As Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, an Indian sect leader, made his way to a court in India‘s northern Haryana state on the morning of August 25, some news channels ran live coverage of the 200-car cavalcade, that included several black SUVs, as it made its nearly 250km journey from Sirsa to Panchkula in Haryana.
That Singh had been accorded Z-plus security – usually reserved for prominent politicians – was testimony to the level of political influence this controversial sect leader wielded.
When a few hours later the judge in Panchkula delivered his verdict – finding Singh guilty of raping two of his followers – tens of thousands of his supporters, who had gathered at the court, began rioting. In the ensuing violence, at least 38 people were killed and scores were wounded.
Singh, who is popularly known as Ram Rahim, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for rape on Monday.
The country’s Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) is also looking into Singh’s alleged involvement in the 2002 murder of a journalist who investigated Singh’s religious order – Dera Sacha Sauda, which means “place of truth” – and exposed the rape allegations against him. He has also been accused of forcing 400 of his followers to undergo castration.
So, who is Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh?
The head of Dera Sacha Sauda
The 50-year-old was born to Sikh parents in the western Indian state of Rajasthan.
In 1990, at the age of 23, he was anointed head of Dera Sacha Sauda, a sect that was established in 1948 and to which Singh had been introduced by his father, Maghar Singh.
Under Singh, the sect, which is headquartered in the city of Sirsa in Haryana, about 260km from the capital, New Delhi, has grown substantially. It now has nearly 50 branches across the country and claims 60 million followers, mainly from Haryana, Punjab and New Delhi. Its headquarters boasts a cinema, hotel, sports stadium and schools.
The Dera, which describes itself as a “non-profit social welfare and spiritual organisation”, advocates vegetarianism and opposes drug and alcohol consumption. High rates of drug and alcohol addiction pose a major problem in the region.
In recent years, Singh – who is married with a son and two daughters but now claims to be celibate – has acquired a colourful persona, making films and producing music albums. His penchant for bright outfits and jewellery has earned him the name the “guru of bling”.
His Facebook profile describes him as “Saint Dr. MSG”, while his Twitter bio presents him as: Spiritual Saint/Philanthropist/Versatile Singer/Allrounder Sportsperson/Film Director/Actor/Art Director/Music Director/ Writer/Lyricist/Autobiographer/DOP.
In 2002, one of his female followers wrote an anonymous letter to the country’s then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, alleging that she had been raped by Singh and that other women had also been sexually exploited. This triggered a CBI investigation, which eventually led to Singh’s conviction.
But to millions of his followers, Singh remains a figure to be revered, despite his conviction.
“He can’t do any wrong … He works to rid the world of all its troubles,” Rajkumar, a shopkeeper from Haryana, told the AFP news agency.
Singh’s political links
Since Friday’s deadly violence, there has been a public outcry over Singh’s close connection to the corridors of power, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the government at the federal level, as well as in Haryana state.
In the 2014 Haryana assembly election, Singh issued a public statement calling on his followers to vote for the BJP. The state’s chief minister and other ministers have shared a stage with him despite the fact that he was under investigation for rape.
In a 2014 tweet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi applauded Dera’s efforts to take part in a campaign to clean up the streets.
Singh also lent tacit support to the opposition Congress party in 2007.
In Haryana and Punjab state, there are tens of thousands of sects known as deras. A dera is a spiritual centre with living gurus around which the dera is organised.
Deras often attract members of the most disadvantaged castes, whether Hindu or Sikh.
In Punjab, where one-third of the population are Dalits, the most disadvantaged caste, whose members often face daily discrimination, there are more than 10,000 deras.
“People go to the new deras because they find them offering a vital space for recognition and identity,” Panjab University Professor Ronki Ram told Scroll.in news site.