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Asaram’s empire of Deceit

Asaram made benami deals, gave loans worth crores, invested in US firms and tried to bribe officials to hide all that

Uday Mahurkar August 6, 2015 | UPDATED 13:11 IST

Asaram Bapu (Photo by: Shailesh Raval)Self-styled godman Asaram Bapu (Photo by: Shailesh Raval)
A murky money-lending nexus that would shame Shylock, shady land deals and clandestine conspiracies to buy police officers and circumvent the judicial process. Transactions in a range of financial instruments worth hundreds of crores. Investments in little-known American companies. Suspect foreign currency transactions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Allegations of rape and witness intimidation, it seems, are not the only crimes self-styled holy man Asaram Bapu and his son Narayan Sai are in the dock for.
As Asaram and Sai cool their heels in Jodhpur and Surat jails, and a trial court is set to begin hearing the rape case against Asaram, Gujarat police allege they have unearthed a string of highly lucrative illicit busies ventures, all piggybacking on the unquestioning faith of millions. And the details-contained in reams of documents police say they seized from an ashram aide’s apartment-read like the laundry list of a small-town businessman who has come into enormous wealth:
– Benami property deals and financial transactions-many of them allegedly in cash-adding up to more than Rs 2,200 crore.
– Cash loans totalling Rs 1,635 crore given to more than 500 beneficiaries in exchange for equally fat interest rates.
– Rs 156 crore invested in shares of two obscure US companies-Soham Inc and Costas Inc-suspected to be in violation of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) as resident Indians are barred from making any direct investment abroad.

  • Rs 8 crore allegedly earmarked to bribe police, judicial and medical officers linked to the rape investigations against Asaram and Sai.
    On paper, the total comes to a mindboggling Rs 4,500 crore. But investigators say the worth of Asaram’s shady empire will cross the Rs 10,000-crore mark if the land and real estate are valued at market rates instead of the old circle rates used by the police to value them.
    ALSO READ: From rags to riches to infamy
    Sai’s counsel, however, rubbishes the allegations. “Narayan Sai and the others have been falsely implicated in the case with the aim of targeting him and Asaram Bapu,” Kalpesh Desai, the defence counsel in the bribery case, told india today, referring to the financial wrongdoing alleged by the police following seizure of what they call “highly incriminating documents”. Desai refused to discuss the details saying the case is sub judice.
    Smoking guns
    It all started in 2013, not long after Asaram was arrested in Indore in a rape case. Surat Police was in the middle of a nationwide manhunt for Narayan Sai, who had disappeared after being accused of rape by a former devotee from the Surat ashram. While he was eventually nabbed in December that year, on October 26, a police team had raided an apartment in Ahmedabad’s plush CG Road following a tip-off. It was owned by a builder and long-time Asaram devotee Prahlad Kishenlal Sewani. Unwittingly, the police had chanced upon a treasure trove of documents-hastily stashed away in 42 large sacks, hard disks and computers.
    Surat Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana and a team of officers spent months collating and deciphering the information contained in volumes of paper and terabytes of computer files. Once collated, they literally blew the lid off a suspected network of deceit and crime centred around Asaram and his network of ashrams, police claim. “The documents and data in the hard disks seized show large-scale tax evasion and malpractices by Asaram and Narayan Sai and also (names) a large number of traders, businessmen and real estate dealers across India. They used black money thus generated for professional and personal gains. Since the matter has national and international ramifications it should be thoroughly investigated under the Income Tax Act,” Asthana wrote early in 2014 in his covering letter forwarding the case for further scrutiny by the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department.

The labyrinth of intrigue can be gauged from details jotted down by Surat Police while forwarding the case: Asthana’s cover letter was followed by seven volumes of documents adding up to 900 pages. But 18 months on, income tax authorities seem to have little to show as progress. Benjamin Chettiar, assistant commissioner of income tax, who is investigating the details found in the hard disks forwarded by the Surat Police, however, insists the probe is on track. “We have made progress in the case and the order for attachments has been issued. The results will be in public domain soon,” he told india today.
However, investigations by india today, based on information gleaned from the seized documents, reveal the seemingly dark underbelly of the empire Asaram and his son built over four decades. For starters, the moneylending operation, seen to be funded almost exclusively through devotee donations and profits from the sale of ashram merchandise, was run on the scale of a midsized banking set-up.
Besides the money lending operations, the seized documents reveal scores of evidently dubious land deals. Real estate is shown to have been acquired at several locations in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh as well as several central and north Indian states-nearly everywhere Asaram and his followers opened their 400-odd ashrams and religious centres. The dubious money trail, according to investigators, involves as many as 800 bank accounts.
Religion and riches
Much of the land owned by Asaram’s ashrams are illegal, alleges Surat Police Assistant Commissioner Mukesh Patel, who is leading the probe into the rape case against Narayan Sai. “They were acquired by enticing devotees with improper documents and through encroachments,” he says. In Gujarat alone the ashram was forced to vacate unlawfully occupied land following administrative and police action around Pedhmal Ashram in Sabarkantha district and the Asaram centres in Motera (Ahmedabad) and Surat.

Nainesh Shah, 54, who is fighting a court case against Asaram for years, illustrates the alleged modus operandi. According to his charges, back in 1978, Asaram had persuaded Shah’s father, Rajnikant Shah, a then follower, to “gift” 15,300 yards he owned near the Ahmedabad ashram. The land then cost Rs 20 lakh. After a few years, when Shah senior thought he had been swindled as he was still paying the land revenue while the ashram was occupying the plot, he wanted it back. Thirty-seven years on, Shah senior is long gone, the piece of land is now valued at Rs 100 crore and houses the ashram’s women’s unit. “He played on my father’s emotion to part with the land through a gift deed. But we pay revenue and tax on the land even today and are fighting a case to get it back,” Shah junior says.
This, investigators allege, is just one of several examples of the fraud the godman and his associates are accused of.
Asaram, according to investigators, controls his empire through 400-odd trusts, of which the two most important ones-Sant Shri Asaramji Ashram Trust and Sant Shri Asaramji Mahila Utthan Trust-are run from Ahmedabad. Investigators and the documents seized from Sewani’s apartment indicate huge amounts of money came into the ashrams’ coffers also from the sale of merchandise including magazines, prayer books and CDs; ayurvedic products such as soaps, incense and oils; donations by devotees; and farming on land acquired or often usurped by the ashram.
A lot of this money, earned by legitimate means, was meant to be reinvested in ashrams or in the welfare of devotees and residents. But investigators allege that large sums of money were instead used to fund dubious land deals and a massive money-lending racket in which cash was loaned at exorbitant interest rates.
Insiders allege that ashram authorities manipulated records to avoid paying taxes. “The annual contract with an Ahmedabad firm, for packaging products marketed by the ashrams, was worth Rs 350 crore,” says Surat CP Rakesh Asthana . “Imagine the actual turnover.”
Until Asaram’s arrest in 2013, two magazines published by his ashram-Rushiprasad, a monthly in several languages, and a fortnightly Lok Kalyan Setu-sold more than 1.4 million copies every month, netting around Rs 10 crore annually, police say. The bigger grosser was said to be the 50-odd satsang discourses delivered to followers-each two- or three-day talk reportedly netted Rs 1 crore through sales of associated products-and what Asaram received from the organisers. The biggest money spinners were reported to be three or four annual Gurupurnima functions, during which Asaram’s organisation was said to receive donations worth crores.
“For him, every activity was a money-making activity-be it bhandaras meant to distribute free food to the poor, relief work during natural calamities such as floods, or even gau seva (cow welfare). In fact, the figure of Rs 1,650 crore (extended in loans) seems small; I wouldn’t have been surprised had it been even Rs 5,000 crore,” says Rahul Sachan, a key Asaram aide until he parted ways with the ‘guru’ a decade ago and who is now a witness in the Asaram rape case.
People close to Asaram say anything between 10 and 20 bhandaras were held every year, fetching Rs 150 crore to Rs 200 crore in donation. As against that, the money spent on preparing the food and distributing it was minuscule. Showcasing his intricately linked business model, the donation for these programmes were collected through 11,000 Yog Vedant Seva Samitis that Asaram had set up across the country, and the publicity for the collection of donations was done through his magazines.
The inner circle
Although still under the scanner, Prah­lad Sewani insists that he was not personally involved in shady dealings orchestrated from Asaram’s ashram. The builder has told police that he had merely handed over the keys to his flat following “urgent summons” from Asaram’s ashram in Motera, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, when Narayan Sai was on the run. Sewani claims a circle of Asaram’s closest followers, fearing a large-scale crackdown, moved the documents, hard disks and computer CPU to his CG Road apartment in an attempt to keep them away from the police.
Seizure of the documents during the raid prompted a frenetic response, with ashram functionaries allegedly attempting to bribe police officers involved in the investigations.
Early in 2014, a senior Surat police officer was allegedly promised Rs 100 crore to help switch the documents and hardware, then in police custody, and render other favours. When this failed, ashram associates are said to have managed to lure an inspector, C. Kumbhani, associated with the probe, to make further inroads. Surat Police Commissioner Asthana’s reader, Abdul Rahman Zabha, an officer widely respected for his integrity, was approached with a similar proposition. The police then used Zabha as bait, and Kumbhani and Uday Sanghani, an old associate of Asaram, were arrested in a subsequent entrapment operation on charges of delivering bribe money to Zabha. Sanghani was allegedly key to the conspiracy aimed to bribe police officers.

Narayan Sai being taken to jail by the police in Surat.
Following Sanghani’s interrogation, Rs 8 crore was recovered in raids across the city. Sanghani, officials say, had revealed that the cash was to be used to bribe junior police, judicial and medical officers associated with investigations into the charges of rape against Narayan Sai and his father.
Income tax officials tracking Asaram’s wealth say the probe has been somewhat stymied by the unexplained disappearance of Kaushik Popatlal Wani. Acknowledged as the brains behind Asaram’s rapidly expanding financial empire, the 45-year-old from Nagpur, who has spent most of his adult life alongside Asaram, went missing in November 2013. This was shortly after the raid on Sewani’s apartment.
Investigators say questioning Wani is crucial to the probe. A computer expert known for his business and marketing skills, Wani is said to have had the final word on most of Asaram’s financial dealings-from endorsing borrowers for loans to finalising land deals. He is said to be gifted with a photographic memory, and Rahman Zabha believes he “possesses intricate details of deals that even Asaram may not be fully aware of”. Officers say Asaram trusted Wani implicitly-so much so that their close relationship is said to have been the cause of many differences and misunderstandings between Narayan Sai and his father.
The documents seized show that Wani helped Asaram in real estate investments through sharply structured deals based on a common modus operandi: he would look for joint deals with followers and then loan them money to buy particular pieces. He would then allegedly fix a deadline for the land to be sold and bring in a preset price-if it could not fetch that money due to fluctuation in rates or for some other reason, he would charge the follower only bank interest on the money. But if it did manage to sell at the fixed price or over it, the follower had to share 50 per cent of the profit.
Shortly after Narayan Sai’s arrest in December 2013, Wani allegedly handed Sanghani a handwritten note. In it, he is said to have directed the manager of the Surat ashram, Rupabhai, to organise cash for bribes to Surat police, medical and judicial officers. Police say the money was arranged through Ketan Patel, the owner of Sahaj, a Surat-based chain of grocery stores. While the police apprehended Rupabhai and Patel, Wani hasn’t been seen or heard of since.
It’s been a long pursuit for the police, and an equally long wait for the IT and ED officers to join the dots. Not just the charges of rape and assault, the Godman will have to also defend himself against charges that have clouded the forecast for Asaram Inc, whose tentacles spread far and wide.

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