India is dealing with the fallout from an unusual kind of protest that took place last weekend. Thirty-eight people were killed during a violent demonstration against the conviction of the leader of a religious sect for raping two of his female followers.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, one of India’s so-called “godmen”, has as many as 60 million online devotees, and last weekend’s protest was not the first to turn violent in his defence. The reporter who first revealed Singh’s sexual misconduct was shot dead shortly after the story broke.
Singh is the leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, and a flamboyant character who has used the Indian airwaves to build a one-man publicity machine. Rape allegations as well as suspicions that Singh ordered the killing of a journalist have been hanging over his head for 15 years. But that hasn’t stopped Indian media outlets from giving him publicity.
“When these media outlets were gloating about Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and were busy promoting his movies, they knew this man has been accused of killing a journalist. He is accused of rapes, accused of extortion and other illegal activities. But they agreed to take him on the news channels,” says investigative journalist Anurag Tripathi.
Author and journalist Swati Chaturvedi is critical of the role media play in building up India’s “babas”. “We give them primetime slots, we promote them, we build them up, we push them and push them, to the level where they are all pervasive in public consciousness,” she says.
The ultimate fear is the fate that befell Ram Chandra Chhatrapati, the journalist who, way back in 2002, first exposed the sexual assault allegations against Singh – and who swiftly paid for that with his life.
But much of the promotion of the “godmen” is driven by ratings and circulations. “As soon as you begin to wield influence over a mass of people, you start attracting the attention of political parties who want to align with you and this is when the mainstream media get involved,” says media analyst Vineet Kumar. “To most people, the baba is a holy spiritual leader, but in reality, he represents a lucrative revenue structure. And wherever there is a revenue structure the mainstream media will inevitably follow.”
The result, says FirstPost columnist Srinivas Prasad, is a lack of scrutiny of the babas. “Editors routinely reject all ideas of any stories to investigate godmen. They are afraid of losing potential readers and these godmen have links with the politicians,” he says. “We end up having very little or no investigation into godmen of this country.”
As Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has another court date upcoming for the Chhatrapati murder case, the trial of the Indian news media – the Big Media – continues.
Swati Chaturvedi, Author and journalist
Vineet Kumar, Media critic
Anurag Tripathi, Journalist
Srinivasa Prasad, Contributor, First Post