By Uma Sudhir
“The country talks about the Ambanis and the Tatas but I can tell you the net worth of what Sathya Sai Baba built is more than six lakh crore rupees. There are properties and establishments in 124 countries.”
When an ardent self-confessed devotee of Sathya Sai Baba volunteered this information, I didn’t know how to react. Till a few weeks ago, this would have been unthinkable, even for this devotee, I am sure. That he should be discussing the wealth and net worth of the man they considered “Bhagawan”, their living god, with an outsider, that too a mediaperson.
It is possible that the devotee was giving me a figure he knew I could not ignore, because he and many others like him are desperate for some questions to be asked, to those who seem to be taking control of the Sathya Sai Trust. I asked if it was a realistic figure he was giving me.
“You remember the 1993 incidents and the media reports then, madam. The value of immoveable assets at that time was estimated at 12000 crore rupees. You yourself can make an estimate based on escalation in real estate prices, inflation and the growth of the Sathya Sai institutions in the last decade and a half.”
Just a few days before, the country had gaped at the idea of 98 kg gold, 307 kg silver and 11.56 crore rupees being found inside Yajur Mandir, the personal living quarters of Sai Baba. If the majority were surprised at the declared inventory, some others we are told were even more surprised because they expected that much, much more should have been found.
“No one can say they know fully well what is there inside Yajur Mandir,” Saibaba’s self-professed, high-profile devotee Adikeshavulu Naidu had told me. “All visitors went only till the VIP meeting rooms. There is a private bedroom, accessible only to Saibaba and to his aide Satyajit, with biometric locks that only they could open. That has not yet been opened.”
Sure enough, two days later came the news that inside the private bedroom, another 116 kg of silver, 905 g of gold and a diamond ring valued at over three lakh rupees was found. Total worth nearly 77 lakh rupees.
High Court lawyer Pattabhi Vemulapati can’t understand why the net worth of institutions like the Sai Trust should be a matter merely of speculation and conjecture, may be even exaggeration.
“ Till now unfortunately neither government, Income-Tax department nor the director of revenue intelligence, no one has kept an eye on how much money is getting accumulated in socalled godmen institutions, whether it is Sathya Sai Baba, Ramdev or Nityanand or a Kalki, who has hundreds of crores of rupees. Ramdev is said to be worth 11000 crore rupees, how and why he has so much money, no one has asked so far. What is the government doing? Isn’t it public money? ”
The Sathya Sai Central Trust, for instance, is registered under the Endowments Act of 1976. The government admits that for the last 35 years, the Trust has enjoyed exemption from scrutiny and monitoring of their activities and also sought and got several concessions for public service programmes like drinking water, health and infrastructure.
Critics point out that the virtual immunity also flows almost automatically because the political and official patronage enjoyed at the highest level by such individuals and institutions has kept them beyond questioning and monitoring by the regulating agencies.
“From the President, to the Prime Minister and chief ministers of all states. When such high dignitaries go and touch his feet, which officer, which department can dare to pry into their affairs?” asks Pattabhi.
May be it is time to advocate some norms of behaviour and say that people in position of power and influence should associate with such godmen and institutions only in their capacity as private individuals. That they must never go to the `swamis’ in their official capacity.
Some would say you must be naive to believe that the rich man-godman connection is only about personal faith and finding answers to questions that money can’t help you with. Often there is reason to believe that it is actually an unholy nexus between the religious leaders and the rich and powerful from the world of politics and business. Some critics have likened it to an Indian Swiss Bank connection.
“There are definite allegations that Sai Trust is parking place for illegal money. The kind of activities taking place and the way the entire story is developing gives credence to this kind of allegation. As a layman, I feel something fishy is going on. The responsibility is on the Trust to prove they are not involved in this kind of parking activity, says political analyst K Nageswar. “But we can’t really say that everything is not well just after the death of Sai Baba. Operations of the Trust don’t seem to have been as per the law of the land even when Sai Baba was alive. Whether Sai Baba was involved, we can’t make those allegations.”
So whether Godman or God himself on earth, he is not exempt and has to abide by the law of the land and the Constitution, as long as he is in the human form. Isn’t that what our mythological stories and shastras tell us too? Some lessons there.