"Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases." began George Orwell in his landmark essay "Reflections on Gandhi". It is a good principle, to go by news reports.
One such controversy raging these days is the violent stand off between the supporters of "Sant" Rampal and the police, who were trying to arrest him to execute the non-bailable warrant against him. Rampal is wanted in several cases of murders and attempted murders against him, which appear to be originated in clashes between his supporters and those of the Arya Samaj.
Why did these clashes happen? There are several reports that could point to reasons. The first and biggest being "Sant" Rampal's criticism of the Satyartha Prakash, written by "Swami" Dayanand Saraswati the founder of the Arya Samaj.
In a country where anything religious is respected, both Arya Samaj and the bhakti traditions and Kabir (whom Rampal supposedly follows) are respected for social reform and one would imagine that if masses must go for opium, they at least went for one that desired better things on some social evils at the very least. This ongoing controversy however discloses a dark side.
One where godmen and religious traditions associated with social reform have enough informal "troops" to fight riots.
The criticism of Dayanand Saraswati's Satyartha Prakash by Rampal seems to have been the trigger for ongoing bad blood between the rival religious gangs (for want of a better word) and Rampal has alleged on several occasions that he is being persecuted because of his criticism of the book.
That his views are not popular among locals appears to be apparent, but then if we're speaking of Haryana, jeans and phones with women aren't popular either, so that doesn't really say anything one way or the other. People who criticize religious figures or books generally get rabid responses from unthinking masses that the state is not interested in suppressing since sooner or later they are useful for political goals.
After spending 18 months in jail, he seems to be evading courts (42 times so far, it seems), which has led to this non-bailable warrant that got resisted by his followers on mini-war footing. This definitely seems to be a question mark on his credibility. While it may be understandable for an innocent person with no hope of getting justice from the law to avoid it altogether, this seems to be more of a situation of show of strength against the state and will probably not help his case either.
On the other side, what seems suspicious is that those attacking him seem to have got away with very little scrutiny - if any. While Rampal makes news, there are no questions raised about the Arya Samaj - which seems a little surprising. Media is again in one of their rare unanimous modes on his guilt - which is always suspect in a country as diverse as ours. This alone is worth wondering whether he is being framed.
Casualties in the clashes seem to all be from among his followers with women in the lead. Which does not seem to speak of dangerous assaults made on police, though the reports sound like pitched battles. The original case where clashes led to one death also seem to have had cases only against Rampal and not Arya Samaj.
Rampal also has other issues with Arya Samaj who do not want his influence to increase in areas they control. They have tried to show his ownership of the land with Satlok Ashram as a result of forgery - this would not raise skepticism, except the forgery case was filed on the day after the two followers clashed in 2006. It is a little unrealistic to imagine that a forgery done in 1999 was brought to light and objected in 2006 and one day after clashes with rival religious group. A later case of assault was filed by a person claiming to have been beaten to get a fake confession of being a spy for Arya Samaj. A murder charge was added to it when a woman out of four protesters to die (and hundreds injured) to police bullets was alleged to have been killed by Rampal or on his orders when police opened fire on Arya Samaj protesters opposing the turning over of possession of ashram to Rampal.
Rampal insists Arya Samaj is behind all the cases on him, and this is entirely possible given the timeline of cases unfolding and inevitable connections with Arya Samaj since then. On the other hand, it is equally possible that he is guilty. His views are no less abhorrent. For example those on eating meat.
In other words, the freedom of views that he claims for himself in critiquing Satyartha Prakash is not something he is willing to allow others who are not even criticizing him.
No one appears to shine in this sordid saga.
However, one point remains to be made. Free Speech must include the right to challenge views in particular if social thinking is to refine. Even if it is religious leaders doing the criticizing. Every religion has a concept of what it will not accept. Whether it is the godless heathens or the shudras or women or whatever is deemed not good enouh to coexist with. When masses are in the grip of religious zealotry it becomes all the more important that an unpopular views survive or we end up waking up too late like in the case of Narendra Dabholkar.
Therefore, ugly as it all is, I want to say this: