Will this God town turn into ghostville?

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At stake are cash-rich trusts and properties spread across continents, as is the fate of Puttaparthi itself.  Sai Manish on life after Sai Baba’s death

Spiritual guide Trustees are hopeful that Sai Baba’s aura will keep luring devotees to Puttaparthi
Spiritual guide Trustees are hopeful that Sai Baba’s aura will keep luring devotees to Puttaparthi
Photo: AFP

LONG BEFORE the advent of IPL, the who’s who of cricket got together to play in the middle of nowhere. In 1997, two devotees of Sathya Sai Baba — Sunil Gavaskar and West Indian Alvin Kallicharran — staged an India XI vs World XI match on a hilltop stadium in Puttaparthi with the then prime minister IK Gujral and the godman in attendance.

Sachin Tendulkar’s men thrashed the Arjuna Ranatunga-led World XI but the result did not matter. What came next left the spectators, including Zaheer Abbas, Hanif Mohammad and Clive Lloyd, stunned — a 20 kg trophy made of gold, so heavy that it had to be brought on a cart. It was an open primer on the economics of spirituality, not to be found in the hardbound editions of Marx or Samuelson.

Since then, Sai Baba’s influence has multiplied — both monetarily and spiritually. His trust owns a university, multispeciality hospitals in Puttaparthi and Bengaluru, an airstrip, a planetarium, thousands of medical missions across the world, prime properties worth hundreds of crores across India, schools in every continent from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to Ndola in Zambia to Manakau on the northern tip of New Zealand, gold and silver deposits close to a tonne, plenty of cash and so on.

Baba has left behind a fortune that has never been under the lens of India’s tax authorities and is estimated to be worth Rs 1.5 lakh crore by conservative estimates without factoring in the many sub-trusts that are affiliated to the central trust

Adding the donations received by the sub-trusts, the entire worth of the central trust could be almost double that figure, even though numbers available with the home ministry state that the central trust received just Rs 56.94 crore in 2008-09. With that kind of fortune and a following that includes heads of state, tycoons, sports stars and legal luminaries, there is a lot at stake in the abode of Sai Baba.

The succession riddle must be solved quickly precisely to secure the fate of billions of dollars accumulated by the central trust during Sai Baba’s lifetime. And the biggest mystery now is over the existence of a will signed by the godman.

Sources at Prasanthi Nilayam, the main ashram, claim that Sai Baba’s personal assistant Satyajit is the only one who knows about the will. He is believed to have discussed with a prominent trustee the legal implications before making the will public. Rumour has it that the will entrusts Satyajit with substantial control over the trust. Having come to the ashram as an orphan at the age of five, Satyajit impressed the godman with his single-mindedness and dedication, rising up the ranks to enter Baba’s inner circle.

Dissenting voices claim that Satyajit’s men have been spreading rumours of his being the chosen one and say there was no word of any will written by Baba. “When Baba himself said he will live till the age of 96 before being reborn, where is the question of a will?” asks a source in the central trust on condition of anonymity. “Satyajit’s followers are cooking up stories. I can assure you there is no will.”

Critics have been fuming at Satyajit for hogging the limelight during Baba’s funeral and the secrecy he enforced when Baba was in hospital. Even inside the central hall of Prasanthi Nilayam where Sai Baba was buried, Satyajit exercised total control on who could enter the inner circle to pay their last respects.

An open letter circulating in Puttaparthi written by Prof Shyam Sundar, an old-time devotee, makes outrageous claims, including accusing Satyajit of feeding the Baba an overdose of sleeping pills that resulted in multi-organ failure.

These letters are compounded by Baba’s family claiming that they were not allowed to even see the ailing godman. “We are being pushed out of the ashram by security personnel. Some vested interests are not even letting us pay our last respects to Baba,” says Janaki, the granddaughter of Baba’s sister.

If Satyajit produces a will, things will heat up in Puttaparthi. The other contender — Baba’s nephew J Ratnakar — is considered to be a novice even by the trustees even though he has the powers to sign cheques on behalf of the trust. A businessman who controls the cable network in Puttaparthi, Ratnakar does not find favour with many trustees including retired IAS officer K Chakravarthi, who is known to wield enormous influence in the trust.

However, the dark horse who has been as proactive as Satyajit in handling the affairs of Baba’s funeral is Andhra Pradesh Industries Minister J Geeta Reddy. A noncontroversial Dalit leader belonging to the Mala community from the Zaheerabad constituency, Reddy claims to have been inducted into politics by Rajiv Gandhi when she was a successful gynaecologist. She was reportedly upset at not being allowed by Satyajit to see Baba when he was in the intensive care unit.

A miffed Reddy reportedly rushed back to Hyderabad and complained to Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy on 14 April. She floated the idea of invoking the provisions of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1959, to effect a takeover of the trust by the Andhra Pradesh government. However, the chief minister scoffed at the thought. “There is no question of that (a takeover) yet. Everything will be done as per the wishes of Baba and the government will not intervene in the matters of the trust,” the chief minister later told TEHELKA. Geeta Reddy has since been campaigning in Puttaparthi to make her presence felt.

Satyajit, one of those vying to control the trust, has been accused of feeding sleeping pills to the godman

SAI BABA used to advise many foreigners who came calling to donate extraordinary amounts. One of them was Issac Tigrett, the founder-creator of Hard Rock Cafe. Tigrett donated half the proceeds of the sale of the franchise, totalling more than $100 million, and came to Puttaparthi in search of spiritual awakening. Sai Baba advised Tigrett to open a retreat modelled on Auroville. He launched a project in Coorg named The Mystic Inn of the 7th Ray, which is still a work in progress. Now with Baba’s demise, there are question marks over the future of such projects.

Foreigners prefer to give to Baba’s trust because such donations are not taxed and they can see the impact of their money on the ground. “It is better than stashing away millions in Cayman Islands or Switzerland. You don’t pay tax and end up helping the needy,” says Nir Floretti, an Italian chef who came to pay his last respects.

On a much more micro level, the town of Puttaparthi now faces the prospect of fading into oblivion. Sources close to some trustees told TEHELKA that one of the main reasons for burying Baba in the central hall of Prasanthi Nilayam rather than cremating him was to keep his aura alive. “Devotees can feel his presence that way and they will continue to come. Without devotees, this god town will turn into a ghost town,” warns Prasanna, a hotel owner in Puttaparthi.

Perhaps for the first time in their lives, a sense of fear runs through the townfolk about the hardships of life that would follow Baba’s death. Despite the spiritual legacy, it is worldly matters that have been troubling lakhs of devotees who have already been devastated by the death of their beloved guru.

Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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