for BBC News on Jan. 23, 2008
Basava Premanand has been burgled”¦ again.
It is the third time in just one month. But he is in no doubt of the thieves’ motives.
He suspects they were looking for evidence that he has collected for over 30 years against India’s leading spiritual guru, Sri Satya Sai Baba.
Mr Premanand believes this evidence proves the self-proclaimed “God-man”, Sai Baba, is not just a fraud, but a dangerous sexual abuser.
“Sai Baba is nothing but a mafia man, conning the people and making himself rich”, he says of his bete noire.
As India’s leading guru-buster, Basava Premanand is the scourge of all miracle-makers. He is the founder of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations and the editor of a monthly periodical called The Indian Sceptic.
He believes that it is his duty to dispel the “curse of gullibility blighting his country in the form of myth and superstition”, and replace it instead with the “gospel of pure, scientific understanding”.
Since 1976, he has waged a bitter war against Sai Baba, a man who commands a following of millions both in India and abroad. His devotees believe him to be an Avatar, or incarnation of God in human form.
But to Mr Premanand, this God is anything but holy.
Rumours about Sai Baba sexually abusing young male devotees have been circulating for years.
In 1976 a former American follower, Tal Brooke, wrote a book called Avatar of the Night: The Hidden Side of Sai Baba. In it, he referred to the guru’s sexual exploits.
But Brooke’s allegations were dismissed out of hand by the tightly controlled Sai Baba Organisation.
Dr Michael Goldstein, chairman of the international Sai Baba organisation, admitted he had heard rumours, but told us that he did not believe them. He said: “My heart and my conscience tell me that it is not possible.”
But in the last four years, and with the growth of the internet, the tide of claims against Sai Baba has become a groundswell.
Former devotees such as Alaya Rahm and Mark Roche, featured in the the BBC film Secret Swami, are coming forward with increasingly graphic stories of the guru’s serious sexual exploitation.
Their own experiences bear an uncanny resemblance, yet span a time frame of almost 30 years. Both had been subjected to Sai Baba rubbing oil on their genitals.
“He took me aside”, said Alaya Rahm, “put the oil on his hands, told me to drop my pants and rubbed my genitals with the oil. I was really taken aback.”
All the allegations against Sai Baba so far have been made by Westerners. But Mr Premanand says that there are many Indians who also claim to have been abused but are too afraid to speak out.
It is no surprise that Indian victims are scared of reprisals. Sai Baba’s influence among the power elite of India is impressive. Prime ministers, presidents, judges and generals, have all come to the ashram (religious retreat) in Puttaparthi in southern India, to pay their respects.
The previous prime minister of India, Mr Atal Vajpayee, once issued a letter on his official notepaper calling the attacks on Sai Baba “wild, reckless and concocted.”
Sai Baba also enjoys a close relationship with the state police. A former head of police once acted as his personal chauffeur.
None of this, however, deters Mr Premanand who has doggedly pursued Sai Baba over the years through the courts, the media and several embarrassing books and exposures.
Little wonder that his campaign has enraged some of the holy man’s supporters. To date, Basava Premanand has survived four murder attempts and bears the scars from several savage beatings.
In 1986, he was arrested by the police for marching to Puttaparthi with 500 volunteers for a well-publicised confrontation with Sai Baba.
Later that year, he took Sai Baba to court for violating the Gold Control Act by producing gold necklaces out of thin air without the permission of a Gold Control Administrator.
When his case was dismissed, Mr Premanand appealed on the grounds that spiritual power is not a defence recognised in law.
In June 1993, the peace of the ashram was shattered when a gruesome incident took place.
Four male devotees, who were close to Sai Baba, broke into their guru’s private quarters late at night armed with knives.
Their motives are unclear. Some say they were going to warn their guru about corruption among the higher echelons of the ashram. Others say they were going to kidnap or even kill Sai Baba.
They were stopped by Sai Baba’s personal attendants and in the violent struggle that ensued, two of the attendants were killed and two left seriously wounded.
Mr Premanand is determined to continue with his lone crusade
Sai Baba managed to escape through a secret flight of stairs and raise the alarm.
Just before the police arrived, the four men escaped to Sai Baba’s bedroom. It was there, the police say, they shot the intruders out of self defence.
Mr Premanand claimed a cover up and went to court.
He says: “The central government stopped the investigation, because if the investigation takes place, a lot of things will come out like economic offences and sex offences.”
He was outraged that Sai Baba - one of the key witnesses to the events of that night - had not been questioned.
Over the next three years, he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, before he was eventually defeated.
Today, this sprightly septuagenarian is as busy as ever, collecting and collating more information. Mr Premanand is preparing for another battle.
“This”, he says mischievously, “is going to be the greatest fight of my life.”