A court in Goa has dismissed a civil defamation suit, filed by Hindutva organisation Sanatan Sanstha, against publishing house Juggernaut Books and author Dhirendra K Jha for publishing and sale of the book Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva. The plea, moved in 2018, had sought Rs 10 crore as damages, but was rejected after proceedings on February 15.

Every morning over a hundred visitors stream in – mostly young men and women in the Sanstha’s saffron attire with a vermilion mark on their foreheads. Disciples of [Jayant Balaji] Athavale, they stay inside the ashram for the whole day with the permanent residents – who also number around a hundred – and go back to their accommodations outside the village late in the evening.

Across the road, opposite the mansion, a wide open field slopes down to a rivulet that forms the northern boundary of the village. Until recently, the land had yielded bountiful crops every agricultural season. But one day, early in the monsoon of 2008, a powerful stink arose as the logged water receded from the field.

“The smell was so foul that it soon became unbearable. The villagers came out of their houses to an appalling sight – the receded water had left behind hundreds and thousands of used condoms that covered almost the entire field, making it stink like hell,” says Basant Bhatt, the priest of the illustrious Ramnath Temple at the heart of the village. “No tiller has ever sought to clean the field and cultivate it again.”

The locals found it disgusting. Though the source of the condoms remains a mystery, the blame is firmly placed on the ashram.

The villagers probably arrived at that conclusion because Athavale and his saffron-clad followers had been marked by controversy ever since they arrived in 2002. The Sanstha had tried to construct its ashram in the neighbouring village of Parvatiwada two years before their entry into Ramnathi but the locals there were able to mount a successful resistance. “It was only after their failure in Parvatiwada that they moved on to Ramnathi, where they succeeded in setting up their ashram,” says Sheker Naik, a senior resident of Parvatiwada and a former sarpanch of the Bandora Panchayat to which both villages belong.

Many people in Ramnathi suspected the Sanatan Sanstha of being some kind of sex cult though there was no evidence of that. The condoms in the field, however, confirmed their misgivings even as the Sanstha refuted the allegations. There was, thus, already a good deal of ill-feeling when on the evening of 16 October, 2009, a few hours after a bomb blast at Madgaon, the Goa police swooped in on the Sanstha’s ashram at Ramnathi.

….The Sanstha and all of Athavale’s “independent” entities do everything to show they are a rarefied group given essentially to spiritualism. Athavale’s disciples, known as sadhaks and sadhikas, start their day at 6 am with meditation and prayers that go on for two hours, followed by a vegetarian breakfast. Then they read the Sanatan Prabhat, through which Athavale – who has been bedridden since 2013 and meets with only a small group of close aides – is known to communicate with them.

Thereafter, they perform seva in various sections of the ashram. This includes working on the publication of holy texts in Marathi, English, Hindi, Kannada and a few other languages; designing idols and pictures of deities; preparing almanacs which are published annually in eight languages; making short films on how to impart education on Dharma and how to celebrate festivals; writing for and editing the Sanatan Prabhat; managing various Sanstha-related websites; and training priests to impart the knowledge of Dharma to society.

The branding of the other outfits as “independent” is probably meant to protect Athavale in case any of them is caught red-handed and charged with illegal activity.

It is not inconceivable that Athavale has considered the legal advantage of creating a network of outfits instead of setting up branches under the aegis of a parent body. In any case, “Athavaleism” appears to be a construct that runs straight into the face of the Indian Constitution. His spiritual teachings may often appear harmless but his political teachings are far from benign. Many editions of the Sanatan Prabhat have proclaimed that the organisation aims to establish a “Hindu Rashtra” by 2023.

Its articles and headlines attack Muslims, Christians, rationalists and communists on a regular basis and dub them as evil-doers. In 2007, the Sanatan Prabhat quoted Athavale: “You feel so victorious after killing a mosquito, imagine how you would feel after killing an evil person?” On 29 February, 2008, the paper asked Athavale’s followers not to damage buses and private vehicles, and act instead like Maoists against the arrogant police force. It also published a mobile number as a contact point to organise training for the purpose.

If Athavale’s views have shocked and repelled many people, they have also attracted others, principally groups of upper-caste young Hindus in western Maharashtra who are ostensibly driven by their desire to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra.

Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva; Juggernaut Books; 2017

Excerpted with permission from Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva, Dhirendra K Jha, Juggernaut Books.