Being Baba : From Ramkishen to Ramdev

Author Bhavdeep Kang
Baba Ramdev, up-close and personal, is more engaging off-camera. The TV persona evanescences as he looks up and smiles, all luminous vitality and yogic poise. It’s not just the squint and the lop-sided grin, or the wild mop of hair and keekar-bush beard, or even the intimidating perfection of his physique. There’s a curious ingenuous about the man, that makes you warm up to him and wonder how he’s chalked up so many controversies in the last couple of decades.

He lacks self consciousness, has no inbuilt defense mechanism to red-flag impulses which make him look ridiculous. It’s the self-assurance of a son of the soil, stepping into the lobby of a five star hotel in a dhoti
and colorful saafa (turban), staring boldly at the Versace-clad aliens trooping past, magnificently unaware that in this synthetic setting, he’s the alien.

It’s hard to get a handle on the man, particularly because he seems to harbor many secrets and is wary of talking about aspects of his past. His rustic charm doesn’t mask an intense ambition; the urge to power is evident as is the will to do whatever it takes to acquire it. Ramdev the renunciate exists comfortably alongside Ramdev the power loving pragmatist. A rigidly disciplined lifestyle facilitates purposeful ambition. He enjoys fame and adulation as much as the next godman, but sees himself primarily as a man of the people, sworn to protect their interests; TV celebrity hasn’t changed that. If he’s building a swadeshi (homespun or Indian) business empire, it’s to poke MNCs in the eye and celebrate indianness. If he wants political clout, it’s to build a strong and healthy nation. If his methods aren’t as pure as his motives well, Krishna (an avatar of Lord Vishnu) employed all manner of Chicanery in a larger cause.

He sits down for an interaction with his motley crew of associates at the Aastha TV office in Noida (UP), letting others do most of the talking. It is the eve of the most significant chapter in the Baba’s colorful career: the public campaign against black money. The surfeit of pretension and bombast in the room doesn’t auger well for the crusade and you begin to wonder whether his apparent naivete and vulnerability explains why his name has featured in connection with mysterious deaths, mafia-esque violence, dodgy business practices and political wheeling-dealing over the last couple of decades?

In the course of the black money campaign, he was feted reviled, betrayed and humiliated. The enduring memory of the movement was an image of the Baba in drag, clad in a woman’s Salwar Kameez as he was hauled away by Delhi police. It was the single greatest blow to Baba’s credibility and put paid to his political aspirations.

Rural Haryana, in the 1960s, amongst the green shoots of an agricultural revolution. was born in Alipur village of the Mahendragarh block in 1965, to a farmer couple, Ram Niwas Yadav and Gulabo Devi. He was one of the couple’s four Children. The Yadavs in Jind, unlike other parts of were not economically well off. For the most part, they were small peasants. Neither parent appears to have played a significant role in his early years; their single contribution was to allow their bright ward to study at a Gurukul (seminary) after he finished middle school.

Ramkishen Yadav attended the village school until the fifth grade. He was then sent to village Shahzadpur, which boasted a middle school. The village had no electricity, so the child not only managed with second hand textbooks procured by his father, but studied by lamplight. After clearing the 8th grade, he joined a Gurukul (Acharya Baldev, the renowned Hindi and Sanskrit scholar, ran highly regarded “Vedic” schools in the area, some exclusively for girls). His parents acquiesced to a Gurukul education only after Ramkishen twice ran away from home after completing eighth grade, stubbornly refusing to continue with regular schooling. “I wanted to be a Sadhu, from the cradle… I wanted to study like a Rishi,’ he explained. So he stole the Housekeeping money, boarded a bus for the first time in his life and wandered through Haridwar (in the state of Uttarakhand) and western UP before his father found him.

[ Excerpted with permission from “: Stories of India's Leading Babas” by Bhavdeep Kang, Westland Books, June 2016. Views expressed are writer’s personal ]
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