Hathras stampede: The curious case of Bhole babas

By Deepika Sahu
On July 2, thousands of people, predominantly from disadvantaged sections of society, gathered in Hathras to listen to a ‘godman’ preach. Tragically, after the event concluded, a stampede ensued, resulting in the deaths of 121 people // Pic courtesy of The Hindu on X @the_hindu

Many years ago, I met a young man in Rishikesh who had left his home and job. He was then living with his guru. We got talking, and he told me, “I have surrendered myself to the Guru, and I don’t have to make any decisions. I live life like a flower.”

He came back to my mind after I read about the Hathras stampede at Bhole Baba’s (Surajpal Singh) congregation, which killed 121 people. Initial reports maintain that, according to police sources, more than three times the permitted number of people attended the event, and most of the victims were women. It is difficult to ignore the shoddy management by the organisers.

Across the world, we see different gurus/babas/cults having millions of followers. There’s nothing developed or developing about this phenomenon. Human emotions are universal. As much as we intellectualise and deride these followers, there’s something beyond our explanation. I have seen men and women who have earned gold medals in medicine and engineering having immense faith in babas and not doing anything without consulting them. So, it is not just the poor and underprivileged who fall into this trap of ‘babadom.’

In a world marked by deep insecurity, economic disparity, and acute social isolation, linking your life with a guru/baba probably provides some sort of comfort and belonging. When things fall apart around you, you cling to that thread with the hope that things will make a 360-degree turn. Nothing tastes like hope.

Interestingly, babas/gurus with millions of followers don’t live life on a slow track. Almost all of them are known for their flashy lifestyles, and that itself gives a larger-than-life image to these gurus. Bhole Baba loves his share of cars and perfumes. He is supposed to be very particular about hygiene and does not like to be touched by anyone.

Like many other gurus/babas, he has also claimed to be the reincarnation of many popular gods. He also claimed to possess the power to heal diseases. His claims can’t be proven scientifically, but there are enough followers to swear by his claims. This same story holds true for other babas/gurus as well.

In recent times, one has seen carefully curated materials in the form of banners, pamphlets, laser shows, and videos circulating. All to put the guru on a pedestal that no one can touch. The glitter is mistaken for the ultimate.

Even though Bhole Baba faces charges of assault, land fraud, and sexual assault, for his followers, this really does not mean much. Most of the followers see a “conspiracy” behind these charges.

Most self-styled godmen have the tacit blessings of the political establishment. In the recent case, the UP CM ordered a probe suggesting a conspiracy, but Bhole Baba’s name is missing in the FIR.

The horror stories of loss and grief are pouring in. But what will happen when this stampede moves away from the news space? Most talks are now centered on compensation packages for the lives lost.

As long as insecurity remains a part of human lives, there will always be someone to capitalise on that element of insecurity and build an empire with all the material trappings.

The larger question is: How do we negotiate with that?

(Deepika Sahu has been a journalist for 29 years and has worked with some of India’s leading media houses. She is currently independently engaged in content creation and curation. Reach out to her on Twitter: @menondeepika, Instagram: @moodydeepika, Facebook: Deepika Sahu)

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