Soldiers stood guard on a highway in Panchkula on Monday as Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was sentenced. Photo: Reuters
Soldiers stood guard on a highway in Panchkula on Monday as Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was sentenced. Photo: Reuters

On August 25, a special court set up by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation pronounced judgment in a criminal case involving Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, 50, leader of the cult Dera Sacha Sauda, who was accused of raping two young devotees back in 2002. One of the young women had drummed up the courage to make a police complaint against the powerful “godman“, who has a mass following.

On August 28, the judge in the special court sentenced Ram Rahim to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment plus a severe fine. He has also been accused of murder and castration of young men.

The term dera in the name of the cult may be taken to mean “ashram”. The term Sacha Sauda, sanctified in Sikh religious lore, would mean “good deal”.

Followers of Ram Rahim who were present in Panchkula, the city in northern Haryana state where the judgment was delivered, resorted to frenzied mob violence and and attacked journalists, media vans, and public and private property, setting fire to government vehicles.

The police fired tear gas, water cannons and live ammunition to try to disperse the mobs at Panchkula and at Ram Rahim’s ashram at Sirsa, another city in Haryana. A total of 38 people, mostly premis (as cult members are known), were killed and more than 250 were injured.

The criminal investigations into the activities of Ram Rahim Singh, who had become a political power broker in Haryana, began in 2002 after the chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court received an anonymous three-page complaint detailing the ordeal of one of Ram Rahim’s devoted female followers.

In a show of strength, Ram Rahim traveled in a convoy of about 100 cars from his headquarters at Sirsa to Panchkula to hear the judgment. His devotees lined the route.

The authorities in Haryana and Chandigarh, the domain of Ram Rahim’s support base, had assembled thousands of paramilitary forces to maintain law and order. As violence intensified, 600 men of the Indian Army were deployed.

Chaos resulted from the fact that the Haryana state police had been instructed to go soft on the agitating premis considering the closeness of relations between the cult leader and the local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A retired senior police official noted that there was “complete failure of the state government, halfhearted police action and political procrastination during the Dera agitation” resulting in massive  destruction and loss of life.

However, Anil Jain, the BJP’s general secretary in charge of Haryana, maintained in an interview with The Indian Express on Sunday that the performance of the state government in dealing with the situation deserved appreciation, since the state police had avoided the killing of thousands by using force at an earlier state of the violence.

The Sikh minority in India has accused Ram Rahim Singh of not behaving like a sober religious leader, instead wearing outlandish apparel and making several records and directing and starring in big-budget films such as Highway Love Charger and MSG: The Messenger of God.

It is a fact that the charismatic spiritual gurus known as “godmen” in India command huge followings among the rural poor belonging mainly to the deprived and exploited communities. When godmen like Ram Rahim are provided patronage by major political parties such as the BJP, they manage to escape close scrutiny while committing serious crimes.

The BJP is the ruling party in India. It is also in power in the state of Haryana. Given his mass appeal and popularity, Ram Rahim Singh has been assiduously courted by political parties of different hues seeking his support, especially the BJP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tweeted to Ram Rahim that he appreciated his work. BJP chief Amit Shah deputed a senior representative along with party candidates for this year’s Haryana State Assembly elections to meet and seek the cult leader’s blessings.

Many BJP ministers in Haryana have contributed large amounts from the public exchequer to Ram Rahim to promote his activities. He in turn would have expected official support from the BJP-led state government in dealing softly with the criminal cases registered against him.

On August 25, the Haryana police were sympathetic toward the agitating crowds of cult members, forgetting their professionalism.

Ram Rahim Singh’s cult appears to be virtually running a parallel government in Haryana. Let us briefly look at the nature of the apparatus he runs in the state.

The Indian Express on Sunday stated that the assets of the Dera Sacha Sauda empire, now under scrutiny by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, was valued at around 11 billion rupees (US$170 million). The Dera owns more than 420 hectares of land across 18 districts of Haryana.

The Dera has 48 branches spread across India. It also has branches in Australia, Canada, the United Arab Emirate, the United Kingdom and the US. Its membership is stated to be around 6 million across the globe.

Besides its establishments at the Sirsa campus, the Dera runs schools and colleges in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh states. It also runs 200 community halls across Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

The Ministry of Corporate Affairs has revealed that Ram Rahim has five movies produced by Hakikat Entertainment, a company incorporated in September 2009 with authorized capital of $1.5 million. The Dera also runs another company, MS Tech Communications.

Manjit, 30, a village council functionary at Phulka near the Dera campus at Sirsa, said that although many people supported the Dera chief, she did not. Not all of those inside the campus were supportive of Ram Rahim Singh: Many just wanted jobs and food, she told The Indian Express.

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.

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