• Wednesday, July 24, 2024

INDIA

Bhole Baba: Preacher at centre of Hathras stampede

More than 250,000 people attended Tuesday’s prayer meeting Baba staged near Hathras

People stand near a poster of preacher Surajpal, also known as ‘Bhole Baba’ stuck on a board, at the stampede site in Hathras district of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, July 3, 2024. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

By: Pramod Thomas

A MASSIVE gathering addressed by an Indian policeman-turned-preacher, considered an incarnation of God by his followers, turned horribly wrong on Tuesday (2), as at least 121 people, mostly women and children, died in a stampede.

“Bhole Baba”, or the Innocent Elder, is the sobriquet of a self-styled godman who was a police constable before he turned to spirituality and became a preacher. Originally Suraj Pal Singh, he later changed his name to Narayan Sakar Hari. He is currently untraceable, and police in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where Tuesday’s tragedy occurred, said they were still trying to trace him.

Bhole Baba was a police constable in Uttar Pradesh for nearly a decade before he resigned and turned to spirituality, Sudhir Kumar, a senior police official said. The preacher is a native of Kasganj village, close to the Hathras area where the stampede took place.

He used to travel across the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, in India’s northern belt, where he has a huge following, and address gatherings, mostly on the first Tuesday of every month, local media said.

A member of India’s low-caste Dalit community, Bhole Baba’s aim was to create an ideal society, free of superstition and full of compassion, according to a hoarding erected at the site of Tuesday’s incident.

Posters and videos posted on Bhole Baba’s YouTube channel, which boasts of millions of views, show him dressed in either traditional Indian kurta tunics or pristine white suits and ties, often sporting sunglasses, a departure from the spartan image of most godmen.

Holding a microphone in hand, seated on an ornate throne and with his wife by his side, Bhole Baba is seen addressing huge gatherings of mostly women, almost all of whom are sitting on the ground, hands folded in reverence.

“Humanity was the true religion, is the true religion and will always be the true religion,” he is quoted as saying in a poster.

To protect himself from devotees who would rush to touch his feet and seek his blessings, Bhole Baba had formed a security team known as Narayani Sena, with men and women guards who would escort him to gatherings, an NDTV report said.

In several videos posted on his YouTube channel, which has more than 31,000 followers, the details of the gathering on Tuesday were given out, and devotees exhorted to attend in large numbers.

“The great Narayan Sakar Hari will manifest in person and bless devotees,” said the video, accompanied by zooming graphics with images of past gatherings.

Around 250,000 people gathered despite permission being given for only 80,000, according to the police first information report (FIR).

Two more gatherings were planned for later this month near the city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal.

Baba’s following was largely drawn from poor and socially disenfranchised caste groups including the Jatavs, who number in the tens of millions in the state.

The Jatavs belong to the bottom rungs of India’s millennia-old caste hierarchy that divides Hindus by function and social standing. By virtue of their numbers, they are an important political bloc in Uttar Pradesh.

Ram Sanai, a 65-year-old devotee present at Tuesday’s sermon, said that part of Baba’s appeal came from his admonitions against excessive alcohol consumption and advice for women facing domestic violence.

“All he says is don’t steal, don’t do wrong and stay honest,” she said. “Those who attend his events say they have then ended all negativity and problems at home.”

(Agencies)

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