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“I have always respected the law. Even though I am having a backache, still abiding by the law, I will go to court (tomorrow). I have full faith in God. Everyone should maintain peace.” Thus spake Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, film actor, producer, director, businessman and evangelist of the Dera Sacha Sauda a day before he was convicted by a CBI court of raping a disciple.
The story of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh aka messenger of god (as his film in which he was a hero, actor, director and producer was called) begins in the first decade of 2000.
A dera is a single person setting up a religious institution for social or educational activities. There are thousands of deras, big and small, all over north India, headed by Sikh or Hindu chiefs. The Radhasoami Satsang Beas is one such, the Nirankaris have their own deras. The logic is that as the Akal Takht, the highest Sikh religious body, cannot be present everywhere to translate on the ground the tenets of Sikhism, anyone who wants to can set up a dera to preach and practise a religion that technically does not recognise caste.
The Dera Sacha Sauda is one such. It is located in what is now Haryana but was once undivided Punjab. It has a largely Dalit following in Sirsa, which is a Sikh belt contiguous with Punjab. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is a successor of previous highly popular gurus, and has a reputation of being a somewhat quixotic individual who lives in an air-conditioned cave, is fond of dressing in king-like robes, drives in luxury cars, and keeps armed guards with him at all times.
All political leaders — Parkash Singh Badal, Amarinder Singh, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, and SS Dhindsa — have called on him to seek his blessings. This has been a recognition of the huge following of largely Dalit supporters he has been able to command. Sirsa sits atop the Chandigarh-Punjab-Rajasthan border and can influence political opinion in three states.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh would have been just another harmless religious leader had it not been for two events — one, a CBI enquiry into the circumstances of the murder of a journalist in the area who wrote reports charging Singh with various misdeeds including murder and rape; and two, that Singh, one day in the middle of the campaign for the 2007 assembly elections announced to his followers that they all must vote for the Congress.
Alarmed at this, BJP leader Arun Jaitley went to Singh to tell him he was making a mistake by dabbling in politics. The general perception was that Singh had done a deal with the Congress to get the CBI off his back. When the Congress did, in fact, virtually sweep the Sangrur, Bathinda and Mansa belt (once an Akali stronghold), and it became clear that the Akali Dal had lost 10 to 15 seats in the 117-member Punjab assembly because of Singh’s fiat, it was determined to take revenge. Incidentally, Singh’s son-in-law Harminder (referred to reverentially by Sauda followers as ‘Sahibzaada’) won the Bathinda assembly seat in 2007.
Around this time, the CBI is hot on his heels after the letter of an anonymous Sadhvi said Ram Rahim had raped her in 2002, and the agency discovered that a journalist who had reported on the case was missing, possibly murdered (hence the torching of OB vans of TV channels by supporters who hold the media responsible for the Messenger’s current travails).
The duration of imprisonment will be announced on Monday. But who will head the sect if he is in jail, will they do so with the same elan? And, what of the political clout the Dera has come to wield?