This is a story about an ashram in Haridwar, and three of its fasting sadhus — one of them dead, one missing and one surviving on lime water, salt and honey for the past 60 days. And about the one cause the sadhus are fighting for — to save the river Ganga from mining, deforestation and indiscriminate hydel projects.

It is also a story about the countless stories being spun around a series of curious incidents surrounding the ashram, Matri Sadan, set up by Swami Shivanand in 1997.

But last things first. In this ashram is an emotional 26-year-old, Brahmachari Atmabodhanand, who says he is ready to perish for the Ganga. He began a hunger strike on October 24, protesting against “government inaction” in saving the river. Despite millions being poured into cleaning the 2,500km river, only one out of 39 locations through which it flows has clean water, show recent surveys by the Central Pollution Control Board.

“The government is allowing the river to die,” says Atmabodhanand, his boyish face overrun by unkempt hair and a formidable beard. “I am a sanyasi. I cannot protest in rallies or go on dharnas. My hunger strike is to awaken people, to make them realise the injustice that they are doing in the name of vikas (development).”

Atmabodhanand believes it’s some part of destiny too, for five years ago, he was the average college student in Kerala’s Alappuzha with no real religious bent and looking for new experiences. Then, in his third year of a computer science course, the 21-year-old got a month off to prepare a project. The plan was to finish studies and snag a job but the free time sent him in another direction. With the project break, he says, “I had a lot of time on my hand and I started reading about God and the meaning of life. I was searching for the truth.”

Like a true millennial, Atmabodhanand googled for a spiritual guru. He found none but decided to take up sanyas and in March 2014, left home with some clothes, his laptop and Rs 2,000 in his pocket. He travelled to Delhi, Haridwar and Badrinath where he wandered from one ashram to the other. “Everything was a business there. When I was seeking a guru, I was given pot to smoke and told to earn money by begging for alms. It was disgusting. Till I met Swamiji,” he says.

Swami Shivanand of Matri Sadan took him in and gave him the name he is known by today. Initially, Atmabodhanand handled the ashram’s social media outreach, then the CCTVs and soon, he was looking after the ashram’s 40 cows. Then, a chain of events began that would culminate in Atmabodhanand’s indefinite fast.

On October 11, Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand died of a heart attack. Sanand, formerly IIT professor GD Agrawal, had been fasting for 111 days. He was fine till he was forcibly taken to AIIMS Rishikesh, alleges Atmabodhanand. Soon after Sanand’s death, on December 6, 39-year-old Sant Gopal Das went missing. He too had gone on a hunger strike and was admitted to AIIMS Delhi.

Atmabodhanand says he was “kidnapped” and taken to AIIMS Rishikesh on November 29. Doctors claimed he had dengue, he recalls, but discharged him three days later after he protested.

Matri Sadan residents believe there is a conspiracy by the administration to “slowly kill off” each of the sadhus. “Our sadhus are fine till the government takes them to hospital,” says Swami Shivanand, who is now worried about Atmabodhanand’s health. They have no faith in the doctors from Har Milap Mission district hospital, appointed by the state. The team says that Atmabodhanand’s liver enzymes are on the rise, only to be told that the ashram will conduct its own tests.

As the days pass, the sadhus know a face-off with the administration and law enforcers is a matter of time. “We will not let them take him from the ashram,” says one disciple.

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