Devil's Work In God's Name
A crackdown on godmen in Kerala reveals the dark side of the multi-crore faith industry, reports KA SHAJI
MALAPPURAM IN north Kerala is the land of the Thangals, upper-class Muslims known for their belief in black magic and obscurantist healing techniques. That they flourish in Kerala, a state synonymous with a high literacy rate and rich rationalist tradition, is no contradiction, for tantriks and godmen of all faiths are as at home here as the die-hard stalwarts of the CPM. The Thangals were propelled into acrimonious limelight last month when a Congress leader, film producer Aryadan Shoukath, demanded an investigation into their practices, thus running afoul of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). The IUML is simultaneously the Congress’ biggest ally in Kerala and its toughest rival for Muslim votes. It is also headed by high-profile healing practitioner Panakkad Mohammed Ali Shihab Thangal; Shoukath’s demand was seen as a direct challenge to his authority. Tempers flared on either side and Sonia Gandhi had to send an emissary from Delhi for damage control.
With the IUML warning the Left against any investigations into the Thangals, the issue is likely to die down. A probe, however, could yield startling, if not ugly, results. Only last month, a bemused Kerala watched the arrest of Santhosh Madhavan aka Amruta Chaitanya Viswachaitanya, the Kochi-based godman with three underage rape complaints against him and an Interpol red-corner notice for fraud. Then there was Himaval Maheswara Bhadranandaji, who made the news for predicting future of many and massing wealth through illegal means. According to police data, there are over 350 ‘spiritual leaders’ in the state with criminal records. At least a dozen of these persons are said to be engaged in illegal hawala transactions in the Gulf countries. Other crimes range from the benami purchase of land for VIPs, the making and distribution of pornographic films and the rape of minor girls.
To these people, spirituality is just a cover to engage in unlawful activities,” observes Jacob Punnoose, Additional Director General of the Kerala police. “They cash in on people’s insecurities and get rich overnight.”
But the police in Kerala are also the target of public ridicule for themselves patronising godmen. A senior police officer was suspended for his involvement in Madhavan’s illegal dealings; a woman IPS officer is also among Madhavan’s devotees. Bhadranandaji’s arrest created a flutter when he threatened to shoot himself with a pistol at a police station — a circle inspector and six of his immediate subordinates were suspended for allowing him to attempt suicide on the station premises. “The regular clients of these godmen with criminal backgrounds include politicians, film stars, bureaucrats and business men,” says writer P. Surendran. He also says that these nobody dares to touch the fraudsters as they are well-connected with even the administration and the police sanctioning privileges for them that are normally reserved only for VIPs.
The crimes are not restricted to the godmen alone. Matha Prasanna, from Kollam district in south Kerala, was arrested recently in connection with a visa fraud. She had taken money from several persons by promising them work visas in Gulf countries. In the course of the raid conducted at her house and prayer home, the police uncovered bank passbooks and documents of land transactions.
Another prominent woman ‘oracle’ now under arrest is Swamini Divya Joshi of the Rudrath Vishnumaya Ashramam in Thrissur. According to police sources, 36-year-old Divya had often provided semi-nude ‘darshan’ to devotees, including males. The police found incriminating documents pertaining to unaccounted money during a raid conducted at her ashram following a complaint from a woman. The complainant in her petition had alleged that Divya Joshi had promised to cure her by performing poojas. Accordingly, the woman had paid Divya Joshi Rs 44,700 for the conduct of the poojas in December last year. But, unsurprisingly, she continued to suffer from her disease despite the poojas.
Several other godmen, including a Christian, are in the police list. Among them are Pastor Sam Kuzhikala, who is facing a nonbailable warrant for issuing fake cheques; Siddhan Kattachira, who cheated his devotees; and Swami Sunil Das, who amassed crores by using his access to VVIPs. All of them are under police watch. “Kerala is now besieged by godmen and women who are widely patronised by political leaders, which gives legitimacy to the superstitions surrounding them,” says historian KN Panikkar. He feels that the crisis-ridden middle class is drawn to spiritual retreat so as to escape the pressures of a ‘globalised’ life. “The resulting social hegemony of religious discourse legitimises religious social division. Consequently, Hindus, Muslims and Christians have emerged as separate entities, not only in their personal and domestic lives, but also in social existence,” observes Panikkar.
According to psychiatrist PM Mathew of Vellore, insecurity is the driving force that forces people into the hands of godmen. “The craze for easy money and the fear of losing illegally amassed money are forcing many to look for superstitions,” says Mathew.
The official drive against godmen, hitherto restricted to Hindu swamis, is now providing sleepless nights to certain self-appointed evangelists as well. A high-profile evangelist in Thiruvalla in south Kerala is currently under pressure to explain an “unaccounted” amount of Rs 900 crore his trust received from the US. Bishop KP Yohannan has been under the watch of police for having received funds from the Texas-based Gospel for Asia for the past 12 years. The police claim that a trust closely held by Yohannan and his relatives had received Rs 1,044 crore for charity from a Texas body since 1995, but spent only Rs 144 crore on such purposes.
“I am not against spiritual leaders. But I cannot accept a situation where only the small fish are caught and the big sharks are allowed to roam free. There should be an inquiry into the backgrounds of these leaders and their sources of income,” says writer-activist Dr Sukumar Azhikode.
AZHIKODE DEMANDS a thorough probe even into the assets of Kerala’s popular “hugging saint”, Mata Amritanandamayi. According to him, the government drive against godmen will have no meaning if it fails to include the Mata and Shihab Thangal. Azhikode’s open demand has irked the Mata’s devotees, and he is now receiving abusive phone calls and threats to his life. A group of progressive writers in Kerala recently launched a forum to counter the attacks against Azhikode from Mata’s followers.
TN Jayachandran, former additional chief secretary of Kerala, feels that fake swamis surface due to the degeneration of society in general. “Godmen make their presence felt because those who have power and money search for temporary peace through them,” says Jayachandran. The godmen, he says, in turn exploit these high-profile people to expand their base and fame.
E. Joy, a Thiruvananthapuram-based doctor, said he was pained to see literate Kerala succumbing to the godmen phenomenon. “These godmen will not have any significance if people don’t go after instant peace and comfort,” noted Joy. He also observed that in a fastmoving world, where money occupies the highest place, many think that there are shortcuts to achieving peace and comfort, and that was the secret of the godmen’s success. •