On July 3, Rekha Jatav, a resident of Garhi Tamana village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district, had a close shave. Half an hour after she left the venue hosting a congregation of spiritual leader Bhole Baba, a stampede resulted in the death of more than 120 devotees. The vast majority of the dead were women. Many, like Rekha, belonged to the Jatav Dalit community.

“When I left the venue around 2 pm, nothing had happened,” the 55-year-old woman told Scroll. “But while waiting for my bus, I heard that some women had fainted and a child had died due to some mishap. On my way back, I saw several ambulances going towards the venue.”

Rekha Jatav had travelled 40 km with around 20 other women of her neighbourhood to attend the satsang in Fulrai. A day after the stampede, she discovered that three of her acquaintances from the nearby Sokhana village had died in the tragedy. All three belonged to the Jatav Dalit community.

The spiritual leader Bhole Baba, also known as Narayan Sakar Hari among his followers, hails from the same community. His original name is Suraj Pal and he used to work as a constable in the Uttar Pradesh Police. After taking voluntary retirement in the 1990s, he started to hold satsangs in and around his hometown of Kasganj in western Uttar Pradesh.

Several of his devotees said that he gained a massive following over two decades, especially among the Dalits of Etah, Hathras, Bulandshahr, Aligarh and Khurja districts of Uttar Pradesh, and in parts of neighbouring Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

They attributed his popularity to his miraculous powers to heal ailments. Many cited an incident dating back to 2000, when Pal took the body of a dead girl from her family, claiming that he would bring her back to life. Although he was arrested under sections of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Act, this episode helped him gain popularity.

“His following increased and so did his fame,” said Dipesh Bharadwaj, a journalist who lives and works in Hathras. “People started coming from everywhere hoping to get their problems resolved.”

Academics say there are more fundamental reasons why spiritual leaders from Dalit families have acquired huge followings in their communities. Caste-based Hinduism has a history of discriminating against Dalits. As a result, many Dalits who are alienated from mainstream religion yet in search of spiritual succour gravitate to spaces where they can find solace and kinship.

For many Dalit rights activists, this growing religiosity is a matter of concern: they believe it opens the door for Hindutva and dilutes the support for a more radical anti-caste politics.

The cult of Bhole Baba

The Hathras congregation was attended by more than 2.5 lakh people, although the authorities had given permission for a gathering of only 80,000.

According to the police first information report, the stampede occurred at the end of the event when a group of followers surged forward to collect dust from the path on which Pal left the venue.

Devotees said it was a common feature at the satsangs for followers to collect dust touched by Pal in the belief that it had healing powers.

Rekha Jatav, who has been a regular at Pal’s congregations for more than 18 years, claims that her chronic migraines got cured after she started attending the congregations.

“I could not sleep at night due to headaches,” she said. She would carry medicines to the satsangs until a woman sitting next to her told her medicines were not allowed at the venue. “Then baba also told me to stop taking medicines and attend satsangs instead,” she said. “Since then I have never had headaches.”

Indravati (in red saree) is one of the victims from Sokhana village. (Photo: Special arrangement)

Jatav’s neighbour Meenu, also a Dalit woman in her 60s, credited Pal for the marriages of two of her daughters. “We had been trying to get my daughters married for years but some or the other problem would come up,” Meenu said. “After I started going for the satsang in 2015, both of them got married in the space of four years.”

The Hathras stampede has not diminished Pal’s popularity among large sections of his followers. Ramdas, a resident of Choncha Bangaon village of Etah district, lost his 60-year-old wife Chandraprabha in Wednesday’s tragedy. But he did not blame Pal for it.

“The satsangs have been happening for several years, nothing ever happened,” Ramdas told Scroll. “The stampede took place after baba left the venue. It is not his responsibility if something happened after he left.”

Pal has not been named in the first information report filed by the police after the stampede. Bharadwaj, the journalist in Hathras, said this was because the government feared a backlash from the spiritual leader’s followers.

Ramdas said what set Pal apart from other spiritual leaders was that he had never asked for donations at his satsangs. “There is no donation box and no photos of any god,” he said. Other followers spoke appreciatively about Pal’s teachings – he preached about the importance of being kind and truthful and not having vices.

Chandraprabha of Choncha Bangaon village is one of the victims. (Photo: Special arrangement)

An alternative religiosity

Pal’s popularity reflects the eagerness of Dalits to claim an alternative religiosity, said Yogesh Snehi, a professor at the School of Liberal Studies in Delhi’s Ambedkar University.

Snehi drew a parallel between Pal and the numerous lower-caste religious leaders in Punjab and Haryana who head congregations called deras, which also have huge followings among their communities.

“Religions are not just about teachings, they are also about associations and expressions of ownership,” Snehi told Scroll. “These associations are created not just by participation, but also by the functioning of a religion. Who is the priest? Who manages the shrine? Dalits do not feature in these roles in [mainstream] Hinduism or Sikhism.”

Dalit womens’ rights activist Asha Kowtal, who has worked with the community for several years in Uttar Pradesh, agreed that a “sense of kinship” forms among followers of spiritual leaders like Pal.

“The feeling of kinship is often stronger among women because they suffer from insecurities and are discriminated against even in their homes,” Kowtal said. “So they seek a space where they feel seen and their problems are heard.”

At conflict with anti-caste politics?

But many Dalit rights activists are troubled by the belief systems spawned by figures like Pal. They say that these spiritual leaders come to be seen as so-called godmen or even incarnations of Hindu deities, which undermines the radical politics of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution who belonged to the Dalit community.

“There is conflict between Babasaheb’s [Ambedkar] teachings and the craze for the likes of Bhole Baba,” said Sushma Jatav, the Hathras district head of the Azad Samaj Party, which represents Dalit interests. “Babasaheb asked Dalits to follow Buddhism, but even Budhha said in his teachings that he was not an emancipator. Nobody can claim to be that.”

Rights activist Asha Kowtal said that the rituals prescribed by spiritual leaders like Pal are often “sanskritised practices that have dotted line linkages with Hinduism”.

For example, the term Bhole Baba itself is associated in Hinduism with the deity Shiva. After the Hathras stampede, a woman claiming to be Pal’s sister told a news reporter that she had seen Shiva appearing on the tip of Pal's finger.

Some of his followers also consider Pal to be an incarnation of another Hindu deity Krishna. Pal’s wife, who attends the congregations along with him, is often referred to by the followers as Laxmi, the Hindu deity of wealth and prosperity.

“It suits the interests of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party if Dalits start adopting practices that are within the framework of Hinduism,” Kowtal said. “That weakens the strength of Bahujan politics.”

Rajasthan-based Dalit activist Bhanwar Meghwanshi said that spiritual leaders provide a space for Dalits who are ostracised from organised religions, only to use their influence to peddle soft Hindutva.

Meghwanshi cited the example of Baba Nanak Das, a religious preacher based in Nagaur district of Rajasthan, who was vying for a BJP ticket in last year’s Rajasthan Assembly elections. Das built his following by taking control of a mutt in Nagaur dedicated to 15th-century saint-poet Kabir, Meghwanshi said. “But I have never seen him talk about Kabir’s ideals in his congregations.”

Meghwanshi added: “Ultimately these babas create ground for Brahminical traditions among lower caste groups. This takes them away from the Shramana traditions, which have a long lineage of thinkers, from [ancient materialist philosopher] Charvaka to Ambedkar who talk about the importance of lived experiences over rituals.”

Some academics, however, contested the view that the popularity of Pal is in conflict with anti-caste politics. Reverence for Ambedkar and spiritual leaders could co-exist among Dalits, said Surinder S Jodhka, professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“People might go to such babas to get their everyday problems resolved, like having a male child or getting a relative de-addicted,” Jodhka said.

He added: “In many places in Punjab, there are photos of Ambedkar inside the dera itself.”

Sushma Jatav of the Azad Samaj Party summed it up: “Babas come and go, but Babasaheb has stood the test of time.”