Who is Bhole Baba—Indian guru in the Hathras gathering that ended in a stampede?

Local officials said Suraj Pal Singh, 58, comes from a Dalit family in Bahadur Nagar village in Uttar Pradesh, about 65km from where the stampede took place.

Vihanya Rakshika

Vihanya Rakshika

The Straits Times


Before his life began as Bhole Baba, the self-proclaimed religious guru was a policeman in Uttar Pradesh and went by the name Suraj Pal Singh. SCREENGRAB: SAKAR HARI BHAJA/YOUTUBE/THE STRAITS TIMES

July 4, 2024

NEW DELHI – Clean-shaven with neatly cropped hair, and his choice of fashion – wrinkle-free white shirt or suit – Bhole Baba cuts a dapper business-like figure unusual of a typical traditionally robed Indian guru.

His legion of followers believes he has the divine powers to alleviate human suffering. But on July 2, his star power led to the tragic deaths of more than 100 people at his religious congregation in an open field by a highway in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh state.

There, a lack of control over his fervent flock – believed to number around 250,000 – ended in a chaotic stampede.

The guru reportedly fled the scene in his car.

This is not the first time a gathering of his congregation has garnered a massive turnout.

In 2022, Bhole Baba’s congregation, or “satsang”, in Farrukhabad, a city in Uttar Pradesh, numbered over 50,000 devotees despite the Covid-19 rule that restricted the number of attendees to 50. Traffic was disrupted across the city.

Before his life began as Bhole Baba or Narayan Sakar Vishva Hari, the self-proclaimed religious teacher was a head constable in Uttar Pradesh known by the name Suraj Pal Singh.

According to Mr Yogi Adityanath, the state chief minister, the July 2 disaster occurred when a group of devotees began pushing towards the stage to touch Mr Singh as he was getting off it at the end of the event.

Other reports on local media stated that the stampede broke out because of Mr Singh’s attendants blocking people from leaving the venue to make way for him and his entourage to leave first. Attendees reportedly tried to get out by roughly shoving their way to the exit that is said to be located near the stage.

Local officials said Mr Singh, 58, comes from a Dalit family in Bahadur Nagar village in Uttar Pradesh, about 65km from where the stampede took place. He voluntarily retired from the police force in 1999 after serving for over a decade.

Little information about his life is known, mainly because he does not have a social media presence. However, local news media have reported that he told his devotees that he felt strongly about world peace and spirituality and had left his government job to start his spiritual life.

According to local people and authorities, Mr Singh has been actively involved in religious work in Uttar Pradesh and across state borders for more than 25 years.

He is known to be married and does not have children, villagers from Mr Singh’s birthplace told the Indian Express.

“His wife is known as Matashree… he adopted the name Bhole Baba,” said Mr Zaffar Ali from Bahadur Nagar village. Bhole Baba is a term commonly used to refer to the Hindu deity Shiva while Matashree can be loosely translated as “mother”.

“He built an ashram on his land in the village. People from other districts and even states would visit the ashram to seek his blessings; they were provided accommodation at the ashram,” Mr Ali told the Indian Express.

He said Mr Singh, the second of three sons, comes from a well-to-do family, and is believed to have left Bahadur Nagar about half a decade ago. Mr Singh reportedly now lives in Rajasthan, a neighbouring state.

Police have filed a case against an aide of Mr Singh and organisers of the religious congregation. But the guru, whose whereabouts are still unknown, was not named among the suspects, NDTV reported.

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