After some uncertainty and violence, Asaram Bapu is in the custody of the Jodhpur police, on a charge of rape. At least, that’s the situation as I write this. Who knows what will transpire by the time this essay sees print. But for now, he is in custody.
Now that that has happened, I remember, of all things, the tsunami of nearly nine years ago. Here’s a short recap. On December 26, 2004, a tsunami slammed into Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere around the Indian Ocean, killing over 200,000 people and leaving plenty more lives devastated. While Indonesia was by far the worst hit, over 12,000 died on the coast of Tamil Nadu, and estimates of those “displaced” in that state run to over half a million.
I travelled through coastal Tamil Nadu starting a few days after the calamity, and returned to the same areas three times over the next year. The devastation was something to behold. In desolate Akkarapettai, outside Nagapattinam, we joined a solitary crew of volunteers that was cremating bodies strewn over a vast area. In just walking around we found we were stumbling over them all the time: entangled in weeds, spreadeagled face down on the sand, one stuffed in a carton.
In Bommayapalayam, a colony of fishermen north of Pondicherry, every single house was damaged or destroyed. A man called Thirumurugan told us about the coming of the wave that morning. In doing so, he used, of all things, the Tamil word for “fire”, telling us that the water was the colour of fire.
The unexpected description said plenty about the havoc it had brought to that little community. In the pristine white shrine at Vailankanni, we saw a board filled with grotesque no other word fits photos of some 800 people who were killed in a matter of seconds there. Mostly pilgrims, the priest told us.
When they first sighted the massive wave, these pilgrims just stood on the shore “laughing” and pointing at it. Massive turned to monstrous, then they turned and ran. But it was too late. Most died in a mess of twisted debris and girders from the innumerable little shops that stood between the beach and the shrine, still being cleared when we visited.
Something to behold, truly. It was hard to come up with words to describe this gargantuan tragedy, difficult to explain and comprehend the natural forces that would produce that enormous wall of water.
Yet some people did find explanations. Loathsome explanations, at that. The first one I remember noticing came from a Christian evangelist in Sri Lanka: “I pray that this terrible, terrible tragedy might be used by God to break through into the lives of many of our people”.
An Indian colleague put it this way: “We pray that as our workers demonstrate God’s love to [tsunami victims], many of them will come to know for the first time that real security comes only through Him.” Repellent, nauseating insinuations both even nine years later, it turns my stomach to merely repeat them that god “used” this tragedy to attract people to his fold. I know little about gods, but I believe men like these know zero about humanity and must be, at the very least, publicly shamed for such statements.
But back in 2004, they were soon matched by a columnist who wrote these lines: “Is something supernatural happening?
The devastation by the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, could it be a caveat from Up There about the atrocities being visited on the Kanchi Acharya? About adharma gaining ground?” This sentiment was underlined by a group that supports the Acharya, which sent email to its members drawing connections between his arrest and the catastrophe: “God has given a strong signal with this disaster … the injustice to Dharmic followers have crossed the tolerance limit.”
The tsunami, the email suggested, should be a warning to “the Tamil Nadu Administration and … the media to stop abusing their powers and bring[ing] out false charges against HH.”
All because in November that year, just over a month before the tsunami, the Kanchi Acharya, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, was arrested in a murder case.
This is not the place for a discussion of the case, nor of what has happened to it in these years. Nor am I interested in a discussion about how widely revered the Kanchi Acharya is. My sole point is about one substantial chunk of the reactions to the Acharya’s arrest: that divine retribution for it came to Tamil Nadu, in the form of a huge wave that killed thousands. There is something profoundly revolting about this suggestion.
Today, I know quite well how revered Asaram Bapu is.
Which is why I remember the tsunami and wonder: will his supporters attribute some future tragedy floods, a train crash, drought, who knows? to divine retribution for his arrest? By itself, widespread reverence is not and must never be protection against allegations of criminal behaviour.
Nor can it mean an automatic presumption of innocence.
After all, history is filled with examples of revered men and women of every faith popes to priests to godmen who were accused of every kind of crime rapes to paedophilia to murder. That they were venerated did not prevent them from committing these crimes. That they were disgraced or punished as they had to be did not bring fire and brimstone, or tsunamis for that matter, on the rest of our heads. The simple lesson, if we want to take it, is about justice.
Allegations of crimes must be investigated. The innocent, whoever they are, must be released. The guilty, whoever they are, must be punished. Period.
Justice like that overrides reverence. Every time.
The author lives in Bombay and writes so he can keep his cats Cleo and Aziz fed.