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Indira and the ‘Indian Rasputin’

Published : Jun 6, 2016, 1:21 pm IST
Updated : Jun 6, 2016, 1:21 pm IST

An extract from the chapter “Indira Gandhi’s Guru: Dhirendra Brahmachari” from Bhavdeep Kang’s Gurus


An extract from the chapter “Indira Gandhi’s Guru: Dhirendra Brahmachari” from Bhavdeep Kang’s Gurus

The grainy black-and-white Films Division documentary on yoga, by the legendary filmmaker Ezra Mir features an extraordinarily good-looking yogi with a flowing beard, lustrous mane and heavy-lidded, hypnotic eyes. The long, elegant limbs and washboard abs belong to Dhirendra Brahmachari. By all accounts, the sexiest godman ever.

“He was stunning. Very fair-skinned and charismatic. He had a presence,” said former diplomat, Union minister and author, K. Natwar Singh, who learnt yoga from him...

Whether clad only in his modest yoga briefs or the sheer white muslin robes he affected in all weathers (accessorised with a white lady’s handbag), the yogi from Bihar was an eye-catching and familiar figure in the early 1980s. His weekly programme on the state-run TV channel, Doordarshan, every Wednesday, made him India’s very first television guru...

The first and most obvious question that springs to mind, considering the subject: did his physical beauty captivate Indira Gandhi Certainly, she found him attractive, but to what extent, is in the realm of speculation. In a letter to her friend, the renowned American photographer, Dorothy Norman, extensively quoted by her biographers, she wrote: “I get up early these days to do a special set of exercises. It is a system (part of yoga) that was taught to us by an excellent, good-looking yogi. In fact, it was his looks, especially his magnificent body, which attracted everyone to his system which is easy and practical. He is however exasperating to talk to — so full of superstition.”

She appeared to have gotten over the exasperation, because the yoga guru went on to become a fixture in her household; conjecture over whether they shared an intimate relationship runs into reams, some of it sheer nonsense but some not quite unconvincing. Through the 1960s, rumour was rife that she was besotted with her yoga teacher, with whom she spent an hour every morning. Katherine Frank, in her biography of Indira Gandhi, recounted gossip about her numerous affairs, including the alleged dalliance with Dhirendra. “Brahmachari was the only man to see Indira alone in her room while giving her yoga instruction, and he was the only male with whom she could have had a relationship during this period.”

The late author and journalist, Khushwant Singh, who was at one time close to the Nehrus, commented with characteristic irreverence, “Dhirendra Brahmachari was a tall, handsome Bihari who had an hour with Indira behind closed doors every morning. Yoga lessons may have ended up with lessons from the Kamasutra.”

Gradually, Brahmachari’s proximity to Indira and his penchant for influence-peddling earned him the sobriquet of “Indian Rasputin”...

That the yoga guru was extremely close to Indira Gandhi and a frequent companion after her father’s death is beyond doubt. As is the fact that he parleyed this relationship into favours from various ministers before and after she became Prime Minister... Veteran lawyer and author Janak Raj Jai, who worked in the Prime Minister’s Office in the 1950s and ’60s, recalled that in 1963, Dhirendra Brahmachari had asked the then minister of education, Dr K.L. Shrimali, to renew the grant to his yoga centre in Delhi. Shrimali in turn requested him to submit the centre’s audited accounts for the previous year’s grant. The yoga guru replied that he had never had to do so in the past. Indira Gandhi promptly took up the matter with her father. “‘Pappu,’ she said, ‘Dr Shrimali has stopped swamiji’s grant.’ She kept pestering him and finally, Prime Minister Nehru spoke to Shrimali. The education minister clarified that he had not stopped the grant, but the rules demanded an audit report for the previous year. Once these were submitted, he would clear the grant. Nehru conveyed this to his daughter, but she was not satisfied.” Jai remembers Nehru being irritated by Indira’s lobbying for the yoga teacher. ‘Should I throw him (Shrimali) out of the window Why can’t this man (Brahmachari) submit an audit report ’”

...Janak Raj Jai recalled yet another instance of Indira intervening on Brahmachari’s behalf when she wrote to the then housing minister, Meher Chand Khanna, to help the yogi retain his government accommodation. The minister duly wrote back, pointing out rather brusquely that as she had no official status in the government, she could perhaps request her father to write or call him directly, in which case he would have no option but to oblige the swami. This she would not do.

And then, there appeared to be a falling out. According to Jai, Indira sent him a slip saying, “Ask swamiji to pack up and go. I am fed up”...

The falling out, if there was one, was short-lived. Dhirendra Brahmachari was once again seen in the PM’s house; rather, his influence became stronger after Nehru’s death in May 1964... In the early Seventies, wrote the late doyenne of culture, Pupul Jayakar: “Brahmachari visited the (Prime Minister’s house) without being overtly visible. This changed during the Emergency... He had reportedly started to use her name to pressure businessmen and officials...”

Pupul Jayakar describes the ease with which he would saunter into 1, Safdarjung Road and once even got into an argument with Indira over an appointment in the education ministry, which prompted her to flare up at him. Unfazed, he was back a few days later.

By now, it was obvious that Dhirendra Brahmachari’s proximity to the Prime Minister bred a certain arrogance and an exercise of extra-constitutional power. In Profiles of Indian Prime Ministers, the author, Manisha, relates an anecdote illustrating the yogi’s clout. Apparently, the former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, then the minister of state for works & housing, was noncommittal about a request put up by Brahmachari for granting extra land for his yoga ashram. Dhirendra paid him a visit in his office, but Gujral refused to oblige him, prompting an open threat. “Either you give me the land or you will be out of the ministry tomorrow.” “It is difficult. There are rules,” said Gujral in response. The swami was as good as his word. I.K. Gujral’s portfolio was changed forthwith...

It was well known that Dhirendra Brahmachari enjoyed a personal rapport with Indira Gandhi’s younger and controversial son, Sanjay Gandhi... To this day, the otherwise affable Dhawan refuses to talk about Brahmachari. Sanjay Gandhi’s widow, Maneka Gandhi, too, will not discuss him. But there’s little doubt that Dhirendra and Sanjay, who shared a love of flying, were close...

On the morning of 23 June 1980, Sanjay Gandhi, well known for his love for flying, crashed a Pitts S2 aircraft near Delhi’s Safdarjung airport and died instantly of severe head injuries. He left a young widow, Maneka and a three-month-old son, Feroze, behind, apart from his mother who was prime minister. In his book, India Since Independence: Making Sense of Indian Politics, V. Ananth Krishna wrote: In fact, the ill-fated Pitts S2 aircraft that Sanjay was flying and crashed on June 23 1980, belonged to Brahmachari... M.O. Mathai, Jawaharlal Nehru’s private secretary, described Dhirendra Brahmachari as, “very dangerous and powerful... I can write a book with sordid details on his nefarious activities.” It was evident that after Sanjay Gandhi’s death, when Indira Gandhi found herself in distress and alone, there was no one to keep the wily yoga teacher in check.