The baba and his recipes to stardom
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His advice includes asking disciples to stock fridge with cold drinks "to change their life", to travel on a Shatabdi "to add some pace to life", and allegedly to eat pani-poori (golguppas) to cure a health problem. Today, Nirmal Baba or Nirmaljit Singh Narula has an empire that has burgeoned — by his own admission — to over Rs 238 crore a year. And that's just from offerings paid by bhakts.
But charges too have been pouring out against the baba, even as there has been no let-up in his TV appearances, for which his Nirmal Darbar pays up to Rs 1 lakh for a half-hour slot. The allegations against him include taking advantage of troubled followers, and his samagams (gatherings) being organised TV spectacles with people paid to ask questions. With no visible machinery managing his money, a question mark also hangs over the crores flowing to him.
As per a PTI report, there are at least three cases lodged against him in Uttar Pradesh, all by disciples who claimed to have been duped with recipes of "cure". The Delhi High Court is hearing a defamation suit he has filed against a US-based website that accused him of black magic and tantric claims. The next hearing is on May 5; the court has told the site to remove content against him till then.
Attempts by The Indian Express to contact Narula failed. On the web and TV, his disciples have risen to his defence, denying his gatherings were stage-managed and calling up channels to recount "their happy experiences" after coming into contact with him. Others have complained to the National Broadcasters Authority about channels' "malicious comments" on him. In his samagams, Narula has called the charges "bade paimane ki conspiracy" by channels he hadn't renewed his contracts with.
Followers pay Rs 2,000 each to gain entry into his samagams, which are announced on the web. Payment is only online and bouncers are posted at the gate to ensure only those showing a URN, or unique registration number, generated following the payment, are allowed in. Nirmal Baba meets his followers seated on a larger-than-life leather sofa. As the thousands registered pour in — despite the absence of a public relations team, or any publicity material offline — there is a public outpouring of emotion, all captured on two cordless mikes, one for the local PA system and the other straight for television.
A crisper version of these typically one-day gatherings, edited to a 30-minute length, then features on television as Third Eye of Nirmal Baba.
The Indian Express tried to register online (unsuccessfully), sent an e-mail to the address on www.nirmalbaba.com (it was not responded to), and eventually went to a samagam being staged in New Delhi's Talkatora Stadium on April 16 and 17 — only to be firmly turned away by bouncers. His south Delhi office does not have a significant representative other than receptionists at the enquiry counter. Requests for a meeting there, too, drew a blank.
People in the broadcast industry estimate the baba pays mainstream channels between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1 lakh for the half-hour slot. Smaller channels are paid Rs 10,000-Rs 25,000. "On an average, he must be spending more than Rs 10 lakh a day to be on TV," said a senior ad sales executive of a leading TV channel.
Not that he has to watch his expenses. In an Aaj Tak interview aired on April 14, Narula put his turnover from bhakts at over Rs 238 crore annually. Apart from the samagam entry fees, some of his followers regularly cough up daswand, a tenth of their earnings. In an interaction with journalists earlier this month, Narula insisted "there should be no problem" as his money wasn't going to a trust or any such body. He cites Sikhism's concept of dashansh (or putting one-tenth away for charity) to justify daswand. While it is to be paid before the 14th of each month, Narula says, it's all good as it's all voluntary.
Justifying that his earnings were needed to pay for his TV shows, Narula is open about having no plans for charity. He is collecting the money, he says, to build "a large temple complex to house the shaktis (powers he claims to posses) after me, no schools, nothing else".
T V Venkateswaran of Vigyan Prasar, a government body mandated to promote rationality and a scientific temper, attacks Nirmal Baba. "Today, while the certainties of traditional religious beliefs, some very retrogressive, have gone away, they been replaced not with scientific worldview but with pseudo-science and half-baked ideas that modern-day cults have in particular caught on," Venkateswaran says. "Cults of various kinds like this one rely not on core of ideas but just quick-fix ideas."
The baba's followers will have none of it. Sudhir Kumar, an accounts manager from Ghaziabad, was waiting outside the Delhi samagam earlier this month, accompanying his wife and curious to know what the baba had told her. A family from Nagpur, having spent at least Rs 8,000 just to secure entry, told The Indian Express this was the third samagam they were attending.
A hostile bhakt had a pertinent question over the sudden spurt in attacks on Narula on TV. "On the same channels, they allow his programmes to run because he is paying for them," the follower said. "If this is just superstition, why don't they stop running the shows?"
Roots & Rise
Nirmaljit Singh Narula was born a Namdhari Sikh in Pakistan "sometime around 1950". Soon after his birth, the family moved to Palamau in undivided Bihar. When he was about 14, his sister married Inder Singh Namdhari, who would go on to join politics and who has twice been Speaker of the Jharkhand Assembly.
A source who has known his family says: "He was clairvoyant as a child too. At the age of four, he was away from home when he suddenly burst into tears saying the roof at home had caved in and his sisters had been crushed... It was found this was indeed the case, though the sisters survived."
By all accounts, he was a pampered child, doted on by his mother and sisters after his father died when he was very young.
As a grown-up, Nirmaljit's first brush with a profession was as a brick manufacturer, selling under 'Nirmal Bricks'. Says Palamau-based contractor Umakant Minu Singh, whose family and partners dealt with him: "We are amused to see him now... Bhatta chala nahin, par ab lagta hai line badal li" (The kiln business failed, but it seems he changed his line).
Next, his family organised a "cloth store in Garhwa" for him. When that too failed, he joined the limestone business of his in-laws, the Baggas, a well-established local business family of Ranchi.
However, family members say, he remained "restless" and in the early 80s left for Delhi. Soon he had secured a licence for mining in Jharkhand. Money was still tight and his wife Sushma Bagga held tuitions for children to help support the family, which included a son and a daughter. The Narulas settled down in a modest flat in south Delhi's Sant Nagar.
In 1984, shaken by the anti-Sikh riots, Narula decided to cut his hair and shave off his beard. A few years later, so goes the lore, he discovered a "spiritual connect" in the jungles of Jharkhand and declared he had a direct line with "the shaktis". He claimed he could foretell the future and "see" things others couldn't.
Shortly after this "revelation", Narula left mining and returned to Delhi, sitting at home without work. It was around 1997 that his transformation into a "baba" started, with word spreading about his "special powers".
People started gathering regularly to meet him, first for weekly meetings or chowkis at his home, then at local community centres as the crowds grew. His Sikh family initially abhorred his claims about miracles as their faith rejects chamatkars. But in the buzz of the followers, the doubts were drowned out.
The game changer was using TV as the faith multiplier. The baba has been on TV shows for the last one-and-a-half years. As channels aired his paid-for shows with no questions asked, it swelled the crowds at his samagams. Now he routinely fills up stadiums the size of Talkatora in Delhi.
While individual "darshans" and "phone appointments" are now out, even small towns are not venues for samagams any more. The big-league baba now holds these only in Delhi and Mumbai.
As per www.nirmalbaba.com, the samagams or gatherings are telecast on more than 40 channels, including leading ones such as Star News, IBN7, Aaj Tak and India TV. Not in the list is Zee News, which was the first Hindi channel to pick up a damaging story by the Hindi daily Prabhat Khabar, though the baba is a big advertiser on that channel too.
Prabhat Khabar editor-in-chief Harivansh recalls being caught in a traffic jam on the main Ranchi road around two months ago. He found that the cause was a long queue of people spilling out from a bank, each having withdrawn wads of Rs 10 notes. "There were thugs selling a note on a premium of Rs 2 and people were buying them in thousands," says Harivansh; the frenzy had followed "the pronouncement by Nirmal Baba that keeping Rs 10 notes at home in abundance ensured prosperity and kept misery away".
Most TV channel editors and executives refuse to speak officially on the issues surrounding the baba. Zee News refused to be drawn into the controversy involving the "entire industry". Without naming any programme or channel, N K Singh, editor, Sadhna News, and also the general secretary of the Broadcast Editors' Association, said: "Spirituality sells on TV. It gets TRPs, followed by advertisers."
A study by the research body Media Studies Group shows that the race to have Nirmal Baba on their platform began in January after Hindi channel News24's airing of Baba during the daytime (till then the show was telecast across channels either in the early morning or late night slot). When the show helped the channel register its presence in the top five programmes in the Hindi news genre, others took notice.
"News24's rivals saw its sudden rise and soon most leading Hindi news channels were airing the Third Eye of Nirmal Baba (in the afternoon slot)," says Anil Chamadia, the founder of MSG.
With Archna Shukla
From the Baba's Prescription
"When did you last take a Shatabdi or Rajdhani ?
How will your life move fast (tez raftaar se) if you don't ?"
"Do you have cold drinks in your fridge?
Why is it empty? Fill it, your life will change."
"Do you have dhotis? No? Get a variety of them, and wear them — a checkered, blue one... go and all will be well."
"Did you recently encounter a snake and pass remarks? Don't do that, pay a sampera of Rs 5 next time and no comments on snakes."
"Use a black purse and upgrade it once a year, to ensure that you have a steady flow of money."
One of alleged fraud, against the baba and his wife, in court of additional CJM, Meerut. The complainant, Harish Veer Singh, claims that on baba's advice he ate kheer, which led to a health problem. The court has fixed May 1 for hearing and recording the statement of the applicant and issuance of a summons.
One of alleged cheating at Indirapuram. Jai Ram Singh alleges that Nirmal Baba cheated him of Rs 31,000 by promising a cure for his ailment, but he found no relief.
A third one, again of cheating with a promised cure, filed by Jitender Singh with police. Baba allegedly charged Rs 11,000 for curing his health problem. Singh claimed he developed regular aches after he ate pani pooris for months following Baba's advice. He said he had deposited Rs 11,000 in Baba's bank account, but when he demanded more money, he decided to lodge a complaint.
Source: PTI, quoting police
What he gets
Rs 238 cr
Annual earnings, by baba's own admission. This comes from offerings by bhakts alone.
From each disciple for attending one of his samagams
Of earnings, voluntarily given by fans
What he pays
Rs 70,000-1 lakh
For a half-hour TV slot on major channels. The baba appears thrice a day on over 30 channels
Rs 10,000-Rs 25,000