A court in India convicted a quasi-religious leader of raping two female followers, sparking unrest in the northern town of Panchkula that has left at least 13 people dead.
Violence broke out following the Friday conviction of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, 50, the flamboyant leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda religious sect. According to reports, police fired tear gas and water cannons as followers threw stones, attacked buses, journalists and media vans. Thousands of army, police and paramilitary units have been deployed and Indians are skittish about violence spreading to the capital, Delhi.
Ahead of the trial, Singh appealed to his supporters to not turn to violence. But officials have been bracing for large-scale unrest all week after an estimated 200,000 followers streamed into the town in support of their leader. Areas in the state of Haryana and the neighboring Punjab cut mobile internet, cable television, bus services, trains and electricity supplies. The army was also placed on standby, hundreds of hospital beds were reserved for potential casualties and a cricket stadium was prepared as a makeshift jail.
The court is expected to sentence him on Monday. Here’s more:
Why is he called the ‘Guru of Bling’?
The cartoonish figure got his nicknames ‘Rockstar Baba’ and ‘Guru of Bling’ due to his bejewelled clothes and lifestyle. He describes himself on Twitter as “Spiritual Saint/Philanthropist/Versatile Singer/Allrounder Sportsperson/Film Director/Actor/Art Director/Music Director/ Writer/Lyricist/Autobiographer/DOP.”
Singh has a penchant for riding modified bikes, has sung in dozens of music videos and has written, directed and starred in three films, according to his website. The bearded mystic has a love for sports and apparently holds dozens of records, including the world’s “largest vegetable mosaic” and “largest finger painting.” He has a wife and three children.
What is his sect?
Dera Sacha Sauda was launched in 1948 and describes itself as a spiritual and social welfare organization. The sect promotes vegetarianism and claims to advocate for a number of social causes. “[We have] undertaken 133 social welfare activities like helping in road accidents and working for the protection of daughters from heinous fetal murder and solemnizing the marriages of harlots by inspiring them to quit this abhorrent profession” the organization’s website says.
Singh became its leader at the age of 23. He now runs Dera’s Haryana ashram headquarters, which boasts its own cinema, hotel, cricket stadium and schools.
What is he accused of?
Singh’s trial for rape stems from a three-page anonymous letter written in 2002 by a female devotee, the Hindustan Times reports. Scrutiny grew when journalist Ram Chander Chhatrapati investigating the sect was shot dead the same year. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took over the investigation and two followers came forward with rape accusations— which Singh denies.
One victim reported that “when she entered the Dera chief’s sprawling chamber, the doors automatically closed and she found him watching a pornographic movie on a big screen,” the Times reports. The CBI also alleges Singh was involved in the murder of the journalist and Singh is facing a separate trial on that case. He denies the charges.
He is also accused of forcing 400 followers to undergo castration in a bid to “get closer to god.” This, he says, is “cent per cent [sic] false. I never asked anyone to do so.”
Singh and his sect have rejected all accusations and hint at a greater conspiracy to bring them down. “For the last 15 years there has been a subterranean string of conspiracy of various forces,” Aditaya Insan, the sect’s spokesman, told Indian channel NDTV . “There are people at work that instigate us, there’s a drug Mafia at work, there is a political Mafia at work, to create these problems at the Dera.”
Singh’s work has angered a number of India’s mainstream religions. In 2007, he was accused of belittling the Sikh faith when he dressed as the tenth Sikh leader Guru Gobind Singh.
Is he influential?
Yes, incredibly so. With 50 million followers by his own telling, this self-styled ‘god-man’ has become politically influential in the region. Politicians call on the sect in search for his “blessings” during elections. Dera’s support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Haryana’s 2014 assembly elections is thought to have shifted the scales in favor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the Hindustan Times reports.
Singh also has what is known as Z+ security cover, which is only reserved for high-risk individuals such as cabinet ministers and supreme court judges. It was provided to him as a result of his cavalcade being attacked with explosives by an insurgent group in 2008. Only 36 people in India are under that level of security cover, which is provided by the government.
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