Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim  in a helicopter in which he was flown from Panchkula to Rohtak, Haryana, to be lodged in a jail, Aug. 25. (Press Trust of India)

Normal life came to a standstill in many parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi and Rajasthan as the violent devout followers of the fifty-year-old “Godman” Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan of Dera Sacha Sauda (a spiritual sect) plunged into arson and vandalism when a special court declared the preacher guilty of rape, writes Priyanka Bhardwaj.

The sordid saga of sexual exploitation and rape of women disciples by the Guru first came into light when an anonymous letter written by a “sadhvi” (woman disciple) of the flamboyant Baba reached the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002, who in turn forwarded it to the Punjab & Haryana High Court which took suo moto cognizance and ordered a thorough investigation that resulted in two sadhvis leveling charges of rape against the Baba.

The letter’s vivid account threw light on the plight of the rape survivor who claimed to hail from Punjab—how she became a sadhvi due to bidding of her family who were staunch followers of the Guru, her initial pride of her stay in Sirsa Dera (headquarters of the sect), and then the revelation of the Guru’s lust and viciousness when she was summoned by the Guru, referred to as “Maharaj ji” or “Pitaji,” inside his “gufa” (underground) like palatial living quarters where she was astonished to see him sitting on a bed, holding remote of television, watching an adult movie, while a revolver was lying on the pillow side of his bed.

She recounted, “I was stunned to see this and began to feel dizzy because I never imagined that Maharaj could be like this. He said he has bestowed upon me a special favor by choosing me as his dearest Sadhvi.”

The she opened up about her rape for three years after she had been pressurized to submit to the Baba who boasted of his Godly status, enormous political clout and wealth, and threatened to eliminate her family if she ever objected to his sexual advances.

The Baba told her, “Bhagwan Krishan ke yahan 360 gopian thee jinse vo prem leela karte the. Phir bhi log unhe bhagwan mante hain, ye koi nai baat nahin,” (Lord Krishna had 360 female milkmaids and loved them daily. Yet people worship him as God, so it’s not a new thing).

A bike burns after violence broke out following Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s conviction in Panchkula, Haryana, Aug. 25. (Press Trust of India)

In the letter, she mentioned that girls who objected to the Baba’s misdeeds were beaten up badly and harassed in every which way, and the existence of a large number of women disciples in the Dera who had crossed the age of marriage (35-40 years) and had no other alternative except to live in fear and insecurity.

The letter concluded, “If they are taken into confidence, they are ready to disclose everything. A medical examination of all sadhvis would let you and our parents know whether we are still virgin or our lives have been destroyed. Our medical examination would reveal that our lives have been ruined by Maharaj Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh ji.”

The trial that began in September 2008, concluded on Aug. 25, when Judge Jagdeep Singh held the Guru guilty of raping two sadhvis.

No sooner had the verdict been announced that millions of followers of the Dera head who had assembled in the city of Panchkula, where the court was situated, in the past week plunged into violence and arson, and burnt police vehicles, media OB vans, government and railway stations.

Police baton charge supporter of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim who were indulging in violence after their chief’s conviction in Panchkula, Haryana, Aug. 25. (Press Trust of India)

Realizing that matters had gone out of hand the police fired bullets that left 36 people dead and more than 250 injured.

Bewildered that a juggernaut congregation to enter the city much in advance of the verdict the Punjab and Haryana High Court slammed the state Advocate General, Baldev Raj Mahajan, and Haryana Chief Minister M.L. Khattar, holding them guilty of going soft on the Dera for political reasons and passing off the blame on to the Deputy Superintendent of Police of Panchkula who now stands suspended.

It is an open secret that the son of the Dera head is married to the daughter of a Congress politician from Punjab and the Baba’s latest dalliances with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Therefore, coming down heavily on the state government the High Court ordered it to submit a detailed report on the program of sanitization of Dera headquarters (HQ) in Sirsa and multiple branches, name of the officer who reported that the Dera chief’s convoy consisted of only five cars even when the media recorded more than two hundred vehicles when he was being brought from Sirsa to the CBI court in Panchkula, and the entire list of properties owned by the Dera.

Interestingly, the pull factors of the Baba who enjoys a Z plus security cover is no mystery.

The moot attraction of the self-styled Baba are the sentiments of exclusion from district administration, village panchayats, police and courts and the mainstream religious orders such as the Jat-controlled Gurdwaras of Punjab and Haryana, among the disadvantage subaltern and lower income groups who are in their quest of not just spiritualism but also identity and dignity.

A media personnel walks towards vehicles burning in violence following Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s conviction in Panchkula, Haryana, Aug. 25. (Press Trust of India)

In course of time, state patronage, donations and business enables the Deras to subsidize the downtrodden, donate cereals and give access to health facilities, thereby delivering where the political class and government fail to provide.

This support base of the Deras gives them substantial leverage with the political class for use in polls and thus self-proclaimed Godmen exploit the complete allegiance of their followers to put pressure on the law.

Baba Ram Rahim, Chief of 69-year-old Dera Sacha Sauda, is one such Godhead of the new generation whose headquarters is a sprawling, 1,000-acre Haryana property that includes a hotel, cinema, cricket stadium and schools, claims to have 60 million followers worldwide, knows how to use the electronic and social media, wears bling costumes and ornate jewelry, acts in movies, does business in them giving a whole new meaning to the Dera culture in the market driven economy.

This is not for the first time that “Godmen” have been held convicted for sexual assaults on their own gullible disciples.

A Security personnel stands towards vehicles burning in violence following Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s conviction in Panchkula, Haryana, Aug. 25. (Press Trust of India)

Recent memory is etched with the notoriety of the likes of Asaram Bapu, his son Narayan Sai, Gangananda Teerthapatha, Mehndi Kasim, Swami Premananda, Swami Amrita Chaitanya and Gnyanachaitanya to name a few.

Amid fears of fresh violence by followers, security was beefed up in all sensitive places in the affected states, shoot-at-sight orders were issued around the Sunaira jail premises in Rohtak, and mobile internet services remained suspended.

The Judge was flown in to the jail to pronounce the verdict that includes ten years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 1.5 million in each of the two separate cases of rape, and Rs. 1.4 million would go to each rape survivor.

The same Baba who not long ago was imparting “spiritual guidance” was witnessed weeping like a child, begging for mercy and leniency from the court.

However, it seems the Baba’s “achche din” (good days) are gone forever as he faces two murder cases against himself.

The murder cases pertain to the July 2002 killing of Ranjit Singh, the Dera manager, after he distanced himself from the sect and the Dera suspected him to have circulated anonymous letters alleging sexual harassment of sadhvis inside the Dera headquarters in Sirsa, and the October 2002 murder of journalist Ram Chander Chatterpati who reported the illegal activities of the Baba.