When did Gumnami Baba, the reclusive sadhu touted by many to be Subhas Chandra Bose, appear in Ayodhya? Was it in the early 1970s as is suggested by those who claim he was Netaji? Or did he live there even in the late 1950s, when he was known as ‘Kaptan Baba’? If so, what made Kaptan Baba vanish for over a decade before re-emerging as Gumnami Baba?

These questions seem to have been the plank on which rested an investigation into unearthing the identity of Gumnami Baba after his death on September 16, 1985. The search was abandoned a few months later. But its lost thread may provide an important lead for the one-man commission of enquiry set up by the Uttar Pradesh government under retired judge Vishnu Sahai in June this year.

“The identity of Gumnami Baba continues to remain a mystery… And sources in the police said they were investigating whether it was KD Upadhyay [known as Kaptan Baba] who was hiding in the guise of Netaji,” said a report in the Lucknow edition of Hindi daily Amrit Prabhat on November 8, 1985. “The government, however, has not made any formal announcement in this regard.”

An investigation by Scroll.in has found that there is more to the Netaji-turned-Gumnami Baba theory than what has been circulated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party and a section of the media.

KD Upadhyay, aka Kaptan Baba

The rumour first started doing the rounds over a month after the sadhu’s death in the servant’s quarter of a BJP leader’s house in Faizabad city near Ayodhya in 1985. It took a serious turn on October 28 that year when a local Hindi daily, Naye Log, published a lead story claiming the sadhu was actually Netaji in disguise.

A different version of Gumnami Baba’s identity, however, emerged soon after. On November 2, 1985, Janmorcha, another Hindi paper in Faizabad, received an anonymous letter claiming “the name of the Baba, who is being projected as Netaji, was KD Upadhyay, who had disappeared after killing Pandit Brahmadev in a meeting at Gayatri Bhawan”. It went on to say that Upadhyay was also known as Kaptan Baba, that he lived in a temple in Ayodhya, and that before disappearing, he had left his personal belongings on the banks of the Saryu river to give the impression that he had committed suicide. Janmorcha published a single-column item on the letter and its content in its edition the next day.

But only a half-hearted effort seems to have been made by the local administration to follow this lead back then.

And now, three decades later, there are ample indicators to suggest the claim in the anonymous letter was not entirely baseless.

A killer in hiding?  

One such pointer in this direction is the autobiography of Suryanarayan Mishra, the brother of Pandit Brahmadev Shastri, which carries important details of the murder in 1958. According to the book, Meri Jeevani (published in 1967), Upadhyay and Shastri were on the board of trustees that managed the Gayatri Brahmacharyashram Sanskrit Vidyalaya in Ayodhya and had a running feud over a financial matter. Shastri was killed on October 10, 1958, just as a meeting of the board was coming to an end.

“The murder took place in full public view in the evening of that day, when the trustees were holding a meeting in the open space in front of the Hanuman temple (at the centre of the school),” Pandit Ramabhilash Mishra, the temple priest and the lone surviving witness, told Scroll.in.

“Krishna Dutt Upadhyay, who was not present at the meeting, suddenly appeared from behind the temple with a rifle in his hand and shot at Brahmadev Shastri, who died instantly,” Ramabhilash Mishra, who is close to 100 years old now, said. “Kaptan Baba (as Upadhyay was called) was never seen after that day.”

Suggesting a link between Upadhyay and Gumnami Baba, the anonymous letter received by Janmorcha claimed, “Upadhyaya fled to Nepal following the killing incident. After some time, he started living in Basti.”

According to Gumnami Baba’s followers, the sadhu also came to Ayodhya from Basti, a town in Uttar Pradesh. After staying in several places in Ayodhya, he moved to Faizabad and lived the rest of his days in the servant’s quarter of Ram Bhawan, the home of the BJP leader.

Indu Kumar Pande, who was district magistrate of Faizabad between 1985 and 1986, said, “There was a rumour that he (Gumnami Baba) had killed somebody and was in hiding. We tried to establish his identity. But the investigation was closed after the Allahabad high court took over the matter following a plea by Netaji’s niece (Lalita Bose) seeking preservation of Gumnami Baba’s possessions.”

Mutual friends

There is one more fact that hints at Gumnami Baba and Upadhyay being the same person.

According to Suryanarayan Mishra’s autobiography, Upadhyay had a few wealthy friends who were regular donors to the school. Seth Ishwardas Beni Prasad, a Kolkata-based businessman, was apparently the most regular and the closest to Upadhyay. Upadhyay had, in fact, had Prasad’s name engraved on a stone slab above the main gate of the on-campus temple. The slab remains to this day.

Later, Prasad emerged as a prominent well-wisher of Gumnami Baba and was in constant touch with him, a fact confirmed by Laxmi Mishra, the wife of Dr RP Mishra, a retired civil surgeon of the district hospital. The couple were among the sadhu’s closest aides, serving him for almost a decade from 1975 till his death in 1985. It was the surgeon who arranged for his stay at Ram Bhawan and helped him move from Ayodhya.

RP Mishra could not answer this reporter’s question because of ill health, but his wife said she remembered everything related to Gumnami Baba.

“Seth Ishwardas Beni Prasad never visited Faizabad, but he often travelled from Kolkata to Varanasi, where Dr Mishra would meet him at Gumnami Baba’s behest,” she said.

“The meetings were held at regular intervals, but I don’t know what transpired between them or whether Dr Mishra brought some kind of financial help from him [Prasad] for Gumnami Baba,” she added.

For now, an unbiased investigation to fix the real identity of the mysterious Gumnami Baba – one that is free from the interference of those bent on establishing that the sadhu of Faizabad is none other than freedom fighter – will go a long way in solving one of India’s greatest mysteries.