A God Accused


From: http://www.india-today.com/itoday/20001204/cover4.shtml

Allegations of sexual molestation continue to dog Sai Baba during the 75th anniversary celebrations. But will they stick?

By Vijay Jung Thapa with Lavina Melwani in New York, Syed Zubair Ahmed in London and with Arthur J. Pais in San Francisco

Alllegations and their status

Shadow play

What happens when faith shatters? For the former devotees of Sathya Sai Baba, it's as if in an instant they have lost their god forever. It is a devastating experience that transports them from promised moksha to a private hell. A disillusionment that has three stages-denial, grief and outrage. In the end the anger, they say, pervades everything. Today, a small but growing number of devotees-both foreign and Indian-all settled abroad, are rallying in anger, alleging that their divine avatar is nothing more than a sexual abuser of boys and young men.

One of them is Jeff Young, an American who was till recently president of the Sai Baba Organisation in the south-central region of the US. He alleges that his son Sam was sexually molested by the godman from 1977 (when Sam was 16) to the summer of 1999-an allegation that was first carried in The Daily Telegraph of London. When contacted by INDIA TODAY, Young confirmed the charges. "The sexual abuse included Baba grabbing Sam's head and forcing him to give oral sex ... Baba would fondle and suck on Sam's penis and get angry because he could not get an erection. Sam said he did not like boys that way. Baba then promised to change himself into a beautiful woman and take Sam inside of him but it never happened."

For the Youngs, this was a shocking assertion initially because they had revered Baba as a god for over 20 years. They now cringe at the thought that they felt "blessed" in the belief that the godman was ministering to their son's spiritual welfare and allege that all along he was only subjecting Sam to systematic sexual abuse. In one single visit, they recall, they were given seven private interviews while Sam was called in 21 times alone.

In recent months, a litany of allegations similar to those of the Youngs has surfaced, mostly spurred by a document called The Findings that is available on the Internet. This document, written by a former British devotee, David Bailey, lists graphic allegations of sexual abuse by a number of former Baba devotees. It has acted like a catalyst for others to come out with their stories and spawned more critical websites on Baba. Hari Sampat, a software engineer in Chicago who served as a voluntary inner-security member in Baba's ashram from 1992-1995, claims: "I had heard of these paedophilic activities. I investigated them and found all of them to be true. It was then that I knew I had to expose it all."

Sampat and others like him from the UK, US, Europe and Australia have identified victims of sexual molestation by Baba and prompted them to give their accounts to the media in several countries. These increasing allegations are today being taken seriously in many western countries, leading to a rash of defections from Sai Baba groups. In Britain, following The Daily Telegraph story, Labour MP Tony Colman raised the issue in Parliament. A former home office minister Tom Sackville also took up the matter saying, "The authorities have done little so far and that is regrettable." There is a movement now to urge the British Government to issue warnings to people wanting to visit Baba's ashram.

In Australia too, The Sunday Age carried an article on Baba's sexual abuse. In Munich, Germany, Jens Sethi, a former devotee who claims he was molested, has filed a complaint in the public prosecutor's office. In Sweden, the central Sai group has closed down and so too has a school based on programmes devised by educationists at the Baba ashram in Puttaparthi. In the US, disillusioned devotees are "e-bombing" Foreign Secretary Madeleine Albright's office every day. When contacted by INDIA TODAY, a State Department official in Washington said, "Our embassy in Delhi and our consulate in Chennai have been made aware of these allegations. But this appears to be an issue for the Indian courts."

The impact of these allegations is difficult to discern within the Sai community. The majority of the devotees dismiss them. Says Sheela Kumar, an Indian devotee from the Caribbean who also teaches in a Sai Bal Vikas: "Every avatar has enemies. Even Christ had enemies. What Baba has done, no one else has. This creates jealousy." Others higher up in the Sai Baba ashram reason that these allegations have been going on since decades. Adds a senior member of the Sai Organisation: "With every criticism, Sai Baba becomes more and more triumphant."

The coterie that surrounds Baba attacks the molestation charges in two ways. One, by simply denouncing the whole thing as an "anti-Hindu" attack-especially since most of those making the charges are foreigners. And two, by preaching that everything Baba does is a "teaching." Even if he is doing something that looks immoral or wrong, they claim, he is doing it because of a purpose and so cannot be questioned.

The devotees are also countering the Internet war on two fronts. First, everybody is encouraged to shun the Internet. Explains Hal Honig, a senior Sai official in New York: "Swami tells us not to look at the Internet but at the inner net." And secondly, by posting sites that support Baba's teachings. One such site-The Sai Critic-urges devotees to believe only their experiences with Baba, stating, "When doubt walks in through the front door, faith walks out of the back door."

But Baba's rebels continue to raise issues even if the mud hasn't stuck, at least among the devout yet. Most of them claim there is a pattern to Baba's molestations. Usually, they add, he "chooses his victims" during his daily darshan by granting them private interviews. Alleges Keith Ord, another former devotee who now lives in Spain: "In the first interview he rubbed me against his hips ... in the second, he fondled my genitals and in the last he was more forceful and kept saying 'do you like to be close to Baba?'"

Baba, the critics allege, also frequently molests young students who study in the schools and colleges of his ashram. Says one such former student Krishna Kumar, who now works in Singapore: "Four of my classmates told me how Baba would occasionally oil their genitals." At first, most devotees believe this experience has something to do with "awakening the kundalini". Claims Sampat: "But they usually realise soon that this behaviour has nothing to do with kundalini and is pure lust." Students like Kumar allege that most people in the ashram know about these activities and the boys that Baba chooses are dubbed "in-form boys". These in-form boys, the critics add, get academic leeway and are not really expected to follow the rules of the ashram. However, the form only lasts for a month or so and then these boys are dropped by Baba and subjected to much torment by their peers. For many of these young boys, the critics point out, the "molestations" are traumatising because they can't tell their parents who are usually devotees themselves. They suffer from depression and guilt pangs of having failed their god who was only "testing" them.

As of now, there are no complaints that have been filed in India. Does that mean that most of the molestations were taking place with only westerners? Jed Geyerhahn, an American who alleges he was molested by Baba when he was 16, disagrees: "I just think the western boys are talking about it, the Indian ones aren't. The western boys have less at stake." Critics point to the sheer power of Baba in India and how his devotees are in the highest rungs of the government. It would take a lot of guts to take on Sai Baba Inc, they add.

Even among the western cases, except for one person, no one has moved court against Baba yet. Critics says this is because they know they won't have the power to summon Baba to court-the allegations pertain to Indian jurisdiction. Besides, even if a case is filed in India, to prove homosexual abuse is difficult. Criminal law experts say the offence would come under Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code that lists sodomy as an offence. However, if actual sodomy hasn't taken place, as in all these cases, then proving "an unnatural act" is very difficult.

But, in the end, most of these disillusioned devotees say they are determined to fight-to initiate some kind of legal action and keep building pressure until something snaps. Glen Meloy, who was a Baba devotee for 26 years and now mobilises victims, is more succinct. "I put Baba in the highest pinnacle. For me, he was the God of gods," he says. "Now you're talking to someone who is putting in the same devotion to expose him." But the truth may still prove elusive.