x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Indian inquiry into guru's empire

India Dispatch: An unholy row has errupted around one of India's most venerated Yoga gurus as his 11 billion rupee business empire is under investigation amid allegations of corruption.

Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev addressses his followers at his ashram Pitanjali Yogpeeth in Haridwar. AFP
Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev addressses his followers at his ashram Pitanjali Yogpeeth in Haridwar. AFP

MUMBAI // Indian authorities this week launched an investigation into the financial dealings of an 11 billion-rupee (Dh903.6 million) business empire controlled by a saffron-robed yoga guru venerated as a demigod by millions of Hindus.

Swami Ramdev, who claims to have the power to heal "incurable diseases" through yogic practices, controls more than 200 businesses, including religious broadcasting, a university dedicated to yoga teaching and a pharmaceutical company producing Ayurvedic medicine and herbal products.

His sprawling yoga and wellness resort, located in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, can accommodate up to 6,000 people who pay 11,000 rupees (Dh903) for an ordinary annual membership and 250,000 rupees (Dh20,527) for a reserved. His assets include prime property in India worth 10bn rupees and a £2 million (Dh12m) Scottish island, all gifted by a legion of loyal devotees.

India's central bureau of investigation (CBI) has not levelled any specific charges against the guru, who is recognised by his jet-black ponytail and bushy beard. The agency declined to officially comment about the investigation, but in an off-the-record interview, a spokesman said officials were examining the trail of cash donations to Mr Ramdev's religious trust "to check for illegal amassing of wealth and possible tax evasion". He said the CBI had made no headway in the investigation so far.

The guru's supporters accuse the government of a vicious "witch hunt" for orchestrating an anti-graft campaign last week that attracted thousands of passionate supporters. Mr Ramdev publicly went on a hunger strike in New Delhi, demanding the introduction of reforms to end government corruption.

The strike was said to have embarrassed the Congress-led government battling corruption scandals. Mr Ramdev was forced to end his strike after his gathering of supporters was dispersed by police in a midnight crackdown.

But the CBI spokesman insists the investigation has nothing to do with Mr Ramdev's agitation.

The guru's meteoric rise from virtual anonymity - he was raised by illiterate parents in a scruffy village in the northern state of Haryana - has also invited calls for scrutiny by members of his own fraternity.

"Ramdev has a lot of land and assets worth billions of rupees," said Swami Adhokshjanand Tirtha, a well-known spiritual leader. "Where did this money come from? This should be probed well."

For centuries, India has been the salvation destination for spiritual seekers worldwide. As India's economy has accelerated, the market for redemption has grown into a multibillion-rupee industry. Several television channels in India beam religious programming. Hundreds of spa and yoga resorts offering meditation and alternate healing therapies dot the country.

Most of them are governed by well-endowed religious trusts controlled by powerful gurus.

But they lack transparency, as most of them do not publicly disclose their sources of income, and their financial dealings are conducted behind an iron veil of secrecy.

This year, Asaram Bapu - a popular Indian who controls a religious trust worth 5bn rupees - was accused of involvement in a sex scandal after a sting operation by a TV news channel. His trust, it was later discovered, had defaulted on income tax payments worth 21.5m rupees.

Mr Ramdev says his empire, unlike that of other gurus, is built not just by contributions of his followers, but his own business acumen.

In April he tied up with Tetra Pak, a multinational food processing company, to package a new range of ready-to-drink health beverages. Tetra Pak invested 250m rupees to set up two package-making machines - each capable of manufacturing 32,000 units an hour - near the guru's yoga resort.

He says he is open to a government investigation.