Andhra Pradesh government asking the Sai Baba trust to show its account books

Sai Baba and the problem of hard cash

By Ramakrishna S R

Senior Editor, News

The Andhra Pradesh government has suddenly woken up to problems in Puttaparthi, and is asking the Sai Baba trust to show its account books.

Holy men and their ashrams are considered out of bounds for tax officials and governments. What prompted Hyderabad’s sudden interest in Puttaparthi affairs?

Last week, police stopped a car and found it was loaded with Rs 35 lakh in cash. It was on its way from Puttaparthi to Bangalore. After denying any connection with the money, trustees are now saying it was donated by a devotee, and was meant for building a memorial for Sai Baba.

There’s a lot of suspicion in the air. Devotees are protesting what they see as mismanagement of the trust’s affairs, and shopkeepers, whose business depends on a constant flow of domestic and international visitors, have already observed a bandh.

The police action, including the arrests of three men after the car haul and the questioning of Baba’s nephew Ratnakar, might not have taken place if Baba were around. When was the last time you heard of any police or tax trouble at Puttaparthi or Bangalore? Last week’s incidents suggest the trust many not have it so easy any more.

Today’s Deccan Herald reports the government is worried that people in privileged positions within the trust are quietly carting away the riches of Sai Baba’s spiritual empire. The Congress government is trying to restore the respect commanded by the trust when he was alive, according to the Bangalore paper.

Here’s another report from yesterday: “Trustees of Sathya Sai Baba on Tuesday offered to pay tax on the enormous piles of cash and gold discovered in his private chambers in Andhra Pradesh. On June 17, The Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust members found 98 kilograms of gold and jewellery, 307 kilograms of silver articles and Rs 115.6 million  in cash on unlocking Yajur Mandir, the private chamber of Sri Sathya Sai Baba at his Prashanti Nilayam Ashram.”

Ashram politics is notorious. That’s because there’s so much money, power, and influence to be enjoyed without accountability. Yet, says R Jagannathan in First Post, the government should not take over the Sai Baba trust. At best, it should fix problems in Puttaparthi and step out as quickly as possible.

He writes: “India’s flawed secularism has meant that temples and Hindu trusts are progressively being taken over by the government, or being legislated into various forms of government control, on the plea that they are being badly run. This is facilitated by the rapacity of politicians, who want to control temple resources for their own vested interests… If governments were that good at running institutions, we would not have seen our public sector telecom and airline companies go to seed so quickly… The crux of the problem is this: the same kind of hanky-panky plagues church and mosque trusts, too, but they are protected from excessive government interference by the mere fact that they are minority institutions. The government simply can’t touch them.”

There’s no question institutions such as Sai Baba’s run charitable hospitals and educational institutions well. (It is also true their achievements shine because the government fails so miserably in providing health care and education). But, on the other hand, holy men and their mutts are also infamous as havens for politicians to park their ill-gotten wealth. The netas pay back by gifting them government land and protecting them from the prying eyes of tax and government officials.

Devotees who visit holy places don’t seek receipts when they make contributions to the hundis. They trust their gurus and babas implicitly. What should the government do when faced with institutions with lots of wealth and little transparency?

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