Riots break out in India’s Haryana state following the conviction of a self-styled “godman,” Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, for raping his followers.
The northern Indian state of Haryana has been on standby since August 25 following the conviction of a self-styled “godman,” Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the 50-year-old leader of Dera Sacha Sauda (Place of Truth) sect, to 20 years in prison for raping two of his followers. After his conviction, riots erupted across the state, leaving at least 30 people dead and over 200 injured, and millions lost in damage to public property.
India has hundreds of such “godmen” and “godwomen” who claim millions of followers. Surprisingly, the number of them being convicted of rape is also increasing. Singh, the “spiritual saint” and “messenger of god,” isn’t the only one accused of raping followers. Asuram Sirumalani, more popularly known as Asaram Bapu, who is a preacher based out of Gujarat, was arrested in 2013 on rape charges. His son, also a religious leader, was jailed for the same crime. Mehndi Kasim, another “godman,” was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2016 for raping seven girls under the pretext that he could “cure” them from having disabled children after “treating” their brothers for mental illness.
What is shocking is that even after their convictions, many of their adherents still believe in these “gurus” and are willing to resort to violence for them. The Haryana state government allowed over 100,000 people to congregate before the conviction, fully aware that violence was brewing. What followed included houses being looted by Dera Sacha Sauda followers, government offices set on fire, trains and buses burned, media offices attacked. Cities such as Panchkula went up in flames of fury.
People who venerate Singh believe he has the power to heal cancer and other incurable diseases. His charities span the length of the city of Sirsa, and he is believed to have taken hundreds of abandoned children and given them shelter at his ashram. Assets of Dera Sacha Sauda were valued at Rs2.4 billion ($37.5 million) in 2015. The fear of the religious leader is such that he was given special treatment on his way to court and after. The judge who delivered his sentence had to be flown into Rohtak, Haryana, in a helicopter.
Singh also has films to his credit. The chief of India’s Censor Board resigned to protest the release of his film, but his followers remained unshaken in their determination to see the guru on the big screen. When comedian Kiku Sharda joked about the godman’s sense of style, he was arrested and sentenced to 14 days in custody for outraging religious feelings of Singh’s followers, and later made to apologize on national television.
The problem lies not in the fact that there were riots in Haryana, but rather that the social fabric of India encourages blind faith in these self-professed “godmen” who abuse their power to steal, deceive and rape. India is submerged in poverty, and gurus like Singh, who provide social schemes like clinics, schools and ashrams, are seen as alternatives to the government that many believe has done little for them. Dera Sacha Sauda’s social services wing is credited with organizing awareness and rehabilitation camps for young people in the state of Punjab that has been mired in a drug crisis for the last decade. They also open medical camps and organize religious sermons. While these initiatives did contribute to social services, they also gave more power to Dera Sacha Sauda’s leader, who then misused it. Religion, coupled with social benefits, proves a dangerous combination.
Singh is also reported to have ordered the killing of the brother of one of the girls he raped, and she claims to have been threatened by him. Now in her 40s, she bravely upheld her statement, prompting his conviction. Singh is also believed to have ordered the killing of Ram Chander Chhatrapati, a journalist who exposed other rape cases involving the guru 15 years ago. Yet his ardent supporters refuse to acknowledge his crimes, pointing to his good deeds as a reason to keep believing in him.
The Manohar Lal Khattar-led government of Haryana shouldn’t be free from blame either. Khattar, a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), did little to stop the violence and is believed to have been friends with Singh. This isn’t the first time that the Haryana government failed to do its job. In February 2016, members of the Jat community, who constitute nearly 30% of Haryana’s population, went on a violent rampage after their demand for inclusion in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category was turned down by the court. It is believed several women were raped at highway junctions connecting Punjab, Haryana and Delhi.
The Khattar government did nothing then and it did nothing now. Responding to the media campaign against Khattar demanding his resignation, he claimed the size of the mob and the presence of anti-social elements had led to lapses in security. Only after the first day of violence following Singh’s conviction were paramilitary forces rushed to Sirsa before the verdict was due to be announced on August 28. Compensation was promised from the Dera Sacha Sauda for those whose property was damaged, but what about the lives lost in the rampage?
It is time to take stock of India’s complex social situation and accept that the state machinery is not enough to control such outbursts of public unrest. More social schemes on the ground are needed to uplift the poor. More people need to expose fake “godmen” and gurus who use the ambit of religion to commit heinous crimes like rape. And, above everything, the government needs to understand that the repeated rioting and damage to property will play an adverse role in the 2019 election, when people will decide on who will lead them. Khattar’s government, at least, does not make the cut.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.