For the last few weeks Humanists, Rationalists and Human Rights activists have been waging a huge battle against the forces of fundamentalism in Andhra Pradesh. This is a battle that involves all sections of society, and in which the media, the police, the justice system, aggressive fundamentalists, the Dalai Lama as well as the Humanists and Rationalists play a part. It is a battle that is being watched with keen interest by millions of homes as it unfolds on live TV and through public discussions, newspaper articles and also in homes.
The campaign started publicly with a complaint made by Babu Gogineni in the name of IHEU along with a dozen collaboratoring intellectuals and organisations with the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Commission. The campaign’s slogan Sambhavi Gudilona Badilona? has now become the byword for TV programs, for newspaper articles and also discussions as all citizens are challenged to take a stand whether Sambhavi, a child of 7, who it is claimed is a reincarnation of a Buddhist goddess should be in school or remain in the temple. This is also a story which has catapulted Humanists and Rationalists into the limelight as superstition, religious privilege and human rights clash publicly in Andhra Pradesh state which is home to 90 million Telugu speaking people – the second largest language group in India.
Story of a Humanist Campaign Against Religious Exploitation of a Child
by Babu Gogineni
How the fraud became public
It was on the lazy Sunday morning of 16 August that all hell broke loose. There were urgent and breathless phone calls from HM TV, Mahaa TV, INews and Studio N TV Channels asking me if I had heard of Sambhavi.
“Please switch on your TV sir – Sambhavi, a child of 7, is claiming to be the reincarnation of a childhood friend of the Dalai Lama. She speaks with great clarity and precision. She claims Tibet will be free in 2010, that there will be a great event in 2012, that the Dalai Lama is a friend of hers and that he would visit her soon in Surya Nandi temple in Kurnool District. It seems the child is in touch with the Buddhist leader by telepathy. Sambhavi is also saying that the Telugu Soothsayer of medieval times Veerabrahmendra Swamy‟s predictions will come true in 2012 and 2014. Her caretaker Usha Rani says she has miraculous powers. Would you like to comment?”
I was being invited to participate in live discussions on these channels; already Dr. Vijayam and Mr. Lavanam were on one of them, speaking from the Atheist Center in Vijayawada. There were some orthodox Hindus as well on the panels. My response was:
“It is nonsense, because rebirth implies we have a soul which can retain memories. No one has shown that the soul exists and we all know that the seat of memory is the brain which dies with the rest of the body. Claims of rebirth are culturally conditioned and we do not hear of them in Muslim or Christian or African societies. No claim of rebirth has ever been shown to be true either in Hinduism or in Buddhism”.
“But sir, they are also showing video clips of the child with the Dalai Lama. It seems he approves of it, and he has accepted that she was his childhood friend”.
“Have you verified this claim with the Dalai Lama? In any case, I would not be really surprised – you know that the Dalai Lama believes in reincarnation. He also is desperate that as he gets old he has to do his best to get Tibet on the world‟s radar again. This year is the 50th year since the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet and it is the 60th year of the People‟s Republic of China. The timing is good for some gimmicks! Some of the Dalai Lama‟s religious beliefs are ridiculous or even dangerous”.
“But sir, is he not the most important Buddhist leader?”
The Dalai Lama
“Not really! There are 300 million Buddhists in the world, and the Buddhists are divided into Hinayana (or Theravada), Mahayana and Vajrayana sects. The Vajrayana Buddhists are associated with Tantric practices and most of the Tibetans are associated with that school of Buddhism. The Buddha did not believe in a soul or in a rebirth of this kind, so many Buddhists are opposed to what the Dalai Lama preaches. And there are not many Vajrayana Buddhists – in fact only 6 million Tibetans if you take the Dalai Lama‟s own figures – or 2.5 million if you believe the Chinese government. And amongst the Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhists there are again 4 sects, and the Dalai Lama is the head of just one of them – the Gelugpa sect. He does not represent all Buddhists. Of course he is well known because he is also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
“Did you know that the Dalai Lama rebelled and escaped from Tibet at a time when China wanted to tax the income of his institutions? When he was in Tibet it is said that he had over 6000 serfs, and that the base for this ascetic who renounced all was the 1000-room Potala Palace!”
“Sir, please come to the studio and say this. So we want to show your point of view”.
And so was spoiled another Sunday (and many other weekdays and weekends since then). And from then on we have been on dozens of TV discussions and public meetings: several colleagues like JVV leaders T.V. Rao, Ramesh, Radical Humanist C.L.N. Gandhi, Rationalist lawyer Madhusudan, feminist Volga, head of CEASE Child Labour and industrialist Kotapati Murahari Rao, and myself.
We coordinated strategy and arguments: in discussions we asked what Sambhavi‟s real name was in this life, and what her name was when she was a friend of the Dalai Lama in her previous birth. As Sambhavi is reputed to have met with the Madhyamika philosopher Nagarjuna who died many centuries ago, we wondered why she did not meet with the Buddha as well. We asked who Sambhavi‟s real parents were as only Usha Rani who is parading as Sambhavi‟s caretaker seemed to be around. What were the economic interests behind this claim being made, we queried. And if the Dalai Lama was visiting Surya Nandi to inaugurate Buddha Vijayam – the ashram being built for Sambhavi – what are his interests? He has been talking of late in several voices, making even some Tibetans angry: he offered to be reborn even before he died; on another occasion he said that he would be reborn outside Tibet, and as a girl; on yet another occasion, outraging the really orthodox, he even said his reincarnation could be elected by the people of Tibet! Is he coming to nominate his successor? We also pointed out that the sooth sayer Veerabrahmendra Swamy‟s predictions were hardly what someone could take credibly – there is no authentic text, nothing has been predicted in advance in a verifiable manner – there is only myth, legend, pulp fiction and popular cinema around his personality.
In any case, this silly salad of adult superstition, unconvincing stories of ancient soothsayers occupied TV screens for the next 2 months in Andhra Pradesh. While TV5, NTV and MAHAA TV turned a skeptical eye towards the developments, the highest TRP rated TV9 had several special documentaries. Their team travelled to the Dalai Lama‟s headquarters Dharamshala in North India to discuss with the officials of the so-called Tibet Parliament in exile and the so-called Tibetan Government in exile. Almost all the channels boasted special interviews and special discussions with the ‘spiritualist miracle’, celebrity child. Most recently, Sakshi Newspaper which has the largest circulation of all Telugu Newspapers with 1.2 million copies per day shocked us with a mindless analysis of Sambhavi’s divinity in a two page Sunday special.
Thanks to all this media promotion, Telugu people soon knew everything about Sambhavi who is a lovable looking child with charming mannerisms: she was the daughter of Bengali brahmins living in Varanasi, she was made a sanyasin at the age of 4, and once she went into a trance and travelled to the Himayalayas where she met the Dalai Lama and also read Tibetan manuscripts. The child‟s caretaker Usha Rani claimed that Sambhavi expressed concern for the Dalai Lama’s health and suggested that the Dalai Lama became healthy again after Sambhavi prayed for him. We all knew that Sambhavi holds regular telepathic conferences with the Dalai Lama with regards to the future of Tibet and that there were many secret matters that they discussed. We were told that she speaks fluently 5 languages, blesses whoever prostrates in front of her, and that the devotees were quickly benefitted emotionally and economically. Sambhavi came to Surya Nandi with a famous film singer’s family and when she arrived here she immediately started speaking Telugu and chose to establish her ashram there!
What did Sambhavi Say?
But all the reports from the gushing journalists, the charming childish talk of Sambhavi and the halo of the Dalai Lama’s support could not hide the real estate business being set up in and around Surya Nandi, the eagerness of Usha Rani to promote her ward’s supernatural claims, or the incoherence of the child and the political nature of the statements being made through her. Here is a sample:
- India is doing well because India has Buddhism
- China and Pakistan are bad people. They will be punished.
- Tibet will be free in 2016; China will become democratic in 2012.
- I was born for Tibet’s freedom and I will do anything for Tibet’s freedom
- There is a giant statue of the Buddha in the soil in Tibet – it went inside the soil because otherwise China would take it away. It will emerge from the earth as a ray of light.
- The Dalai Lama was the diety Balabadhra in the past life and I (Sambhavi) was the goddess Ugra Taraka Devi
- Lord Siva lives in Tibet. Hanuman will go to Tibet, worship Siva after which he will free Tibet.
- All non-vegetarians will be destroyed when Veerabrahmendra Swami will be reborn as Veerabhoga Vasantarayalu in Surya Nandi on 14 January 2012. He will also pull out the eyes and the hearts of non-believers.
- Jagan Mohan Reddy, son of late Rajasekhar Reddy will become the next Chief Minister of AP
How to Stop This?
The constant media hype and the frenzy that accompanied it, the announcement of the impending visit of the Dalai Lama and the daily challenge to our sanity were priming us up for action. Now there was also news that India’s richest industrialist and one of the world’s wealthiest individuals Anil Ambani donated Rs. 1 Crore (Rs. 10 million or USD 200,000) to Sambhavi/Surya Nandi temple. The Dalai Lama, it was announced, would come on 21 Dec. when he would inaugurate Sambhavi‟s ashram.
There was now an urgency, for action as things seemed to be rapidly getting out of hand. What if the Dalai Lama arrives as he threatens on 21 Dec in Surya Nandi and declares that Sambhavi would be his successor? Even if he did not do that, what if he declares Buddha Vijayam as Sambhavi’s ashram? If that was done, Sambhavi would never be able to have a normal childhood. This is how in Nepal Hindu maidens are made Kumaris, who are till puberty considered divine and after nearly a decade of isolation from the rest of society are thrown out of temples to fend for themselves.
So, I started putting together a strategy, working with colleagues and collaborators and in discussion with Prof. Narendra Nayak, President of Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations.
We had to do a number of things:
a). The AP State Human Rights Commission had to be approached.
b). The National Commission for the Protection of Rights of Children should be alerted.
c). Cooperation of fellow Humanists and progressives needed to be invited.
d). Ground should be prepared for international action, and Roy Brown should be consulted for campaigning at the UN in Geneva once local remedies are tried out for the situation.
e). It must be ascertained whether the Dalai Lama and Anil Ambani really supported Sambhavi.
f). The question of Sambhavi needed to be made a house hold issue for which the media needed to be involved.
In co-operation with Sri Kotapati Murahari Rao, President of CEASE Child Labour and Treasurer of the Rationalist Association of India, and the well known novelist Pydi Chandra Latha a list of possible collaborators was drawn up and MVV, JVV and Rationalist Forum of Hyderabad were also consulted.
We first approached Prof. Shantha Sinha, the Ramon Magasaysay Award winner for Human Rights and India’s first Chairperson of the National Commission for the Protection of the Rights of Children who heard our arguments about Sambhavi with great sympathy. She even suggested that the Commission itself could approach the High Court to save the child.
20 Nov: Universal Child Rights Day
We then announced to the media that our day of public action would be 20 Nov 09 which marks 20 years of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and 50 years since the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of the Child.
The response from the media was most helpful for the progress of the campaign. Zee 24 hours was extraordinary: one of their officials said, ‘we never realized that there was this other angle to the Sambhavi story. We would like to partner with you all in this Human Rights campaign. Please come to our studios where we will organize a 2-hr live discussion on Sambhavi. Then our cameras will follow you throughout the day and we will come with you to the Human Rights Commission. I agreed, on the condition that no astrologers or religious fundamentalists be invited – I was merely repeating my TV 9 appeal of 17 August that this was a Human Rights question, not a debate about rebirth. Zee readily agreed and involved many of the co-petitioners.
At the Office of the State Human Rights Commission, HM TV and I News had their OB Vans, from where they covered the events live. The media was present in full force and number to hear what we were going to say to the Honorable Subhashan Reddy, the former Chief Justice of Madras High Court and later Chief Justice of Kerala High Courts and now Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission.
Mr. Justice Subhashan Reddy heard us all with great sympathy and concern for the child. Present and involved were A.B.K. Prasad, senior journalist and former Chairperson of the Official Languages Commission, the noted feminist and editor Kondaveeti Satyavati, feminist and leader of Asmita, Mrs. Volga, the educationists Prabhakara Sastri, the child rights activist Sri. Achyuth Rao, JVV‟s T.V. Rao etc. Two children, Ms. Sahasi, grand daughter of MVV’s Hanumantha Rao and Arun Gogineni added to the occasion, reminding all how a happy and normal childhood would be.
We submitted to the judge respectfully that:
- This was not a religious debate, but a Human Rights struggle.
- Children who have been identified as the reincarnation of a dead person have always been psychologically damaged much before adulthood.
- Sambhavi has the right to play and to a normal childhood and be brought up in the loving care of a mother.
- It appears that the child has since been indoctrinated for nearly 3 years and it had touch with reality. Such mental abuse should attract all the relevant civil and criminal provisions of the law.
- It is not the religious views of the parents but the best interests of a child that are paramount.
We urged the Judge to take action and directions:
a). For the rehabilitation of Sambhavi into normal life with the help of child psychologists.
b). To the State government and its relevant departments to take immediate steps to halt the abuse.
c). To summon Sambhavi’s parents and Ms. Usha Rani and the relevant birth records of Sambhavi to ensure that she has not been a victim of abduction and exploitation.
d). To issue notice to the Dalai Lama to ascertain if he and his organization has a role to play in this.
e). To issue notice or guidelines to the media so that they will report such matters with sensitivity.
We also submitted that we were offended that a crime of abuse of a child is being portrayed as a spiritual achievement, to the detriment of the child‟s best interests.
In response, recalling that when previously a child was being used for TV reality shows he had passed orders putting it in the protection of a Government Child Home, the Honorable Judge passed instant orders to the Collector of the Kurnool district to present a report on the parentage of Sambhavi as well as whether the Human Rights of Sambhavi are being violated. In view of the urgency, the Collector was given just 10 days to report – till 30 Nov 09.
Golla Venkatesh worked with me to create a poster and a banner for the campaign with the question ‘Sambhavi Gudilona, Badilona? Manavavadula,Hetuvadula Prasna’. (Humanists & Rationalists Ask: Should Sambhavi be in a School or in a Temple?). The curtain was raised for launching a new debate in all sections of society on questions that matter to us all. Along with Sri T.V. Rao of JVV and Sri C.L.N. Gandhi of the IRHA we shared our media responsibilities so that the voice of reason could be heard by a large number of people.
And following a 30 minute discussion on Live TV on TV9 where I even debated the obnoxious Usha Rani, Tirupataiah, a young and dashing journalist from Eenadu Newspaper called me asking for help and moral support for the stories he was planning to write and for which he was being threatened by Mrs. Usha Rani. I offered our full cooperation.
But what about the Administration?
The Child Welfare department did nothing for Sambhavi in the last 2 and a half months. The Endowments Department took no action since the time Usha Rani illegally occupied the temple. The District Collector who ordered an inquiry by the Nandyal Revemue Divisional Officer (RDO) on 24 November was even reportedly setting up facilities for the Dalai Lama’s visit, but showed no interest in the plight of Sambhavi. Could we trust the Administration?
I decided that I would go to Kurnool and Nandyal towns to give evidence to the inquiry even if it was not an entirely safe thing to do. But I was grateful that Mr. Ramabrahmam from JVV and Mr. KVR Reddy from MVV volunteered to come on behalf of their organizations, and to help with the security. They never let me address any meeting or even the press without they standing behind me. Everyone said that because of the physical build of KVR we were safe from any mischief and attacks – jokes that KVR took with good humour. KVR even offered his car for the visit to Nandyal, while JVV’s lawyer Madhusudan (well known for his initiative in the case filed against the spurious claims of fish medicine to cure asthma) and Mr. Suresh Kumar offered the reassurance and support for the legalities and logistics of meeting with the Collector in Kurnool and the RDO in Nandyal.
As expected, and planned, the meeting with the Collector was widely reported, both in TV and in newspapers. After 2 months of seeming inaction and negligence, the Collector was suddenly put under public pressure. He did not have the courtesy of offering a seat to our delegation and even showed his impatience that we went to the Human Rights Commission rather than to him. We made it clear to him that India is a Secular Country and Constitution; that the Dalai Lama needed no special treatment when he was coming to the district to perform a private religious duty etc.
The next day was when we met with Dr. Madhavi Latha, the former scientist from ICRISAT who is now the RDO and the Inquiry officer, along with the Deputy Superintendent of Police Samayjohn Rao and Zubeida Begum the Integrated Child Development Scheme Officer. Dr. Madhavi Latha met us after the first questioning of Usha Rani for 4 hours: defying the notices to appear, Usha Rani arrived without Sambhavi or the child’s supposed father Soumya Acharya from Varanasi! “We will not bring Sambhavi to the inquiry as she is a child”, said one of the persons present there. “There is no need to bring her”, said her lawyer to the TV channels waiting for his sound bite. We made a full presentation, made our arguments and also gave the RDO details of people who were claiming to be victims of Usha Rani’s deception in the name of Sambhavi‟s spiritual powers.
The Hindu Right Wingers
TV9 was covering live and their journalist announced that the situation was tense and violence was expected between the two groups that were gathering there. Already a group belonging to the Student Federation of India who arrived with no prior information to us – but to support our petition – was arrested by the police and taken away. Members and leaders of the Hindu right wing VHP and RSS started shouting slogans against us, giving dire warnings to Rationalists for interfering with Hindu religious affairs. They picked up a fight with me. The police advised us to leave as the VHP activists were becoming increasingly difficult and aggressive.
We filed the petition to save Sambhavi; she has to go to school and cannot be exploited in the name of religion. She has shown no miracles and should not be called a goddess. And we filed the petition not just on behalf of the Rationalists but on behalf of all the religious and non religious people who were morally offended by how the child was being abused and whose humanitarian instincts were waiting for a formal avenue to express themselves.
Our petition and campaign was on all their behalf.
The official inquiry was conducted for another 2 days. Despite the empty boasting of Usha Rani‟s lawyer and threats of legal action against us, Sambhavi was finally produced in front of the inquiry. Usha Rani was ordered out of the temple by the Endowments Department and the local villagers also largely expressed their disbelief in Sambhavi’s miraculous powers. We were confidentially passed on recordings of telephone threats made by Usha Rani to some journalists. Others have received threatening phone calls. We are keeping a record of those numbers.
The District Collector has sent an interim report to the Human Rights Commission saying that there are no miraculous powers to the child, that Usha Rani had no legal custody of the child, and that she and Sambhavi‟s supposed father were making so many contradictory statements that the administration wants to verify whether he is the real parent of the child. They were not cooperating. The Collector is right: Usha Rani says she is 48 years old, and that she completed her BA from Mysoora University, a University no one has heard of. She says she does not remember where the university is located nor the year when she passed the exams. Neither she nor 36 year old Soumya Acharya are able/willing to produce the birth certificate of the child. Souumya Acharya says he will not reveal the mother‟s name. They say that it is a Brahmin tradition to conduct home schooling. Of course, parents have that right but only if they do not exploit their children – and if that was true, why is Soumya Acharya‟s second daughter being sent to school, defying their family traditions? And when Soumya Acharya went on TV and said that as per their traditions they are not supposed to touch others, it is an incitement to the practice of untouchability. Our lawyer is looking into this and collecting the relevant TV clipping. Eenadu, Andhra Jyothy, Vaartha, Saakshi and Praja Sakti Newspapers are gathering and publishing more evidence.
The Collector has asked for special teams to be dispatched to the respective native places of Soumya Acharya and Usha Rani, confirming our original complaint and suspicion that this child may have been abducted. The collector has ordered that a caretaker and a police constable would be posted with Sambhavi to watch over her till such a time when clarity will emerge about the child‟s parents; he passed orders that Usha Rani and Soumya Acharya were prohibited from taking Sambhavi from the village without government permission. As I write this, the Minister for Education has come on TV saying he does not exclude the Govt. taking over the welfare of the child. The Home Minister has ordered a Crime Investigation Department inquiry into the matter.
People continue to ask us why we are interested in Sambhavi when there are millions of other children. We say, there are millions of children all of who deserve our concern and help, but they are not being paraded as gods and goddesses. And we say that every child has to be rescued child by child. We started with Sambhavi because if we do not take up the case of Sambhavi no one else would. But this can only be a small contribution to a national effort in a country which is 139th in the comity of nations for living standards and has the world‟s biggest concentration of child labour. We all have our duty cut out to help the vulnerable children.
I wrote to Anil Ambani about his supposed donation. We have a few more steps to take to put a check on the special treatment being planned for the Dalai Lama during his planned visit on 21 Dec. and also to help rehabilitate Sambhavi. The Right to Information Act will help in that. And if the Dalai Lama still insists on coming to inaugurate the ashram proposed in the name of Sambhavi, then the scandal will be treated with the full force and outrage that it will deserve and we will also write to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. All these steps we will take. But one thing is already achieved: not only did we touch the common people’s hearts, not only did we expose the hysteria in society as a crime against a child, we also convinced the main players and changed the terms of the debate. Our responsibility in the matter has increased because of the public’s positive expectations despite the sloganeering of the right winger VHP and the RSS. But the only test of victory for our efforts and our campaign would be when Sambhavi is freed from the clutches of her own people so that she could grow to her full potential. The first positive steps have been taken.
It could well be that we will need to involve friends from all over the world in this campaign.
Babu Gogineni is the International Director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union