should be a parliamentary responsibility. “There was always a temple there, there is a temple there, and only a temple can come up there,” the two had proclaimed in the Parliament one day in December 2000. In later years, when tensions arose between the Vajpayee-led faction and the VHP- and RSS-oriented factions in the government, Chinmayanand was made the Minister of State in the Home Ministry in May 2003 to appease the VHP.

Chinmayanand’s friendship with Adityanath has a history. During the Ramjanmabhoomi movement in the 1980s, Chinamayanand had worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Adityanath’s guru, Mahant Avaidyanath, the then head priest of the Gorakhnath Temple. The two had founded the Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Sangharsh Samiti. In the years that followed, Chinamayanand had managed the Shahjahanpur branch of Adityanath’s saffron militia, the Hindu Yuva Vahini. A visitor in Chinmayanand’s schools and colleges will find plaques citing that Adityanath inaugurated an auditorium or a department on this day in that year. Even after he became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath came to Shahjahanpur in 2018 to inaugurate a school building in the Shri Daivi Sampad Inter College (SDSIC).

UP CM Yogi Adityanath with Swami Chinmayanand in 2017. | Courtesy: Yogi Adityanath on Twitter

In Shahjahanpur, Prasad told Newslaundry that Chinmayanand’s presence in Parliament bore fruits for his colleges and schools in Shahjahanpur. “He and other political actors in the late 1990s helped in the allocation of funds that developed his institutions here,” Prasad said.

In a cramped and creaky Shahjahanpur, Chinmayanand’s schools and colleges provide a sprawling contrast: big red and white buildings that overlook well-trimmed and lush green lawns with statutes of a goddess here and a saint there. The classrooms have high-ceilings and large portraits of a composed and stiff Chinmayanand and his gurus hang everywhere in the campus. The buildings have quotes by Tagore, Vivekananda, Einstein and others painted in small rectangular boxes. The colleges have their own hostels. The Mumukshu Ashram, where Chinmayanand puts up when he’s in town, is adjoined and connected to the campus. 

The Swami Sukhdevanand Post Graduate College (SSPG) in Shahjahanpur.   

The medium of instruction, one professor tells me, is “English but Hindu medium”.  The professor, who has taught at the Swami Sukhdevanand Post Graduate College since 1986, says that although students are given necessary education in English, they are encouraged to disavow “Western manners”. 

“Students at Swamiji’s schools and colleges don’t say ‘Hello’ or ‘Good morning’ to the teachers, they touch their feet. Girls here wear salwaar and kameez. We let them know when we think their dressing is improper, like if they wear shirts and pants. During functions, students don’t just plug and play Bollywood songs. We encourage them to play bhajans and nationalist songs on musical instruments. They don’t even get on the stage before taking its blessings. Those who don’t are either those who have gotten out of hand or Muslims,” the professor said.

The professor then smiles, draws forward, and says: “We don’t force them, we only persuade.”

Although a not-for-profit, the institutions enjoy a good deal of affluence. Every year, the SSPG hosts an international seminar that is attended by speakers from Africa, the US and Europe. There have been nine so far. There is also a week-long annual Mumukshu Mahotsav in February and March where cultural activities and Ram Kathas are organised. (DJ and Bollywood music is barred in these events on Chinmayanand’s personal instructions.) There is a Janmashtami festival too, and every institution celebrates its own their Founder’s day.

“Swamiji addresses the students in 90% of the events. He is very attached to children. If someone comes to him with an invitation, he always says yes and shows up,” the professor tells me.

Descriptions of humility and meekness work best when they’re latched onto those who enjoy power. This is true for Chinmayanand in Shahjahanpur.

Professors, journalists, politicians and intellectuals that this correspondent met in the city would hardly have a critical word to utter about their Swami. When a local friend would call and ask them whether they would meet a Delhi journalist to talk about Swamiji, the person on the other side would draw a long pause and then give a reluctant yes, or a no.

“The businessmen here are his friends and many are trustees of his institutions. Journalists here go to his events and receive his gifts. They send their children to his school. Over that he is very close to Yogiji. This man has economic, social and political capital,” a Shahjahanpur-based journalist told me, on an obvious condition of anonymity.

Chinmayanand has made good use of this capital. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he was one of BJP’s star campaigners in Uttar Pradesh. He had canvassed funds for the party, decided the distribution of tickets and publicly endorsed the controversial “Ramzaade vs Haramzaade” jibes by Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti. He had also tried to get his friend Asaram Bapu off the POSCO hook by allegedly fabricating documents to discredit the minor who had been assaulted by Asaram.

 In 2003, Chinmayanand had added a fifth educational institution in Shahjahanpur in his kitty. He started the Swami Sukhdevanand Law College (popularly known as the SS law college). An administrator at the institution told Newslaundry that the college was set up to meet a crying need. Young men and women in the town who wanted to study law had to either go 80 kilometres away to Bareilly or 175 kilometres away to Lucknow.

“The Shahjahanpur Bar hardly had any lawyers,” the administrator said. “But now more than half of the lawyers there are our graduates,” he beamed. So Chinmayananand had legal capital too.

On August 23 this year, one of the students of SS Law College, a 23-year-old woman who had finished her LLB degree earlier this year and enrolled for LLM, posted a video on Facebook. In it, she claimed that a “big leader of the saint society” in Shahjahanpur who had “destroyed the lives of several girls” had been threatening to kill her family. She sobbed as she spoke, tears rolling down her eyes. 

There was hardly any mystery about who the woman was referring to. “He is very powerful and the DM [district magistrate] and SP [superintendent of police] can’t act against him,” she said, adding that she had evidence against him.

The Swami Sukhdevanand Law College in Shahjahanpur.

In Shahjahanpur, Chinmayanand’s associates told Newslaundry that the accuser was one of Chinmayanand favourites. She was a “disciplined” and a “brilliant” student. The Swami had even arranged a job for her at the law college’s library for Rs 7,000 a month. She was given a room in the hostel. A picture even showed Chinmayanand celebrating the woman’s birthday and standing beside her as she cut a cake.

Chinmayanand with the accuser in an undated picture.

The woman went missing the next day. In Shahjahanpur, at her old, small and crumbling home, her father told Newslaundry that when she had last come home on Rakshabandhan, she had warned the family about the risks to her safety. “She had kept her phone switched off a day before she came to see us. She lives in the college hostel. When we asked her about it, she said that if I ever were to keep my phone switched off for more than 4-5 hours, papa you should know that I’m in trouble,” he said.

According to the father, the SP displayed predictable behaviour. He said: “When we went to register an FIR against Chinmayanand, the SP asked me, “You should know what is good and bad. Do you realise who you are filing an FIR against?” In the FIR lodged on August 27, the woman’s father accused 72-year-old Chinmayanand of abduction and criminal intimidation.

In Shahjahanpur, the incident produced two types of responses. The common people would tell you that the Swami enjoyed local omnipotence and was capable of doing what he did. There was an acknowledgement of a darker side. Among the opinion-makers, that is, journalists and politicians, there was an instrumental silence about such an acknowledgement. The collective brainstorming in this circle was dedicated to how Chinmayanand will manage this problem, not whether he was the culprit. 

“They all know he did it, but they will not dare to say it. They will keep showering praise on him and that’s that,” a senior journalist with a local paper told me. 

What was uniform was the shaming of the woman and cheap gossip about her character and that of her family. In her neighbourhood, two young men sniggered when I asked them about her. “She has had many boyfriends,” they said. Snigger, snigger. “And she was anyway living with him (Chinmayanand) in the campus.” More sniggering. “The parents are to blame. If you keep a sweet outside, wouldn’t someone come and eat it?” Snigger, snigger.

The locality in Shahjahanpur where the accuser’s family lives.

Misogyny too was an industry in Shahjahanpur. What seemed to trigger everyone is that the woman had been seen in Delhi with another man. During a conversation with the SSPG professor, a journalist associated with a national newswire agency told me that Swamiji should’ve kept a distance from women. “Women have become weapons these days, I keep a distance with them even at work. One doesn’t know what a woman will do,” he said. 

“She is in it for the money. They are a poor family. They think they’ll slander Swamiji and get a luxury car,” said the professor.

“The journalists in Shahjahanpur are Chinmayanand’s patronised class. They will not and can not write against him,” said a journalist from a national magazine who boasts of writing against the Swami, even if it is from the safe distance of Lucknow.

Another senior journalist working for a national Hindi daily told this correspondent that “a lot of resources are being dedicated to divert this issue”.

And this was true. Journalists in Shahjahanpur hold Chinmayanand in high regard. Once, after talking to journalists about Chinmayanand at the bureau of a national Hindi daily, I was asked to meet the bureau chief on my way out. “So what did they say?” the bureau chief asked me. Before I could spin a remark about fangirling, he muttered: “Sab yahaan bhakt hai unke. Everyone here is his devotee.”

As the controversy trail-blazed through Shahjahanpur, Chinmayanand was away in Haridwar, in one of the ashrams where Sukhdevanand once spent his meditative summers. He was in a state of maun vrat (a vow of silence), we were told. 

After being spotted in Delhi on August 28, the woman was found in Rajasthan on August 30. There was another man with her called Sanjay Singh. The police took them to Delhi, where the accuser met her family, who had also been brought there from Shahjahanpur. After she was produced in the Supreme Court on August 31, the bench said that she “doesn’t want to go back to Uttar Pradesh till she meets her parents here and after the meeting, she will make the decision on her future course of action.” The apex court ordered the UP government to shift her and her brother to another college, and constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe charges levelled by her against Chinmayanand.

“He has raped me,” the woman revealed on September 9 with half a dozen mics hogging her face, which was draped almost entirely with a black dupatta. “He exploited me for over a year.”

“I have no problem answering questions but at least arrest him (Chinmayanand),” she added, her voice giving away anxiety and annoyance. “I was running for days, trying to save myself. The Shahjahanpur DM threatened my father…There is a threat from UP police.”

Om Singh, Chinmayanand’s spokesperson, told Newslaundry that the woman’s claims were part of a “conspiracy”. “She has made three allegations so far and she’ll continue to add to it,” Singh said. “These people will soon be trapped in their own designs. They are out to extort and besmirch Swamiji’s name, but we have full faith in the judiciary. We’ll wait for the SIT’s report.”

According to Singh, Chinmayanand had received a text message soon after the woman’s video from August 23 went viral. The message said: “I have a video of all the things you do with girls. You play with their modesty and you like it. I’ll give these videos to the media. If you value your respect, then arrange for Rs 5 crores by evening, else I’ll hand the video to the media…Don’t try to be clever.” The message was sent on Whatsapp and from an unknown number. Chinmayanand’s counsel, Om Singh, registered an FIR of August 25 alleging that the Swami was the victim of extortion. On August 31, the UP police said that Sanjay Singh was “one of the suspects in the extortion case” against the Swami. The woman has claimed that Singh is her “bhai”.

On September 10, Amar Ujala reported that a “video of Swami Chinmayananda…is becoming public on social media” where he is “getting a massage from a student”. The video’s screenshots were posted on a website called bhadas4media, showing an old man lying completely naked and receiving a massage from a younger woman. “The student recorded Chinmayanand being naked on January 31 through a hidden camera fixed in her specs,” the article claimed. The video has not been authenticated yet. 

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In 2011, Chinmayanand had been accused of rape and kidnapping by a “sadhvi” in his ashram. Like in the latest case, he evaded arrest then even after a bailable warrant had been produced in his name. Last year, a report had noted that the “entire government machinery was trying to shield him” when the controversy propped up. The Swami’s accused and her husband had tried to confront him and the spat was caught on camera. But like a good friend, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had then given orders to the state’s law and justice department to withdraw the case against Chinmayanad days after allegedly meeting him at his Mumukshu Ashram in Shahjahanpur.

But the latest allegations have brought to fore a set of more complicated problems. The Swami’s latest accuser claims she has evidence against him. The national media too, as her family concedes, have taken her side. A video claiming to show Chinmayanand with a young student is doing the rounds on the internet and opinion-makers in Shahjahanpur are not sure how their Swami will get this monkey off his back. Will Chinmayanand, the super-saint of Shahjahanpur, the scion of a great sadhu tradition, lover of children, foe of Bollywood music and the demolisher of the Babri Masjid, manage to get out of this unscathed? We’ll have to let the investigation take its course, but will Chinmayanand?

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