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This report on Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, which first appeared on Business Standard on February 6, 2016, is being republished as the self-styled godman was on August 25 convicted by a CBI court in a 14-year-old rape case.
It is past 6 pm. The bright afternoon sky now has an amber tinge to it. The placid milieu of the deserted, decrepit roads is punctuated by the violent fluttering of trees. The vast mustard fields that envelop the town are quickly plunging into darkness; Sirsa, in western Haryana, is slowly cutting itself from the world.
Yet, at one corner of the city, there is a bevy of people anxiously waiting to catch a fleeting glimpse of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, or, as his followers like to address him, Guruji. A cavalcade of 10 cars, complete with Z-category security, breezes past. Singh, seated in the front of a ritzy green SUV, flashes a broad grin as devotees bow down with folded hands, devotion write large on their faces.
For many, this sighting of the Dera Sacha Sauda chief is the realisation of a dream, one that will help them sleep peacefully. Gurpreet Singh, a slight man in his late 20s, tells me that this is the moment people like him wait for. "Guruji has blessed me," he says with easy conviction. "Only good things will happen now."
Such is his belief in Singh that I see no point in telling him that this is precisely the stuff rationalists scoff at. In fact, none of what any detractor might say matters in Sirsa, where the Dera is headquartered.
On January 25, the birth anniversary of Shah Satnam Ji, Dera Sacha Sauda's second head and Singh's predecessor, an estimated 10 million people thronged the sprawling 900-acre ashram to get satsang. Traffic snarls as long as 30 km left the town crippled.
In this part of the world, Singh enjoys the status of a larger-than-life figure whose crusades against drugs, alcohol and prostitution have made him a cult hero. As one of his followers tells me, "There is nothing that Guruji cannot do. He has the power to change everything."
Almost everyone I meet here has a story to share - an inexplicable miracle performed by Singh that helped them revive their lives. Sukhanjot Singh, 37, explains how Singh helped him evade the bullet of a terrorist when he was a teenager in a village near Amritsar. "I was hanging around my house with a couple of friends. Two gunmen came up and threatened to kill us. Guruji then magically appeared and dissuaded the terrorists from shooting at us," he claims.
Lakhvir Insan reminisces how Singh cured an enervating fever that had plagued him for two years. In 1998, soon after the recovery, he left his family in Patiala and moved to the ashram to work as a sevak. For 47-year-old Gurmel Singh, dressed in a rumpled white kurta pyjama and pink sleeveless sweater, Singh's blessings turned around his family business that was rapidly spinning into debt.
Magic is an inalienable part of religion here. It is at the root of the enormous political clout Singh enjoys and the evident prosperity.
At the Dera's ashram, situated at the end of a long line of tiny houses where buffaloes are tethered out on the street, eremites are omnipresent. They look unmindful of the pale, almost morbid, green of the ashram walls.
An arid wasteland when construction began in 1992, the ashram today is a green oasis. The esplanade circumventing the satsang ground is decked with lush green grass and a clump of trees. The ground can hold thousands of people, with separate enclosures for men and women. Walls with aphorisms engraved on them are aplenty. The odd peacock dances in the backdrop.
Aditya Insaan sits inside his office amid a deluge of files and newspapers. An ophthalmologist who studied at the All India Institute for Medical Sciences, the country's premier medical college, he is the Dera's official spokesperson. He also edits Saying Truth, the Dera's official weekly paper. Sporting a maroon jacket and green woollen cap, the bespectacled Aditya Insaan starts on a defensive note.
"Here is a saint who is trying to serve society but is painted in such bad light by the media," he says. He himself claims to have been a "drunkard" who constantly chased woman till Singh bought a semblance of calm and divinity to his life. "Nobody mentions how he has transformed the lives of so many people."
The Dera, in the past, has helped with disaster relief, initiated cleanliness drives, set up charitable hospitals, worked for the welfare of transgenders and encouraged organic farming. Singh, for his efforts, has 19 Guinness Book of World Records to his name, plaques of which proudly hang inside the ashram.
Controversy, however, has refused to leave his side. In 2001, he was booked for the murder of Sirsa-based journalist Ram Chander Chatrapati, who was writing about the activities of the Dera. The following year, a female follower wrote an anonymous letter to (then) prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, alleging that she had been sexually abused by Singh. He has also been accused of forcibly castrating 400 followers; an act he said would take them closer to god. All matters are pending before the court.
The Dera's numbers have swelled by four times in the last few years. Aditya Insaan says that Singh enjoys such support because of his work for humanity. "If all those allegations were true, then why would people flock to Sirsa in such large numbers," he asks.
At a barren field on the outskirts of the city, a cloud of dust circles the clear blue sky. A battle scene for MSG: The Warrior, the fourth instalment of the film series featuring Singh, is being shot. An army of men, brandishing swords and lances, stands in readiness as the director yells last-minute instructions. Singh is seated under a red makeshift tent at the far end of the set. Wearing a white suit of armour and a clinquant gold necklace, Singh blesses his devotees by gently waving his right hand.
Fans - or supporters - wait restlessly to spot him. Pawan Insan, a close aide of Singh, tells me that hundreds of people from nearby villagers, where Singh is a father-like figure, come to see his films' shooting. Many have been lifelong supporters of the Dera.
The first two parts saw Singh ride swanky customised motorcycles in glistening attires, nonchalantly slaying the bad guys. In spite of liberal special effects, the films were brutally castigated by the critics.
The purpose of making these films, explains Jeetu Arora Insan, the man who co-directed the first two parts, is to send out a social message. "These are films trying to entertain and carry a social message at the same time. Nothing controversial," he says.
That isn't how it panned out. The first film's screening was partially stalled in Punjab after Sikh groups protested. The second part was banned in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand for hurting the sentiments of tribes.
Still, the producers insist the two films ended up doing brisk business. Ajay Dhamija of Hakikat Entertainment, the company that produced the films, claims that the two parts made Rs 489 crore and Rs 165 crore, respectively - that's more than many Bollywood blockbusters.
"Our goal is to show people the right path. And I think we managed to do that successfully in the first two films," explains Dhamija. MSG: The Warrior and MSG: Online Gurukul, the third and fourth in the series, are being shot simultaneously. Busy in the shoot, Singh was unable to spare time for an interview for this report. His rock star image, says Aditya Insaan, has been cultivated to strike a chord with the youth. "Youngsters these days only understand this language. A true guru is someone who adapts with time. And, that's what Guruji is doing," he says.
Last week saw Singh launch MSG, a line of products that includes eatables, cosmetics and grocery items. MSG is an acronym for Mastana Ji, Satnam Ji and Gurmeet Singh, the three gurus to who have headed the Dera since its inception in 1948.
Chhinder Pal Arora, MSG's chairman, agrees to meet me at the one of the company's manufacturing units at Sirsa. The factory looks big, though I am not allowed inside. Dressed in a blue jacket and blue shirt, Arora says that the mission behind launching these products is to ensure that people get access to unadulterated food.
Comparisons with Ramdev's Patanjali are obvious but Arora insists he is competing with no one. "Our goal is to introduce healthy, organic products at decent prices in the market. It's almost like a health campaign," he says. I happen to try one of MSG's products - a tomato-flavoured namkeen called Kadak Tadak. The taste is eerily similar to another popular product available in the market.
For now, MSG products are available in retail outlets in Sirsa and the neighbouring town of Hissar. But they seem to have made quite a frantic start. Anil Kumar, a cashier at one of the stores, tells me that a couple of products are already out of stock. "Shampoos and oils have been doing quite well. Sales should pick up even more," he says. Behind him on a shelf coated in fulgent orange, is a line of neatly-stacked bottles of MSG aloe vera gel. Arora plans to take the online route soon.
With his humongous support base, it is natural that Singh commands phenomenal political influence in the region. In 2014, just before the Haryana Assembly elections, Kailash Vijaivargiya, Bharatiya Janata Party's state chief, led a team of 40 candidates seeking his blessings. Congress candidates such as Randeep Surjewala too turned to the Dera for support.
Even as the Dera's political wing pledged its support to BJP in Haryana and later in Delhi, Aditya Insaan says that Singh himself does not pick political sides. "He chooses to be apolitical. Candidates from all parties come here to seek blessings. No one is favoured."
A local leader, who contested the 2014 Assembly elections but lost, says that Singh's influence on his followers is powerful. "He won't ask you to vote for someone. But his followers understand the sentiment," he says. "Political parties can gain hugely from such an association."
In September last year, Singh was pardoned by the Akal Takht - the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs - for dressing up like Guru Gobind Singh in Bhatinda in 2007. Political experts feel that the move was orchestrated by the Akali Dal to appease Singh who enjoys considerable clout in the Malwa region of Punjab. However, mounting pressure from Sikh hardliners and other religious groups forced the Takht to revoke the pardon the following month.
The Punjab elections next year may go a long way in determining the true compass of Singh and the Dera's influence. For now, he's just a ubiquitous portly godman, who, for his followers, is playing out the role of messenger of god.