A Guru, A Billionaire and The Gandhis

In Part 5 of our series – India’s ‘Soft’ Enemies, we unearth an astonishing set of individuals who have funded the Congress party leaders

By Sandhya Ravishankar 

While working on unraveling the web of activist-charities who serve George Soros’ ends in India, The Lede found one name popping up repeatedly as an FCRA donor to multiple Soros-affiliated organisations. 

For instance, the National Foundation for India (NFI), led by Biraj Patnaik , a mentee of Open Society Foundation’s Salil Shetty, has received Rs 9.4 crore from this donor between 2015-16 and 2019-20. 

The donor appeared innocuous – Hans Foundation, based in Gurugram and Dehradun and set up in 2009 as “a Public Charitable Trust that provides funding support to Not-for-Profit organizations in India. The main areas of intervention for the organization are; Education, Health, Livelihoods and Disability.” 

A bit of digging yielded another trust based in Manhattan – Rural India Supporting Trust (RIST) – set up in 2007 by “two families with concerns about the well-being of communities in India. In order to address these matters, RIST awards grants to organizations that work on solutions to societal inequities and poverty.” 

Both Hans and RIST were founded by the same people and are also deeply interconnected in other ways, which we shall see later on in this piece. 

Next, The Lede followed the money. What we found was astounding. 

A whopping Rs 188 crore had been donated by RIST to the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust between 2011-12 and 2018-19. The trustees of the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust are former Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi along with two others. The donations stopped after 2018-19.

RIST has also donated Rs 262 crore to Hans Foundation in two transactions. In 2014-15, RIST donated Rs 120 crore to Hans and in 2015-16 the donation was Rs 142 crore. 

So who are these mysterious donors who have such large hearts and wallets? Their story is straight out of a Bollywood potboiler. 

Hans Foundation & The Maharajs

The story begins with a death – on July 19, 1966, Shri Hans ji Maharaj, a popular spiritual guru in Dehradun passed away without naming his successor. 

Hans ji Maharaj, born Hans Ram Singh Rawat, had four sons – Satpal Singh Rawat, Mahipal Singh Rawat, Dharampal Singh Rawat and Prempal Singh Rawat. He also had a daughter from his first wife.

Pic courtesy: www.prem-rawat-bio.org
Pic courtesy: www.prem-rawat-bio.org
Pic courtesy: www.prem-rawat-bio.org

His second wife Rajeshwari Devi aspired to succeed him but the other sants (saints) who surrounded the original Guru ji refused to make a woman the Guru.

Pic courtesy: www.prem-rawat-bio.org

As the discussion over succession was hotly debated inside the house on the 13th day after Hans ji’s passing, one sant quietly took the youngest son – Prempal Singh Rawat – outside to the waiting and anguished devotees, placed a crown on the 8-year-old child and announced that he was the next Guru ji. 

Pic courtesy: www.prem-rawat-bio.org

Hearing the commotion, mother Rajeshwari Devi and the other sons and sants ran out to witness people falling all over themselves to touch the tiny feet of the new Guru ji. 

And thus Maharaji, as he came to be known later, was born. 

Devotees would throng as the chubby child Guru danced like his father, dressed like Lord Krishna and ate copious amounts of ice-cream while they touched and kissed his feet in reverence. 

Pic courtesy: www.prem-rawat-bio.org
Pic courtesy: www.prem-rawat-bio.org

Prempal Heads To The West 

On June 17, 1971, Prempal Singh Rawat, then 14 years old, made his first trip outside of India to London. There, he addressed a crowd of British and Indian devotees to mixed reactions. 

Exactly a month later, against the wishes of his mother and family, Prempal Rawat left for Los Angeles with a couple of loyalists in tow. 

This intrepid group set up the Divine Light Mission. The counter-culture of the time produced a lot of disciples who followed Prempal Singh Rawat’s promise of Knowledge and World Peace.

Pic courtesy: www.prem-rawat-bio.org
Pic courtesy: www.prem-rawat-bio.org
Pic courtesy: www.prem-rawat-bio.org

A teenager with abundant wealth is bound to go off the rails and Prempal did just that. At the age of 16, he married his American secretary. When he was 17 years old, his mother disowned him, alleging that he had begun to eat meat, consumed drugs and alcohol and was consorting with women which went against every grain of his father’s teachings. 

Prempal’s Extraordinary Wealth

Prempal’s followers and wealth grew abundantly. He registered a couple of corporations called Seva Corporation and Seva Corporation of America in Delaware. Through these, he purchased properties and expensive jets, including the Gulfstream of the late Sheikh of Jordan which cost him $40 million. 

Between 1978 and 1999, Seva Corporation and its sister concern bought properties in Malibu, California and Los Angeles, along with a helicopter, a glider and an aircraft. 

A mega event called Millennium ‘73 was organised which almost bankrupted the organisation. Prempal Rawat called it “the most holy and significant event in human history” and urged all of his devotees to attend. Held at the Houston Astrodome, some 20,000 devotees, called ‘premies’ attended the event expecting a big miracle or revelation. From that point onwards, his popularity seemed to wane, as we see no evidence of events happening at a similar scale again.. 

Pic courtesy: www.prem-rawat-bio.org

Over time, Prempal’s speeches and events had less attendance and his followers drastically reduced in numbers. 
By 1985, at the age of 27, Prempal Singh Rawat “retired” as a Guru ji. He gave himself the moniker ‘Maharaji’ and became a public speaker instead, calling for donations to his Prem Rawat Foundation. He is now over 60 years of age and lives in Malibu.

To date, there is little information about how the Divine Light Mission was funded, how a minor was allowed into the US without his family’s consent, where all the money to buy properties and aircraft came from and where it all went. 

Allegations of drug trafficking and money laundering have been thrown at Prempal Singh Rawat but he does not seem to have been investigated so far by the US authorities. 

The Instant Billionaire & RIST 

Around the time Prempal was making merry in the US, a young boy and his parents decided to relocate from Lucknow to the US. The head of the wealthy family of three, father Narottam Bhargava, wanted to pursue a PhD in Wharton. So the family packed up and left. 

Life in the US was grim as both parents pursued their higher education and young Manoj Bhargava was admitted to a public school. Bright at Math, he managed to get into a better school, Hills, which provided quality education. Princeton beckoned and Manoj joined the prestigious institution only to drop out a year later. 

Manoj Bhargava, Founder, Life Essentials LLC

In 1974, Manoj went back to India after dropping out. He lived in the Hanslok Ashram for 12 long years, gathering knowledge and finding a Guru in the second Rawat sibling – better known as Bhole ji Maharaj. 

As Prempal Rawat was retiring, Manoj Bhargava returned to the US permanently in 1986. He would spend the next decade dabbling in various jobs – from his father’s plastics business to finding and turning around small struggling businesses. He then sold off his Indiana PVC unit for about $20 million and moved to Detroit. 

He tried his hand at creating an anti-hangover pill called Chaser. It did not see the light of day. 

In 2003, according to Manoj Bhargava, he struck gold. He found the formula for an energy drink at a natural products fair and launched his energy drink called ‘5-hour Energy’ which went on to become a hot seller. The drink was a product of his firm Living Essentials LLC. 

Manoj Bhargava with his 5-Hour Energy Drink

In a few years, he claimed to have become a billionaire and even signed up for the ‘Giving Pledge’ launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

In 2007, he formed a trust – the Rural India Supporting Trust (RIST) – and pledged 99.9% of his wealth for the upliftment of the rural poor. 

In 2009, his close association with Bhole ji Maharaj led to the formation of the Hans Foundation. Between 2014 and 2016 alone, RIST donated Rs 262 crore to Hans Foundation. 

In 2011, Manoj formed a start-up called Stage 2 Innovations dedicated to finding innovative solutions to the problems of India’s rural population and came up with innovations like the Free Electric – a bicycle which when pedalled for an hour can charge a battery enough to provide light at night for homes without electricity.

He pitched the idea to then Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat who even pedalled the bicycle for a photo op. 

Courtesy: Business Standard

In the meanwhile, RIST quietly funded the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust with huge donations totalling Rs 188 crore between 2011-12 and 2018-19. 

After 2014, Manoj Bhargava has not been seen much in the public eye. In July 2014, Manoj says he met and spoke with newly installed Prime Minister Narendra Modi about pledging $4 billion towards social causes in India as well as the Free Electric bicycle innovation. 

He came out of the meeting disappointed. “He didn’t think I was real,” Manoj is quoted as saying to a reporter from the Business Standard. Modi appears to have remained largely silent and unimpressed with the NRI. 

The reticent billionaire who proclaimed himself the richest Indian in America, became a big success story around 2004 and went off the radar in 2014. How he managed to gain his immense wealth in such a short period of time, why he funded the Congress party’s foundation and why he gave so much money to Hans Foundation are all questions that need answers through an investigation. 

Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust & Rajiv Gandhi Foundation 

Hans Foundation and RIST are not the only dubious donors to the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust which has received FCRA donations until 2021-22. 

In 2013-14, one Sreedhar Potarazu, CEO of VitalSpring, donated around Rs 11.7 lakh to the Trust. Potarazu is a doctor of Indian origin living in America, who was sent to jail in 2017 for swindling $49 million from 174 investors. 

Sreedhar Potarazu who was jailed for duping investors of $49 million

Take Rajiv Gandhi Foundation next. This foundation has not received any FCRA donations beyond 2014. 

However, in 2005-06, the RGF received Rs 90 lakhs from the Embassy of The People’s Republic of China in India.

Another interesting organisation called Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, Germany, has donated Rs 78.2 lakh to the foundation over a 5-year period between 2005-06 and 2010-11. Friedrich Naumann Stiftung is a liberal think tank that is related to the German Free Democratic Party. Their Board has members from the German Government and senior people in German civil society. The turn-of-20th-century German politician, Friedrich Naumann, after whom the Foundation is named, was an advocate of Germany’s imperial claim over Europe, advocated social Darwinism and was an anti-Semite in the early years of political career.  He is also said to have been a founding member of the National Social Association, though not directly related to the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, i.e. the Nazis.

The final question that the Rajiv Gandhi Trust and Foundation trustees need to answer is why they received so much money from such dubious sources.