Crashed godhood

As Yoga guru Baba Ramdev continues to dominate news headlines across India, J&K has forgotten Dhirendra Brahmachari. Under patronage of Indira Gandhi, the Bihari godman created a Rs 500 crore fortune before dying in a copter crash in 1994, part of which J&K government took over but failed to manage, a Kashmir Life report

Walking on streets of Srinagar barely dressed in white muslin in temperatures well below freezing fetch him people’s attention. They would remember him for a longtime.

“It would be minus 10 degrees and everybody here would be overdressed,” said Bashir Ahmad, a broadcaster. “And then we would be shocked to see Dhirendra Brahmachari in sheer white muslin strolling on the Residency Road on foot, partially nude.” Once in Russia in minus 18 degrees, he did not change his dress and claimed his body could manage the temperature. In Kashmir the godman was, for most of his life, so close to the power elite that many thought he was the power.

Son of Bambhol Choudhari of Chandpora village in Madhubani (north Bihar), Dhirendra Choudhary alias Brahmachari was a Maithali Brahman by caste. Though he never divulged his date and place of birth, he is assumed to have been born in 1925. He left his family house in his early teens in search of a guru whom he met in Faizabad (UP). His guru Maharishi Kartikeya later sent him to a Yoga teacher Haria Baba in Allahabad.

Bramchari came into contact with Nehru’s in mid sixties and was catapulted into the world of fame, power and money by Jawahar Lal Nehru, who helped him in setting up a yoga institute at Jantar Mantar Road, New Delhi besides sanctioning him an annual grant of Rs. 20,000. Though an agnostic, Nehru never had a disconnect with the godmen and godwomen (sanyasins). Author Khushwant Singh says that he was in love with an attractive tantric Shraddha Mata. Nehru’s private secretary M O Mathai even goes a step further in his scurrilous book saying she even bore him a child. Nevertheless, Dhirendra was one of the godmen whom Nehru helped to flourish.

When Indian Council for Research in Indian Medicine and Homeopathy was established Dhirendra became the chairman of the Yoga Board. His Yoga Vishwayatan Ashram was recognized as central institution and a senior Congress leader Yashpal Kapoor joined its governing body. He was a regular visitor to 1-Safadar Jang Road (Prime Minister House) during Nehru – Gandhi regime. Indira’s Yoga teacher, Brahmachari shared an efficacious relationship with her. He was also friendly with Sanjay Gandhi. He had met Indira for the first time in Pahalgam in 1966, when her son, Rajiv Gandhi, took her to the “amazing yogi who could perform the most impossible of asanas (yoga exercises)”.

New Delhi’s patronage helped Dhirendra to grow. Indira Gandhi ‘gifted’ him 1002 kanals of land at Mantalai near Chenaini, which lies on Srinagar-Jammu highway. Picturesque Mantali, lies on the foothills on Chenab banks near Sudh Mahadev, around 130 Kilometers from Jammu. Brahmachari built a palatial Ashram there with sprawling forests in the background, an airstrip with hangar and a swimming pool fed by a near-by spring. Here, he would give Yoga classes and would rare costly horses, cows and stags besides a fascinating orchard since 1971. He was dreaming to build a 22-storey 1,100-room luxury hotel, a 100-bed hospital, a private zoo, English and Sanaskrit medium school and a car parking for 10,000 vehicles. But, he could only manage a palatial Ashram with a zoo and swimming pool besides an air taxi service – Aparna Airways.

However, these were not the only assets he had created, there was a unit of his ashram in Jammu and a yoga centre in Katra. Apart from similar Ashrams in Delhi and Gurgoan, he was running the Shiva Gun Factory in Jammu. Besides a fleet of cars including Mercedes Benz, the godman had a fleet of airplanes, a 4-seater Cessna, a 19-seater Dernier and Maule-5. At a time when the Brahamachari decided to set up his Air Aparna, a air taxi service, he had three personal airstrips – one in Silokra near Palam, and three private hangars.

The Maule-5, the godman told the government, was gifted to him by America’s aircraft manufacturing company M/S Maule Aircraft Corporation on May 6, 1976. Then, the aircraft would cost US $ 40,385. The Indira government did not levy any tax on importing the aircraft to India. Later, he was charged with tax evasion.

Mantalai Ashram

The godman was running a high end studio as well in the same ashram. All of its equipment was imported – duty free. Primarily for yoga films, the studio, the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigations) discovered later, was being used for shooting yoga series for the state run Doordarshan tv and “other films”. During the raids the sleuths even found some ‘sex toys’ in the ashram.

Dr Farooq Abdullah, had a love-hate relationship with Dhirendra. The godman was considered as Indira’s stooge in J&K. As Dr Abdullah’s hate against Congress peaked, he, in November 1983, personally led a party of state policemen raiding his gun factory. They seized 500 Spanish gun barrels. Swami had to get an anticipatory bail and the threat of canceling of the gun factory licence was highlighted by newspapers. However, after some time the seized arms were returned and the licence of the factory renewed.

Later when Dr Farooq became politically closer to the Congress and entered into an alliance with Rajiv Gandhi, the two became instant friends. At one point of time, the two enjoyed a cordial relationship. Dr Abdullah would spend time in the Ashram. Photographs of Dr Abdullah with Bramachari’s young female “disciples” appeared in a number of Indian magazines at the peak of Rajiv-Farooq Accord.

In 1977 when Janta Party government led by Morarji Desai came into power, every effort was made to trap this “Indian Rasputin” but every time he mysteriously emerged unscathed.

Accused of Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) violations, possession of illegal arms, unlawfully lending Maule-5 aircraft for electioneering to Sanjay Gandhi, the JP government took over his Katra Yoga Institute while Mantalai got spared because of the technical reason that it was run by a separate trust. The construction of the helipad and airstrip at Mantalai was questioned; charges of trespass and land grabbing were leveled against him. Two years later when Indira Gandhi returned to power, Bramachari was seen stalking the corridors of power again.

After Sanjay Gandhi’s death in an air-crash, Bramchari would be found around Indira Gandhi. In fact, he was one of the select few who were asked to witness widowed Maneka Gandhi being driven out from Indira’s home. After her assassination, Rajiv did not give him much importance and skipped helping him to add to his estate. In fact V P Singh government and his successor Chandra Shekhar both wanted to book him on basis of the findings of a commission that Morarji Deasai government had set up. Though these created momentary problems, Bramachari survived. Many thought when Narasimha Rao took over as the prime minister, the yogi would return but, by then, Chandra Swami had filled the void.

But every rise has its fall. Brahmachari had acquired 100 acres of land in the vicinity of his ashram and was keen to survey it on June 9, 1994. His pilot M S Mann had tried to convince him that there were high speed winds but an adamant Brahmachari made him to take off. The microlight plane was pounded by the strong winds and it crashed against Deodar trees careening onto the airstrip while trying to land.

His death started a protracted battle for control his assets spread across India. While in Bihar and at other places, some of his “blood relations” staked the claim, it was Subash Dutt, an office bearer of the Aparna Ashram Society who staked the claim over the property in J&K. The case went to the court and in 2001 the High Court directed that since the god-man died issue-less and in absence of a will, the property would go to the state by way of escheat. Prior to the litigation, the government had asked the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB) to take over the ashram which it did on June 10, 1994.

A year later, in January 2002, the entire property was shifted again, this time to Tehsildar of Chenani. It was done, interestingly, on the “verbal directions” of the then chief minister Dr Farooq Abdullah who visited the ashram. The formal handover took place on March 17. But it was a brute operation. As many as 24 of the 45 deer died in the process being shifted out of Brahmachari’s ‘private zoo’.

The government was forced to announce a probe into the mass slaughter of the deer. It revealed that under orders from the then chief minister, a group of officials from the Wildlife department and Jammu’s Agricultural University were sent to accomplish the job. Having no knowledge of shifting the deer, they fed the animals with an over-dose of tranquilizers making them unconscious and rolled them into a truck like carcasses. Eighteen died during transportation, and six could not be revived when they reached their destination – Tanda Rakh (Udhampur).

The decision to probe followed an intense debate after Panthers Party (PP) legislator Bhim Singh, raised the issue in J&K Legislative Council. After Bramachari’s death, Singh alleged, the government has deliberately left the property worth billions to rot and get destroyed and damaged.

The government said the reasons might be the excessive use of tranquilizers and the poor health of the animals – many of whom were suffering from TB but Singh insisted that authorities literally “unleashed dogs on the animals”. He said there were a total of 41 deer. The government admitted that of the ashram owned 1002 kanals of land in four villages at the time of his death in 1994, 432 kanals were escheated to the state under various provisions. The remaining land was transferred to Tourism Department in April 1995 and later to Vaishno Devi Shrine Board on lease in June 1995. However, in January 2002, the entire property was taken back by the government.

For most of those years, the property worth hundreds of crores was “secured” by a couple of policemen that the state government had deployed. The wreckage of the aircraft was lying in the basement of a five-storey dilapidated building as back as July 2009. The air strip is worn out, orchard plundered, the zoo deserted and a number of rusting vehicles. Nobody knows that the ‘private zoo’ was having many porcupines, nilgai (blue bull), peacocks, horses and cows.

However, Singh’s queries over certain issues remained unanswered.

He told the house that during the reign of Sheikh Abdullah, Bramachari had agreed to offer a 50 kanals of land for construction of a hospital for which he had already imported equipment worth Rs 50 crore from Japan and Germany. He had also constructed a hotel that had 70 rooms. “I was pained to see everything missing. The carpets are missing, there is no medical equipment and the government is not interested,” he said. His demand for a judicial probe was lost in the din over the ashram’s tourism potential.

The Gandhi Nagar Aparna ashram (in Jammu) was taken over by the state and Food Craft Institute is being set up there. In 2008, the Mantalai ashram was handed over to the Tourism department. “We took it over from the Divisional commissioner Jammu and the property is still awaiting a decision of the government about what should be done to it,” said M Salim Beg, state’s former Director General Tourism. “

There were many ideas like setting up an air base centre, a wellness centre or simply a hotel in private-public partnership but so far no decision has been taken.” Beg said the state government stepped into the godman’s estate very late. “By then, most of the movable properties were looted by the people who were surrounding Brahamachari,” he asserted.

“We have a plan in mind but we will implement it only through public private partnership,” state’s Tourism Minister Nawang Rizin Jora told Kashmir Life. His deputy Nasir Aslam Wani said: “We want to create a wellness centre and we are looking for partners from J&K or outside.”

As the government takes its time to take a final call on the issue, the property is rotting. An official of the Patnitop Development Authority said the government has handed over the property to them a few months back. “It is destroyed, we do not have anything (there) barring the built up space and even that is shambles,” he said. The government, he said, is yet to take a decision even after two central teams visited the place, located 31 kms from Chenaini, a highway town. “Currently the property is being looking after by two of our daily-wagers.”

The gun factory, however, became a subject matter of litigation. Soon after Brahamachari’s death, Dharam Chand approached the court saying he was a partner of the godman. While Brahamachari held 87.50 percent share in the unit, Dharam owned the rest of the equity as per an agreement the two sides had signed on January 23, 1982. Interestingly, Dharam produced godman’s will before the court that he had signed literally on the eve of his death. The government that had closed the factory soon after Brahamachari’s death opposed the petition. During the arguments, it turned out that Dharam was running a unit earlier as well and he had an earlier finance agreement with the godman signed on July 4, 1968. The High Court restored the factory to Dharam Chand.

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