How many evils can a parent protect their child from? By last week, Dharam Veer Singh’s* list was already too long – a self-styled godman with crores of followers, a battery of defence lawyers, murderers that disappear into shadows. Now, it includes reporters.

The death of a third witness in the criminal cases against Asaram Bapu, this time in Shahjahanpur, where Dharam Veer and his family live, had brought the media back to where it all began.

“Four different people have come here before you, asking my daughter to describe what Asaram did to her,” he said, his voice cracking. “I cannot let you be the fifth. Please.”

Singh’s two-storey house, a labyrinth of doors and staircases, was guarded at every turn by men and women in uniform. The one thing Singh could not protect his 18-year-old from, were her memories, stirred afresh every time a journalist walked in seeking a quote.

There is little about the night that Dharam Veer Singh’s daughter was sexually assaulted that has not been telecast, written about and parsed for inconsistencies. On August 15, 2013, Singh and his wife, both long time devotees of Asaram Bapu, took their daughter to his ashram in Jodhpur, for what they believed was a healing ritual.

Roshni*, who was 16 at the time, had fainted in the bathroom a week ago – and Bapu’s sevikas (female caretakers) had told her parents that she was under the influence of a “pret ka saaya”, an evil spirit. Singh and his wife, who had travelled from Shahjahanpur the same day and were too tired to leave the ashram, opted to spend the night there.

That night, as her parents slept, Roshni was called to a separate hut by Asaram Bapu, where he allegedly sexually assaulted her. In her testimony, recorded a few days after she left Jodhpur, Roshni told the police that Asaram warned her that her family would be in grave danger if she told them about what happened. As a result, she only broke her silence about the assault once they were back in Shahjahanpur.

Now, nearly two years later, the death of Kripal Singh, a witness known to the family, had driven Roshni to speak again – this time to the press: a decision her father was beginning to regret.

In old photographs that look as if they belong to a different lifetime, Dharam Veer Singh is a strapping, smiling Haryanvi man. As he spoke, he folded and refolded a handkerchief along worn out creases, pausing when he wept. It was a terrible sight – like watching an edifice collapse in slow motion. The night he learnt what happened to Roshni, he said, was the night his life came to an end. “Honour is everything. Without it, I lost my faith, my wealth, my health… everything. What you are seeing now is a dead man walking.”

Hoping for moksha

The Singhs moved to Shahjahanpur in 1990, where they built a home with the money Dharam Veer had earned from his transport company in Delhi and Ghaziabad. By 2001, they had much to be thankful for: Sunita* had given birth to two sons and a daughter, and Dharam Veer’s business was flourishing.

When they first heard of Asaram, the Singhs were looking to perform “guru seva” – or repay their debt to god for all the good fortune they had received. Like many Hindus, the Singh believed that a guru is the human equivalent of god, and if they served their guru well, they would attain that ultimate goal – freedom from the unending cycle of birth and death.

By the mid-1990s, Asaram Bapu’s teachings – a mix of bhakti, karma and jnana yoga, a generous helping of nationalism with sermons on spiritualism and “moral values”, dietary advice and pranayam tips – had won him crores of devotees. Between 1970 and 2013, Asaram’s followers had built over 400 ashrams across the world – the one in Shahjahanpur was built mostly with the funds and land provided by Dharam Veer Singh.

Asaram gave his sadhaks the opportunity to perform the kind of seva best suited to them: sharirik seva or physical service involved everything from watering plants in the ashram, to packaging and delivering books and ayurvedic products sold at the ashrams. Those with wealth, like Dharam Veer Singh, could make donations and perform financial seva. Others with fewer assets could still perform “online seva” – by blogging, tweeting, writing about Asaram, or editing videos of him to upload for sadhaks outside the country.

When Roshni entered class VII at a school in her hometown, her parents decided to send her to Asaram’s gurukul in Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh. They were convinced by the godman’s sermons that gurukul education was far more beneficial for the development of a child. While Singh’s eldest son stayed back in Shahjahanpur to help with his father’s business, and both Roshni and her younger brother were sent to the gurukul 800 kilometres away from their home.

At Chhindwara, boys and girls had separate hostels where they lived under the care of male or female attendants. Asaram had over 1,800 such bal kendras all over the country and the students at these gurukuls would see him on few occasions, like Guru Purnima, when games and rituals were organised in his honour. Roshni and her younger brother would meet each other every weekend, and the two would see their parents once a year during vacations.

“Initially, my youngest son would complain,” Singh said. “But I liked the idea of a wholesome education. Children at the gurukul woke up at 5 am, meditated, exercised. Asaram told us that Ram and Krishna had both studied in a gurukul, and that our children would grow up to be spiritual, well adjusted, successful people. I made him stay. Roshni told him it was good for both of them.”

In 2008, Roshni’s seven-year-old brother was perhaps too young to understand why his school was in the news. But his sense of unease was spot on. On July 29 and 31 of that year, two boys – Ram Krishna Yadav and Vedant Manmudhe – were discovered dead in the toilet of Chhindwara’s gurukul. They were the second pair of boys from one of Asaram’s gurukuls to turn up dead that month – the first pair had been discovered buried near the Sabarmati : burnt and missing vital organs. Just when protests against Asaram began to gather steam, a 14-year-old from the Chhindwara gurukul was apprehended for the murders.

Until August 2013, Sunita and Dharam Veer were convinced that they were on the fast track to moksha. Husband, wife and eldest son would perform seva at the ashram they helped built in Shahjahanpur, while the younger children earned karmic points at school. When Roshni fell “ill” and Asaram asked the parents to bring her to Jodhpur – the family was overjoyed. They were about to manage the one thing millions of devotees dreamt of: getting personal audience with a god.

Lonely battle for justice

The ashram at Shahjahanpur, now sealed, used to see around 200 families gather for its monthly satsang. On August 11, 2013, at one such gathering, Kripal Singh first heard about Roshni’s “pret ka saaya” from Dharam Veer. Kripal Singh and his wife Moni, both sadhaks at the ashram Dharam Veer had helped built, had lost two children before their son, Ansh, was born. Kripal Singh was relieved to hear that Bapuji would personally heal Dharam Veer’s daughter. That Sunday was the last time Kripal Singh and Dharam Veer would ever attend a satsang together.

About a week later, determined to confront Asaram once they heard their daughter’s account of what happened, Dharam Veer and Sunita left for Delhi, where Asaram was scheduled to deliver pravachan on August 18 and 19. When they were stopped at the gates – they lodged a formal complaint of sexual assault against him at the nearest police station.

Allegations of land encroachment and rumours of black magic never managed to stick to Asaram Bapu, but following national outrage over the Delhi gang-rape in December 2012, sexual assault was a different matter. Despite his attempts to evade arrest, Asaram was arrested by the police on September 2, following a long and protracted clash with his devotees outside the Jodhpur ashram.

When the Singhs returned home, the ashram they had built had been vandalised, and almost overnight sadhaks had turned hostile towards them. Singh began to receive death threats daily, and the family was placed under virtual house arrest for their own safety. A slew of campaigns alleging a political conspiracy against Asaram Bapu were unleashed online by his sevaks.

At this time, Kripal Singh was one of the few people from Shahjahanpur who stood by Dharam Veer and Sunita. An LIC agent, he would help the Singhs draft official documents required for their case or business dealings, and would show up almost every single day for tea with the family. Unknown to Dharam Veer, Kripal Singh had also joined the investigation against Asaram – his testimony said nothing against the self-styled godman, and merely established what he knew: that the two families had been devoted to Asaram, that sevikas had told the family that Roshni was unwell, that Dharam Veer and Sunita were worried and had taken her to Jodhpur to meet Asaram.

Despite this, Kripal Singh knew he was in danger. As three more women filed complaints of sexual assault against Asaram Bapu and his son Narayan Sai, witnesses were under attack. The husband of a complainant was stabbed, another witness in Surat was attacked with acid. Two men – Amrut Prajapati and Akhil Gupta – were shot by unknown assailants on bikes. Police officers investigating the case in Gujarat were warned of dire consequences. When Roshni’s school principal refused to issue a false certificate saying she was an adult, not a minor, he got a paper-wrapped bullet in his mailbox.

Dharam Veer first learnt that Singh had testified to the police, when the 35-year-old laughingly told him he was getting death threats on the phone. “Kutton ko bhaunkne do bhaiya (Let the dogs bark),” he said, when Singh told him to alert the police. “Aap lado. Aapko nyay milega (Fight. You will win).”

“A witness means far more than a friend,” Singh said, a week after Kripal Singh died on July 10, the third witness to be killed by gunmen on a bike. “A witness is someone with nothing at stake, who defends the truth simply because it is the right thing to do.”

Twenty minutes from away from Dharam Veer’s home, in Gaddiyana, Kripal Singh’s widow is four months pregnant. She says she knows nothing about Dharam Veer and his family, or her husband’s testimony in the case against Asaram. “I don’t suspect anyone, I just want the police to do their job and find my husband’s killers,” she said, surrounded by women in mourning. Moni Singh has asked the government for a job to help her raise her children, Rs 50 lakh as compensation, and a licensed firearm. Failing this, she says, she will have no option but to kill herself.

Kripal Singh's widow Moni Singh

When contacted, Asaram’s defence lawyer from Ahmedabad, BM Gupta, denied that his client had any knowledge about the murders of witnesses in the cases against him. Gupta said that contrary to the chatter on, Asaram’s official website, his client had not petitioned the court to increase security for the witnesses.

Trust and faith

On July 13, Roshni made a rare trip outside Shahjahanpur to Bareilly to address a press conference. Her face wrapped in a yellow dupatta, she told reporters she was devastated at the murder of Kripal Singh, but under no circumstances would she give up her fight against Asaram Bapu. “It is disappointing to learn that because of me people are being killed and their families have to face several hardships,” she said. “Even though the fight for justice will be long and arduous and often risky, I have decided to do it. Truth will prevail in the end.”

The last time Roshni left her home was in November 2014, to take her class XII exams from an open school. “She did alright, children don’t really study at home, you know,” her mother Sunita said with a wry smile. Roshni doesn’t go out to meet friends, but a few girls are allowed in the Singhs’ home to spend time with her.

Through our conversation, it became apparent that Sunita is the source of Roshni and Dharam Veer’s will to fight. While Dharam Veer moved from room to room like a ghost, Sunita thundered in and demanded to know what the point of journalists was, when witnesses were being murdered in broad daylight. When she simmered down, she apologised for being rude, “Haryanvi sounds harsher than it really is.”

Shortly after the Singhs registered a complaint, Sunita says she received phone calls from at least five girls who confessed Asaram Bapu had assaulted them too. They couldn’t complain because their parents were too afraid of what would follow. Sunita confronted an old friend of hers from the ashram, a sevika, and asked her how the women stood by and let Asaram exploit little girls. The friend was silent.

For now, the few families that still call themselves sadhaks of Asaram are in hiding at Shahjahanpur. The Singhs have no way of knowing where the next attack or betrayal could come from. How does Sunita keep it together, in the eye of the storm? She gestures to the panoply of idols to her right: “I pray three times a day. Whether we live or die, it will be by god’s will. The courts can decide as they see fit, the gods will give me justice in this life itself.”

* The names of the members of the Singh family – Dharam Veer, Sunita and Roshni – have been changed to protect their identities.