“As Asaram and Sai cool their heels in Jodhpur and Surat jails, … the Gujarat Police allege they have unearthed a string of highly lucrative illicit business ventures, all piggybacking on the unquestioning faith of millions. … On paper, the total comes to a mind-boggling 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.” – Uday Mahurkar
A murky money-lending nexus, shady land deals and clandestine conspiracies to buy police officers. 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.
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, the Gujarat Police allege they have unearthed a string of highly lucrative illicit business 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 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 suspected to be in violation of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA).
Rs 8 crore allegedly earmarked to bribe police, judicial and medical officers linked to the rape probes against Asaram and Sai.
On paper, the total comes to a mind-boggling 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.
Sai’s counsel, however, rubbishes the allegations.
“Narayan Sai and the others have been falsely implicated in the case,” Kalpesh Desai, the defence counsel in the bribery case, said, referring to the financial wrongdoing alleged by the police following seizure of what they call “highly incriminating documents”.
It all started in 2013, not long after Asaram was arrested in Indore in a rape case. Surat police were in the middle of a nationwide manhunt for Narayan Sai, who had disappeared after being accused of rape by a former devotee.
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.
Once collated, they literally blew the lid off a suspected network of deceit and crime centred around Asaram and his network of ashrams.
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 documents and data 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.
“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’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.
“We have made progress in the case and the order for attachments has been issued. The results will be in public domain soon,” he said.
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 money-lending 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 mid-sized banking setup.
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.
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.
Asaram, according to investigators, controls his empire through 400-odd trusts. 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 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 also allege that ashram authorities manipulated records to avoid paying taxes.
“For him, every activity was a money-making activity—be it bhandaras, relief work during natural calamities, 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.
Although still under the scanner, Prahlad Sewani insists he was not personally involved in the shady dealings.
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, 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.
Seizure of the documents during the raid also prompted a frenetic response, with ashram functionaries allegedly attempting to bribe police officers involved in the investigations.
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. – Mail Online India, 8 August 2015
» Uday Mahurkar is a senior journalist with India Today.