New Delhi: Chaos, smoke, and violence engulfed the north Indian city of Panchkula in Punjab today as the enraged supporters of self-styled guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh clashed with security forces after a court in the city found him guilty of raping one of his followers.
Nineteen people died and at least 70 were injured as fires raged across Panchkula when Singh’s followers ran amok on the streets, setting fire to vehicles, a power grid station, a railway station and petrol pumps and attacked TV crews. Violence also broke out in the town of Sirsa in neighbouring Hayana where Singh’s Dera Sacha Sauda sect is located.
The police and army, which had virtually shut down Panchkula and Sirsa to prevent trouble, had to use tear gas and water cannon as they came under attack from angry followers smashing barricades.
Singh, 50, claims 60 million followers worldwide and is known for a flamboyant lifestyle. A female follower accused him of raping her repeatedly at the ashram, or spiritual compound, in 1999. The victim was a minor at the time. She plucked up the courage to file a police case against Singh in 2002 in which she said he had also raped other female followers. One of these women told the police that when she entered his private chamber, the door automatically shut behind her and she found him watching porn on a gigantic screen.
The ashram is spread over 1000 acres and has its own schools, cricket stadium, cinema, hotel, hospital, and transport service. Singh claims to be a spiritual leader who performs ‘selfless social service’.
In the 15 years it has taken for the trial to be completed, his popularity among his devotees has remained unaffected. They have rejected the idea that he was capable of such a crime. Even though the court had been turned into a veritable fortress to prevent violence breaking out among the 200,000 followers who had camped outside for the verdict, as the guilty verdict gradually sank in, chaos ensued.
Singh’s flamboyance was on display even today when he arrived from his ashram at the court to hear the verdict. He came in a convoy of more than 100 vehicles, mostly SUVs, for the 260 km drive from Sirsa to Panchkula. All along the highway, his followers lined the road, forming a human chain.
Singh has been dubbed the ‘guru of bling’ for his flashy lifestyle but his appeal to men, women and children has been powerful. His meetings attract huge crowds where he appears in outlandish costumes such as flowing pink robes and clunky gold jewellery.
Such blind loyalty for self-styled spiritual gurus in India is common. They are rarely treated critically and even their most outlandish claims are believed. Even members of India’s elite who are educated and well-travelled, like to visit such gurus (though they don’t stand in queues like the poor, they use a separate VIP entrance) or have their own personal guru who visits their homes and advises them on everything from the most auspicious date for a wedding to the best name for their pet. Politicians too are notorious for having their own private godmen who advise them on every decision.
The court is schedule to sentence Singh on Monday. He faces a minimum of 10 years in jail. He has also been named in other cases of rape, murder and forced castration.
Besides the rape charges, Singh is also under investigation over allegations that he convinced 400 of his male followers to undergo castration, allegations he denies.
A variety of reasons have been given for why the men agreed to castration, including promises of becoming closer to god.
Singh’s two films, “Messenger of God” and its sequel, include sequences in which he fights off villains and tosses burning motorbikes into the air.
In his spiritual avatar, Singh dresses in plain white traditional clothes, giving sermons or planting trees. In the movies he dons bejewelled costumes, rides motorbikes and sends bad guys flying.