Babaji ki Booti: Poison or Panacea?

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s sentence has brought onto the fore what has been part of an inescapable destiny for large swathes of our country.

Apni bahu beti ki chotiyaan bachaye.”

Thus spake a local baba’s totka in Banda about a week ago when the braids of women were being mysteriously chopped off. Responding to an immediate phenomenon that had materialised in Bundelkhand (women in Banda and Mahoba were plait-less overnight), and across multiple other states, news had sprouted in and around Banda extolling the virtues of a certain godman skilled in this particular department. “Go there, and make sure the women of your house are safe”, said one to another, at everyone’s favourite chai shop. After all, word-of-mouth is the original viral-making algorithm.

Subsequently, we came to know of many who did indeed fall, hook, line and sinker, and head to get their share of the potion (was it?) that would ensure their bahu-betiyaan’s izzat stay in place. We mean their hair, of course.

So, why is it that people go to Babas?

A fact of life, that had been embedded in our landscape came up as a thought to consider and deconstruct, for us as it has for others, after the violence that followed the sentencing of Dera Sacha Sauda sect’s chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim. For years, we have been covering stories about the sexual escapades of self declared godmen in Chitrakoot, Barabanki and other small towns in UP. Take Baba Qutubadeen, for instance, who’d been teaching Arabic in the Madarsa to local children in Bargad, a kasbah of Chitrakoot. Seven years passed, and then, when a girl accused him of misbehaving with her, he went missing overnight. By the next afternoon, several other girls had come out with their truth. The first, brave girl who spoke out, told us that Baba would keep his hand on her head and then run it all over her body. Then one day, “he took all of us inside his room to the bed and told us to get undressed,” and enough was enough. The Baba had made them swear on the Quran that if they complained to their parents, their families would die and their own hands would fall off. Several of the girls started missing their classes deliberately, and this was what brought Baba Qutubadeen’s debauchery into sharp focus.

In Chitrakoot (as in the rest of the world) in all stories of sexual harassment and debauchery in ashrams and akhadas – women are prime targets. In a series of probing conversations we’ve had in the newsroom since Ram Rahim’s conviction, a recurring motif is that, in all concerns relating to ‘women’s health’, Babas are the one-stop shop because they offer multiple services: They are gynaecologists, experts in sex determination, mental health experts, counsellors, you name it. And they’re likely to have empathy and understanding of your body and mind and world like no doctor in the district hospital will.

“I had gone to one baba in Rehutiya village,” recalls one of our senior editors, and then quickly qualifies, “but that was several years ago when I was not very well informed”. She had developed “gynaecological issues”, which she couldn’t really discuss with anyone. Enter Babaji. “He gave me a concoction to drink,” she says, and, almost apologetically, “it may have given me temporary relief”. The same senior team member was asked when was the last time she visited a Baba. “I took my epileptic son a few years ago, to a different Baba,” she says, “This Baba had magical powers. I know of many who were cured by him.” A daughter with a leg wound was taken to a third Baba and finally the entire family had visited a famous Baba’s ashram in Maharashtra as part of their annual vacation! Clearly, being better ‘informed’ hasn’t really changed beliefs.

Thousands flock to ashrams in small towns in the hope of medical treatment, miracles, support and a sense of belonging. When the State fails you in such deliberate ways, and in such necessary areas, where do you look but heaven-wards? If a ‘saintly soul’ is waving you there (most likely to his abode/dera/ashram) and showing you the way (most likely to a box marked donations) rest assured, you’re walking right along. There’s a lot to be said for open arms, medical aid, access to and availability of medicines and all you can eat buffets. Or a chance at an education. All you need is a neighbourhood (or not even) self-styled, all powerful entrepreneur, sorry, guru, and no matter if s/he has some base proclivities, sexual or otherwise. Even super gurus have human weaknesses.

Another Khabar Lahariya reporter told us point-blank she was deeply against godmen of all kinds. She told us how, growing up, she would often be witness to her mother “being suddenly possessed”. The entire household would watch as one Baba after another would visit, come inside the home and whip the lady with leather belts and whips until she passed out. “She still has marks all over her body.” On reviving, she would be back to her ‘normal state’. The reporter tells us adding how she, alongwith her three sisters, would often run and hide in neighbours’ houses while this show was on and her mother was being treated. For what? Now she calls it by its name: Epilepsy.

But the story doesn’t end there.

A local baba had told our reporter’s family (of four girl children) that they could be blessed with a male child if their mother would go and sleep with him. This was not acceptable to her parents, and so they withdrew their faith, but not without great disappointment. The entire family eventually switched from Hinduism to the Nirankari sect. Here, followers are encouraged to stop all spending on religious practices and rituals. They are also made to touch each other’s feet since everyone, regardless of their caste, religion, gender and class, is considered equal. The reporter’s Dalit family finally feels a sense of security: that they are part of a larger collective, with members ranging “from Bundelkhand to Bangalore”. “We don’t light diyas during Diwali,” she says, with no small sense of loss. “Actually, we don’t celebrate anything at all.” Now a firm disbeliever in all things Baba, she feels that people should be free to believe in and practise things that give them happiness. But then that could also include Babas, we ask? “Well, maybe those whose miracles are not entirely baseless,” she says, finally.

What is it about Babas and their bootis, again?

It’s a complicated affair, of lacunae material and spiritual and more. Aren’t we are all suckers for divine succour?