India: How a guru betrayed his acolytes
India should have expected the “mob violence” that followed the conviction of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, said The Hindu in an editorial. The spiritual leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda, a sect with tens of millions of adherents, was found guilty last week of raping two female followers in 2002 at his compound in the northern Indian state of Haryana, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The bearded 50-year-old guru wailed that he was innocent as the sentence was read out; lawyers for the victims believe he is guilty of raping many more women. In the wake of the verdict, tens of thousands of his devotees rioted in northern states, burning cars and buildings. At least 36 people died in the mayhem. Why weren’t police ready? Because local governments handle sects like the Dera with kid gloves, since “they can deliver votes in blocks.”
To nondevotees, the self-styled “baba of bling” seems ridiculous, all decked out in his beloved rhinestones and sequins, said The Indian Express. Singh is not just a holy man; he’s an entertainment industry. He’s released six albums of high-energy pop, the most recent of which, Highway Love Charger, sold 3 million copies in three days. Singh’s movies—in which he is credited as writer, director, actor, and musician—portray him as part motorcycle-riding action hero, part divinity. He calls himself “messenger of God” and is politically powerful in Haryana state, where his support was crucial to the victory there of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. His sprawling sect headquarters is “like a township,” with dorms, factories, and a hospital, all run by his followers.
Don’t mock those devotees, said Mani Shankar Aiyar in NDTV.com. They are mostly vulnerable people from low castes. Indian society discriminates against them, but in the Dera they found “dignity and social support.” Low-caste women, in particular, flocked to the Dera to escape the drudgery of their “unending servitude” and break the “stranglehold of social structures and cultural strictures that govern their everyday lives.”
Where we see a narcissist, those women see a genius with “supernatural powers”—no wonder Singh could prey on them so easily.
At least four other Indian gurus have been convicted of rape in recent years, said Sharanya Gopinathan in FirstPost.com. These “godmen,” as they call themselves, “exist at the intersection of religious fervor, political power, public support, and, often, massive wealth.” They groom their followers as child-sex predators do, until their victims believe “they are being gloriously singled out for preferential treatment from the leader.” Later, the raped women are afraid to tell anyone—and for good reason. Accusers and their supporters have been murdered. The journalist who first exposed Singh was shot dead outside his home in 2002 just months after reporting on the rape allegations. This predatory guru is finally behind bars, but how many more are still running their own private harems? ■