After 'Guru Of Bling' Sentencing, Indian State Stays On Alert For Violence

Aug 29, 2017
Originally published on August 30, 2017 9:33 am

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh wept and begged forgiveness as a judge read out the sentence against him on Monday: 20 years for raping two young disciples in 2002 at his compound in the northern Indian state of Haryana. The self-proclaimed guru received 10 years for each offense, to be served consecutively.

The burly, bearded 50-year-old wailed that he was innocent and had to be carried out by marshals, according to reporters at the prison hearing.

The case of Singh, also known as the "Guru of Bling," has exposed the seedy underbelly of one of India's high-profile, self-styled spiritual leaders.

Singh stood out: a flamboyant persona with a penchant for souped-up motorcycles and an ostentatious fashion sense. He scripted and starred in his own movie, the 2014 film MSG (for "Maharaj Saint Gurmeet," one of his monikers) in which he cast himself as a heroic messenger of God — a message former members of his sect, known as Dera Sacha Sauda, say was drilled into them.

On his website, he is extolled as "Spiritual Saint," "Musician," "Director," "Superb Medic," "Sportsman," "Feminist," "Emperor of Melodies" and "Social Reformer" — among other things.

But on Monday, he was just a prisoner. A library inside the jail in Rohtak, a town 50 miles north of New Delhi where Singh had been held since his conviction, was hastily converted into a courtroom. So concerned were authorities over a repeat of the violence unleashed after his conviction that Judge Jagdeep Singh was helicoptered in to read out his judgment.

Security was the order of the day throughout the entire state. Thousands of troops were deployed in Haryana to keep the peace that was shattered on Friday.

On Monday, a small convoy of army vehicles moved through Panchkula's streets in a show of force meant to discourage Singh's supporters from staging more violence. After his conviction on Friday, they vandalized train stations, burned cars and motorbikes and damaged government buildings. More than 30 people died in the violence.

"We're here because the police couldn't control the situation," said an army officer who asked not to be identified.

Many of those who had run amok came from elsewhere. Panchkula's deputy commissioner of police, Manbir Singh, told NPR that some 900 people had been detained and were being held in jails in other cities.

The High Court in Chandigarh, the state capital, savaged the state's security officials for the large loss of life and damage to property. The court ordered the government to provide a list of Dera Sacha Sauda property holdings with an eye toward seizing them.

Singh's compound was also ringed by the army on Monday. Some devotees voluntarily evacuated while others continued to defy a request that they vacate the premises.

Many of Singh's followers are Sikh Dalits, who sit at the bottom of the social hierarchy. They turned to his sect for basics like food, medicine and a sense of equality, and their guru's conviction was an unimaginable fall from grace.

His defense counsel made a plea for leniency, portraying Rahim as social worker, citing his philanthropic work on behalf of destitute women and recovering alcoholics.

One of the rules of the Dera Sacha Sauda is to reject any criticism of Singh. Supporters were quick to call the allegations against him baseless, trumped up by those who feared the guru's popularity.

Although he boasts of having millions of followers, there is no authoritative number. Politicians believed he could deliver his followers to the polls, and both India's Congress Party and ruling BJP had aligned with Singh. Critics says his political connections lent to his aura and heightened his sense of impunity.

Singh recently backed Narendra Modi's BJP and enjoyed the largesse of the BJP Haryana state education minister — who presented Singh with a sizable donation just days before his rape conviction, and insisted his rampaging followers were "peaceful."

The donation coincided with the guru's birthday — marked by a cake that his website claims held 150,000 birthday candles and breaks the world record for most candles.

Singh is now imprisoned on a non-bailable offense. His lawyers say they will appeal the sentence and the rape convictions.

But his legal drama will not end there. Next, he'll face charges of murder in connection with the death of a reporter, Ram Chander Chhatrapati. The journalist was killed in 2002 after exposing the cases of rape for which Singh was convicted last week.

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Now a story about a crime that triggered more crime. In India, a charismatic, self-styled guru has been sentenced to 20 years for raping two female disciples 15 years ago. His conviction last week unleashed a torrent of violence. Thirty-eight people were killed as throngs of devotees rampaged. And yesterday, thousands of police and paramilitary were deployed for the sentencing. Here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: A 15-minute drive from Chandigarh, an army convoy combs the streets of Panchkula, a palm-fringed city where Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh's supporters left a trail of destruction after the court here convicted him of rape last Friday. Cars were burned, columns of motorcycles were set on fire, government buildings were attacked. The deputy commissioner of police told NPR that 900 people have been detained in the unrest.

Monday, the army was on standby in the city of Rohtak where the once-celebrated guru Singh broke down at his sentencing inside the prison where he's being held. Local media at the hearing said the burly, bearded guru had to be dragged back to his cell, weeping. Human rights lawyer Navkiran Singh says the 20-year sentence isn't enough. He says that the chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect had intimidated witnesses and is under investigation for killing one of them.

The judge was flown to the prison to deliver the sentence rather than risk transporting Singh back to court where his devotees might repeat Friday's mayhem. Navkiran Singh says that was a perversion of justice.

NAVKIRAN SINGH: Well, it does belittle the judicial system. It still goes a long way to the mind of the people that the man is too powerful.

MCCARTHY: Lawyers for Singh had begged for leniency, citing his age - he's 50 - and his work planting trees and helping those with drug addiction. But the sentencing judge, Jagdeep Singh, said the guru had acted like a wild beast and did not spare pious followers. He wasn't entitled to mercy. Part showman, part spiritual leader, Singh scripted and starred in his own movies that exalted him as the messenger of God, a message that former follower Gurdas Singh Toor says was drilled into disciples.

Singh Toor travels with an armed guard.

GURDAS SINGH TOOR: (Speaking Hindi).

MCCARTHY: Needed protection, he says, after cooperating on criminal investigations against the guru, including one that accuses him of encouraging followers to undergo castration to be closer to God, a charge the sect leader denies. Singh Toor explains part of his appeal. He says many of the followers are Sikh Dalits, victims of discrimination who sit at the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. He says the guru offered them in the sect what they were deprived of in day-to-day life.

SINGH TOOR: (Speaking Hindi).

MCCARTHY: "He would make people feel respected, bestowing titles for deeds they did," Singh says. "Someone who married a prostitute would be called the magnanimous man as large as an elephant. He elevated their status if they donated blood, calling them honorable and closer to God," Singh explains. Singh says it will take time for these followers to come to terms with life without their guru. He languishes now in prison, a rare case of a self-styled spiritual leader being held to account.

Lawyers for Ram Rahim Singh say he will appeal. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Chandigarh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.