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Swami Aseemanand, as I know him

January 18, 2011 12:34 IST
Ahmedabad journalist Arvind J Bosmia recalls his friend of 11 years, Swami Aseemanand, who is suspected of involvement in the Samjhauta Express, Mecca Masjid, Ajmer Dargah and Malegaon blast cases.

It is hard to connect this Hindu terror mastermind over-drive with the Swami Aseemanand of tribal simplicity and boundless energy, whom I have known since the last 11 years and interacted with closely.

A man of deep passion and relentless commitment to tribal welfare, he displayed no interest in anything which had no connection with the tribal world. The Samjhauta Express, the Malegaon, Mecca Masjid, Ajmer Sharif -- none of these have the remotest connection with tribals. So to me, they cannot trigger any interest in Aseemanand.

Yet, he is found to be the mastermind and has even confessed to his involvement in the terror attacks!

Ever since he came to the Dangs district in south Gujarat in 1995, he has gone totally tribal -- the Dangi tribals have converted him irrevocably so much so that Bengal (Editor's note: from where he hails) is past, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is past, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram is past; the Dangi tribal world is the overwhelming present and a clear future.

His mission in life was to serve the tribals, for which he had to join either the Christian missionaries or Hindu organisations working in the same field. He joined the Ramakrishna Mission and worked on their behalf in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram. But the Ramakrishna Mission failed to match his zeal.

Thoroughly disappointed, he joined the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, an RSS affiliate. He worked for them in the Andaman and Nicobar islands and finally landed in the Dangs via Jharkhand and Maharashtra. Even the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram found his single-minded zeal disturbing and he was dumped in this remote Dangs district where the organisation had failed to make any headway.

He walked to the remotest tribal hamlets and stayed with tribal families in their huts, ate what they ate and shared their life in full; unlike most missionaries, Christian or Hindu, he passed no value judgement on them. He detested the very idea of foisting vegetarianism on the tribals or putting a stop to their animal sacrifice rituals.

While parting, he would give a framed photo of Lord Hanuman or a wooden Hanuman idol to the tribal family, charging them Rs 50. His choice of Hanuman stemmed from the fact that the tribals worshipped the monkey god.

After establishing a popular base among the tribals, he set up an ashram-cum-residential school at Vaghai, which turned out to be a huge success. This made Christian missionaries operating in the area most uneasy.

The boiling point came in 1998 when he planned a big expansion in Subir, 60 km from Vaghai. By Christmas in 1999, there was open confrontation between the tribal followers of Swami Aseemanand and Christian missionaries.

There was an outcry in the national media, with the burning of prayer huts being described as burning of Christian churches. The first rude awakening for Swami Aseemanand came around this time.

The Sangh Parivar dreads adverse media publicity, especially in a state where the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power. He was ordered to move out of the Dangs.

But this very event made ordinary Hindus reach out to him. An NRI was so impressed by him that he donated money to build a hospital and a residential school in Subir. But the BJP government, fearing a missionary-media backlash, has not given permission for that to this day.

Post his arrest, Swami Aseemanand is painted as a fraud in the media for not building this school and hospital. But for the local tribals and Hindu religious organisations who sheltered him, he would have vanished into oblivion.

With the tribals refusing to respond to others in the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Swami Aseemanand was brought back to Subir where he promptly began the construction of the Sabridham Mandir.

In his unique style, not just the labourers but even the contractor who built the temple, was a tribal. He skilfully wove the Bhil woman Sabri of the Ramayana into a tribal form of worship. It created such a wave among the tribals that Sabridham has become a tribal Badrinath of sorts.

The very government which blocked the building of a hospital and school, now gave full support to the first Sabri Kumbh in 2006, which attracted tribals from all over the country, offering the single largest platform for political mobilisation of tribals.

The entire Sangh Parivar top leadership and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi were present at the inauguration, not because they loved Aseemanand, but because this presented them with a golden political opportunity.

Now the Sangh Parivar would like to control Sabridham minus Swami Aseemanand. So it too would prefer him out of Gujarat. Ironically, the Sangh Parivar and Christian missionaries desire the same thing for different reasons.

The ashram, which Swami Aseemanand built adjoining the Sabridham temple, has meals cooked by tribals. The roti is made from a local coarse grain called nagli. Contrary to adverse media reports, the ashram was an open house where anyone could stay.

Sunil Joshi, Sandeep Dange, Sadhvi Pragya and others accused in the Hindu terror cases could have stayed there without Aseemanand knowing about their plans.

But nothing beyond that for this man with a single focus on tribal welfare -- at most he can be a polite listener. The Muslim factor would come into Swami Aseemanand's world to the extent that it impinged on the tribals. Thus, for hours he can elaborate on how Muslims usurped tribal lands by marrying tribal women to get around the ban on buying tribal lands.

Or as a Bengali, he can get worked up over the Bangladeshi influx. So in theory, he could plan the bombing of a train to Bangladesh, but not the Samjhauta Express. He can be involved in a plan to drive away Muslim settlers with tribal wives from tribal areas, but not Malegaon or Ajmer or the Mecca Masjid.

I have spent hours talking to him and there had never been a hint of what he has landed up in. After the chargesheet was filed in the Malegaon case and his name was not found on it, he resurfaced in September 2009.

He rang me up one day, saying he was in Ahmedabad and that he wanted to meet up. He picked me up after half an hour and we drove around the city in his car. I was shocked by his altered appearance.

Instead of his supremely confident and dynamic self, he looked disoriented and confused, like a lost tribal who does not know what had hit him -- hardly the mastermind in person!

His first words were, "Arvindbhai, you must be thinking that I am carrying out evil activities and you should be wanting to shun me."

Trying to put him at ease, I told him, "Maharaj, those Hindus who know you will never believe these allegations and would rush to your defence."

Baffled at my response, he said: "But the Hindus I met treated me like a worm."

In a matter of fact tone, I explained, "They all must be RSS Hindus."

He gave me a long incredulous look and admitted that he had only met RSS Hindus while on the run.

"But what can I do? They are the only ones I know, they are my family."

In an hour-long drive, I clinically analysed the RSS's response.

At the end of my analysis, his mind became clear. A semblance of the old Swami Aseemanand had returned. Then he asked me if I was an RSS swayamsevak, for I knew so much about it.

I laughed and told him if I ever had joined them, I would have ended up as confused and disoriented as him.

He laughed for the first time.

Swami Aseemanand thanked me effusively and left for Nadiad. After a fortnight I got a call from him; his old confidence had been fully restored. I asked him what the secret of his recovery was. He burst out laughing and said, "I followed your advice and met ordinary Hindus only."

Then his involvement in the blast was resurrected by the Rajasthan Anti-Terrorist Squad and he was arrested in Haridwar. He had been on the run for several months.

This development coincidentally came around the same time as the Binayak Sen judgment.

Both worked for the tribals, yet the media's response is unsettlingly sinister.

The same media, which eulogises Sen, does not even give fair coverage to Swami Aseemanand. Both are Bengali Brahmins; both loved the tribals. But Jatin Chatterji alias Aseemanand did not take the right Naxal path to tribal welfare!

The Dang tribals worship him. Yet, there is not a single report covering this aspect. Instead, there are fake reports painting him as a bully.

ALSO READ: Meet the youth who inspired Aseemanand to confess
Is Aseemanand the mastermind of 'Hindu terror?'
Samjhauta blasts: A tale of two confessions
These men could solve India's terror jigsaw
Terror-stained Indresh Kumar speaks out

Arvind J Bosmia