Bahadur Nagar is a village consumed by faith — the kind that is unquestioning, leaving no space for disbelief. It’s this devotion that got Pratap Singh, 40, to forgo the daily wages that he gets as a labourer in Firozabad district and travel over a 100 km for “duty” to Bahadur Nagar village in neighbouring Kasganj.

Standing outside the pearly white fortress that’s the ashram of Suraj Pal alias Bholey Baba alias Narayan Sakaar Hari — the ‘godman’ at the centre of the Hathras stampede, one of the biggest such in recent times that led to at least 121 deaths and left many injured — Pratap Singh says, “This is a sacred place, you cannot come near it with your dirty shoes. This is a divine gate. Nobody is allowed past this gate. Like you can only feel hunger, but cannot see it, you can only experience the power of Bhole Baba. You cannot see his magic, but you can feel it.”


Suraj Pal’s ashram in Bahadur Nagar Suraj Pal’s ashram in Bahadur Nagar. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

Dressed in his light pink uniform, Pratap is a sewadar (volunteer) at the ashram in Bahadur Nagar, Suraj Pal’s ancestral village. It’s an eight-hour daily duty that he will do for the next 21 days until another set of sewadars replace him and the other volunteers.

That Suraj Pal has been on the run since the stampede doesn’t dent his devotion. “Hundreds of satsangs have taken place over the years, but not even an ant has been trampled upon in all these years. This was just an accident, it should be seen as one,” says the man, turning around and chanting in a loop, “Satya roopi jwala Sakar Vishwa Hari…”.

Bahadur Nagar, around 47 km from Sikandra Rao in Hathras, the site of the stampede, is the ancestral village of Suraj Pal. Though he doesn’t live here anymore — the village hasn’t seen a satsang by him since November 2014 and the man himself last made a brief visit in March 2023 — the ashram, spread on nearly 2.5 bighas and standing behind tall walls and golden gates, is revered as a shrine. Every Tuesday, hundreds of devotees gather here and bow down at the locked gates.

Festive offer
The house in which he was born to farmer Nanhe Singh Jatav. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha) The house in which he was born to farmer Nanhe Singh Jatav. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

But these days, in the aftermath of the tragedy that followed Suraj Pal’s satsang in Hathras, Bahadur Nagar, a village with nearly 1,000 people, has a new set of visitors: media personnel, police and a few curious minds. They come asking questions of its residents: Who is Suraj Pal and how did he become Bholey Baba?

From police to “prabhu ji”

With most of his associates and others close to the family on the run, there are few answers to how a constable turned to spirituality and eventually got called “Parmatma” and “Prabhu ji” by his followers.

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Suraj Pal, who served in the Local Intelligence Unit of the Uttar Pradesh Police in Agra, later joined the force and was posted in the office of the Superintendent of Police (Rural Area) in the district.

While addressing the media after the recent arrests in the stampede, Aligarh range IG Shalabh Mathur said, “Suraj Pal took voluntary retirement from the force in 2000. He was then head constable and was posted at the SP (RA) office.”

Senior police sources say their investigation so far suggests that he had started making claims of supernatural powers while in service. It was in 2000, after he left the force, that he claimed that he would be able to revive a 16-year-old girl who had died and forcibly took the body away from her family – an incident that landed him in jail in 2000. Police say that so far, it’s the only known FIR against Suraj Pal.

Served in the Local Intelligence Unit of UP Police in Agra. Later joined the force and was posted in the office of the Superintendent of Police (Rural Area) Suraj Pal, who served in the Local Intelligence Unit of the Uttar Pradesh Police in Agra, later joined the force and was posted in the office of the Superintendent of Police (Rural Area) in the district. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

After he came out of jail, he moved from Agra to his ancestral village in Kasganj, where he took to preaching.

Born to farmer Nanhe Singh Jatav in Bahadur Nagar, Suraj Pal, who is believed to be in his 60s, is the eldest of three siblings. While one of his younger brothers, Bhagwan Das, died of an illness, the other, Rakesh Kumar, is a former pradhan of Bahadur Nagar and lives in the village with his family. Villagers say the two brothers had a fallout many years ago and Rakesh Kumar continued to live in the small family home that’s at the end of a narrow lane. Days after the stampede, the house is deserted, with a lock on the main gate.

Suraj Pal’s cult-like status is evident in large swathes of rural Agra, Farrukhabad, Etah, Hathras, Kasganj, Aligarh, Mainpuri, Etawah, Kanpur Nagar and Kanpur Dehat. A senior IPS officer in Uttar Pradesh, who, in the days since the tragedy, is collating details from across the state on Suraj Pal, says his followers are also present in the districts of Rajasthan and Haryana that border Uttar Pradesh.

The officer said Suraj Pal cultivated his followers carefully. As was evident in Hathras, women made up a bulk of his followers. They would come to his satsangs, their hearts overwhelmed with pain — an illness in the family, an unmarried daughter, a wayward son – and go back, believing they had found their salve in his words. Almost all of them, the officer says, are from the Dalit Jatav community to which Suraj Pal belongs and which has a significant presence across Uttar Pradesh. Most of them are emotionally vulnerable, looking for ready solutions to their many challenges, bypassing a system they feel marginalised in.

As was evident in Hathras, women made up a bulk of his followers. As was evident in Hathras, women made up a bulk of his followers. (Express photo)

Unlike most godmen, the officer said, Suraj Pal preferred to stay low-key, with no personal website or social media accounts. None of his ashrams have CCTVs and his satsangs and his other activities have rarely been covered on traditional or social media. He is not known to have a spokesperson or public relation officer and has rarely been interviewed. Which is why, when his name first came up following the stampede, few had seen or heard of him — no invite, for instance, had gone out to any media professional or organisation about the Hathras event where Suraj Pal eventually addressed a gathering of close to 2.5 lakh devotees.

His highly guarded persona meant that his followers, too, were prohibited from sharing anything about him or his satsangs on social media. The only known photographs of Suraj Pal are those displayed on posters and trinkets at his religious gatherings or a few secretly captured videos from his satsangs.

Police officials say that in the absence of publicity, Suraj Pal used an ingenious network marketing model to get more devotees — each follower had to bring in a few others, a process and chain with unlimited reach.

An officer said those who spread the word on the Baba’s “magical prowess” made sure they did so in rural areas, mostly in the most impoverished parts, where they made it a point to underline Surajpal’s caste — that he was one of them, yet blessed with a divinity that could be theirs too. His gatherings usually coincide with the post-harvesting season.

During most of his sermons, Suraj Pal, usually dressed in white shirts and trousers, and his wife Premwati — a constant presence at these gatherings — sit on gilded chairs, while he talks of himself as God. “One who prays for Sakaar Hari becomes immortal. You are born into this life to pray to Sakaar Hari and not waste your life. I have made it easy for you so that you can pray to Sakaar Hari while being part of the society and doing your jobs,” he says in one of the few available recordings of his satsangs.

Back in Bahadur Nagar, the faithful continue to throng the gates of the ashram, with the tragedy in Hathras barely a blip on their minds. Back in Bahadur Nagar, the faithful continue to throng the gates of the ashram, with the tragedy in Hathras barely a blip on their minds. (Express photo)

A senior police officer who, during his posting in a district in Agra zone, had once given permission for a Suraj Pal gathering, shares, “I came to know about this godman when an application seeking permission for his satsang landed on my desk. Since lower-rung police officials and the district administration had already cleared it, I did not raise any objection. I went to the venue and was surprised at what I saw — the gathering was huge.”

Details collected by the administration during its investigation into the Hathras stampede has found that Suraj Pal prefers to keep his distance from politicians, though many come to seek his blessings, especially during the elections, given his hold over the Jatav community. Police sources say that while Suraj Pal was seen as a people’s baba, his satsangs had a separate sitting arrangement for his VVIP guests, many of them senior officials.

Talking about the patronage Suraj Pal enjoyed, a senior officer said their investigation has so far revealed that the trusts run by him got donations from senior officials and businessmen.

The officer pointed to the funds required to maintain about half-a-dozen of the “luxurious” ashrams that he ran in Kasganj, Mainpuri, Kanpur and Etah in UP and Dausa in Rajasthan. Of late, the officer said, Suraj Pal, who has been staying at his Mainpuri ashram, had been spending more time in his Dausa facility.

The security cordon

As part of their investigation into the Hathras deaths, police are probing the role of Suraj Pal’s private security guards, who allegedly pushed back the crowd when they tried to collect the soil left behind by his moving car. This has been mentioned as the main cause of the stampede in a report that the Hathras Sub Divisional Magistrate has submitted to the government.

The stampede in Hathras was one of the biggest such in recent times that led to at least 121 deaths and left many injured. The stampede in Hathras was one of the biggest such in recent times that led to at least 121 deaths and left many injured. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

According to his followers, Suraj Pal relies heavily on his team of security guards. While the male guards are categorised into three groups — the Narayani Sena, Harivahak Sena and Garud Yodhha — each with distinct roles, the women guards are part of the Gopika Unit.

While those in the Narayani Sena wear light pink uniforms, the Harivahak wear brown and the Garuds, in commando-like bandanas, are usually in black. The women’s ‘Gopika Unit’, whose uniform is identical to that of the paramilitary forces, forms the first ring of security around Suraj Pal. Their primary job is to ensure that no one, not even the followers, use mobile phones to take his pictures.

Police sources say the guards handle the crowd at all religious gatherings and are usually deployed on both sides of the roads leading to the venue, among the crowd, and around the stage where Surajpal sits.

While briefing the media in Hathras on Wednesday, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had said that the personal guards of the Baba did not allow policemen to go inside the pandal. Police said their preliminary inquiry has found that some serving policemen could have been part of Surajpal’s personal security force.

“These policemen take leave to accompany the Baba. Some retired policemen also give their services to the Baba by training the security guards. Our investigation will verify and collect all these details,” said an officer.

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‘He is our God’

Back in Bahadur Nagar, the faithful continue to throng the gates of the ashram, with the tragedy in Hathras barely a blip on their minds. A plaque at the gate displays a list of prominent donors, among them police officers, doctors, businessmen and bankers.

Pushing back devotees who cross a white line in front of the ashram gate, sewadar Rakesh Kumar, 45, says “Bhole Baba” had answers to all his problems and that he is now paying off his debt to his “God” by doing sewa at the ashram.

Rakesh says that it was his aunt who persuaded him to attend Suraj Pal’s satsang in UP’s Tundla district. “In 2006, my wife Usha Devi used to be possessed and I had lost all hope. I have four children and it was difficult to run the household. I attended a satsang and when I returned, my wife was already feeling better. I even started earning better from farming on my agricultural land. Baba is our God now. Because of him, my daughter got married into a good family and my elder son has a job at a khoya factory in Gujarat,” says Rakesh, a resident of Airi village in Jalaun district.

While most in the village are willing to suspend their disbelief when they talk of Suraj Pal, a few say they have other reasons to back him. While most in the village are willing to suspend their disbelief when they talk of Suraj Pal, a few say they have other reasons to back him. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

He says all his family members are devotees of Suraj Pal. “We will serve Baba for generations. After I am dead, my son will do sewa at the ashram.”

The ashram stands as a stark contrast to the rest of the village that’s dotted by unplastered homes and open drains. Most of the villagers work as small-time farm labourers, masons, painters and carpenters.

Around 50 metres from the ashram lives Anand Kumar, 26, his mother Draupa Devi, 80, and their extended family members.

Draupa says she has been a follower of the godman for nearly 30 years now. “His ashram was not huge then. He would come here every Tuesday for satsangs in a small hut. I attended those satsangs regularly. Baba would tell us not to lie, steal, use intoxicants and gamble. My husband was an alcoholic, but he stopped drinking because of Baba’s magical powers,” she says.

When Draupa’s son Anand is not working as a painter in Ghaziabad, he doubles as a sewadar at the ashram. His sister Arti, who is employed at the anganwadi kendra in the village, hopes “Bholey Baba’s” magical powers will help her patch up her estranged husband. Arti’s niece Laxmi Jatav, 12, too, has her reasons. “Last year, I had prayed to Bholey Baba that I should top the exams. And I did,” says Laxmi, who studies in Class 8 in the village school.

While most in the village are willing to suspend their disbelief when they talk of Suraj Pal, a few say they have other reasons to back him.

Bhanu Pratap, who works as a data entry operator in the Block office, says while the village has its own set of problems — poverty, illiteracy, unemployment — people support Suraj Pal because he is someone from their samaj (community) who has made it big.

“I am not really a follower. Bhole Baba has not done anything for me or for my village. But I support him after what happened in Hathras. If the same incident had happened in an upper caste preacher’s event, no one would have cared. But because he is from our samaj, everyone is out looking for him.”



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