Why you should care
Because blind faith can be a dangerous thing.
In many parts of northern India on a Friday in late August, trains were canceled, schools and government offices were closed, internet and mobile services were suspended and the army was put on standby as the nation braced for a weekend of violence.
The disruption? Self-proclaimed guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had been found guilty of raping two female devotees in a case that first came to light in 2002. In the town of Panchkula in Haryana state, thousands of followers of the 50-year-old “godman” protested the verdict by burning vehicles, overturning press vans and pelting security forces with stones. By the time the authorities had regained control, at least 38 people were dead and more than 200 were injured. On the Monday following the weekend of mayhem, a judge sentenced Ram Rahim to 20 years in prison.
Twenty to 30 years ago these [cases] would probably not get reported. No one came forward because no one dared to come forward.
Narendra Nayak, president, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations
While that mayhem grabbed plenty of headlines, it was hardly an isolated incident involving a rogue spiritual leader. In fact, Ram Rahim joins a growing list of so-called godmen who trail accusations and convictions of serious crimes. No agency or watchdog group compiles data on this type of criminal case, but since 2010 there have been at least six similar high-profile incidents, including Asaram Bapu, a revered spiritual guru and household name in India who was accused in 2013 of raping a 16-year-old girl on the pretext of ridding her of an evil spirit. (He remains in jail while his case drags through the courts.)
According to Swati Parashar, a political science expert and senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, sexual exploitation by so-called gurus has been taking place for decades. But what’s new is their increased visibility, she says. And the reason for that, adds Sanjay Srivastava, professor of sociology at Delhi University, is a greater awareness of the contemporary guru as a politically connected public figure and icon of consumerism.
Despite so many cases coming to light, these gurus continue to hold sway over considerable portions of the Indian public. Parashar explains that they have come to fill the voids left by the state. “Many of these gurus run educational institutions [and] hospitals for their followers,” she says, and the followers, especially those who feel marginalized, consider the gurus a path to fulfill their material and spiritual needs. “Many followers are willing to become unquestioning subjects — and willing to put up with a great deal of objectionable behavior — because to follow a rich (and hence successful) guru is to live in the hope that some of his worldly success might rub off on you,” Srivastava tells OZY.
Despite his conviction, the long-haired, thickly bearded Ram Rahim remains for the moment the head of a cult and social welfare group named Dera Sacha Sauda, which translates as “abode of the fair deal.” While Ram Rahim lived in a sprawling, pink-walled mansion in Sirsa and owned a fleet of flashy luxury cars, the more than 60 million followers of the sect are mostly poor, uneducated and rural residents of northern states like Haryana and Punjab. For a religious leader, he has pursued some decidedly secular activities: He’s a musician, music producer, film producer and actor who starred in a movie titled Messenger of God in which he portrayed himself as a motorcycle-riding superhero.
And yet according to local news reports, he has led sanitation drives, organized disaster relief and established welfare agencies. Shadowing these good works are accusations of murdering a Dera Sacha Sauda manager and a journalist who published an anonymous letter in 2002 accusing the so-called saint of sexual exploitation. According to the Indian Express, both murder cases against Ram Rahim are set to be heard in September. In 2014 Ram Rahim also allegedly urged some 400 followers to get castrated in order to meet God directly, local media reported.
Perhaps what was most shocking about the Ram Rahim riots was that a sizable portion of the crowd that gathered to defend him consisted of women. Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, has dedicated his life to debunking fake religious leaders. He claims the guru’s followers are brainwashed to such an extent that they even find a way to rationalize rape. “Some women supporters said that the girls were raped as a penance,” says Nayak, “and that he was actually doing them a favor by raping them.”
These gurus also influence politicians and celebrities. According to Nayak, the nexus of politicians and gurus is so strong that “sometimes they act as conduits for money between one another.” And this intersection is the biggest obstacle that rationalists face when trying to expose fraudulent individuals, says Nayak. “That man who sits there is not alone; he’s a figurehead,” he says, calling the mutts, or spiritual organizations run by the gurus, “centers of power, money and exploitation.” Confronting them can be extremely dangerous, as evidenced by the recent murder of journalist and rationalist Gauri Lankesh, an outspoken critic of extremist Hindu nationalism. “Twenty to 30 years ago, these things would probably not get reported,” says Nayak. “No one came forward because no one dared to come forward.” Nayak too has received death threats and even assassination attempts, and now has a government-appointed armed bodyguard with him at all times.
Skeptics see some of these cases stuck in the judicial system, like the proceedings against Asaram Bapu, or get swept under the rug when powerful people are involved. Fortunately, the Ram Rahim case has generated the robust public discourse that we need, says Parashar, adding that the other cases need to be brought to the public’s attention in a similar way.
The fact that the court found Ram Rahim guilty is in itself a great victory. But even before the decision could be celebrated, it was marred by the violence it sparked.