At least 30 people have died in Northern India in riots after the popular spiritual leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, was convicted of sexually assaulting two of his female followers.
Singh leads Dera Sacha Sauda, a spiritual nonprofit organization. Over 200,000 of his followers gathered in Chandigarh, the shared capital of the states of Punjab and Haryana, ahead of the verdict. Witnesses told the Times of India that several followers were equipped with homemade weapons and large quantities of gasoline in preparation for a potential conflict.
Since Singh’s conviction, the crowds of supporters claiming his innocence have devolved into violent riots – attacking media vehicles, looting businesses, and setting buildings on fire. Police, military and paramilitary forces were deployed, firing tear gas and water cannons into the crowds. In addition, two coach buses were reportedly set on fire as far away as Delhi.
Regions of Punjab and Haryana have responded by suspending internet access and ordering a curfew.
Approximately 2,500 of Singh’s followers have been arrested. Haryana police chief, BS Sandhu, told the media that the situation was now under control. Differing reports claim at least 30 people were killed, with hundreds injured.
Singh’s larger-than-life persona helped attract what Dera Sacha Sauda claims to be over 60 million followers worldwide. Singh has earned the nicknames “Rockstar Baba” and “Guru of Bling” for his eccentric style and appearances in multiple music videos and films.
Singh also produced three movies. The trailer for one film titled MSG: The Messenger of God features Singh fighting villains, performing daredevil stunts, and waving an Indian flag. It also refers to him as the “Braveheart Saint of India.”
As much a celebrity as a spiritual guide, Singh became the leader of Dera Sacha Sauda when he was 23 years old. At 50, his influence has now spread beyond his legions of personal followers. Furthermore, politicians have courted the guru to gain legitimacy, with Singh backing the Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parties at different times, as well as the current Modi government in 2014.
Singh is no stranger to the spotlight, nor to controversy. Accusations against him include mockery of Hindu and Sikh figures and forcing 400 of his followers to be castrated for spiritual reasons. He has also been investigated for sexual assault and murder. Singh has denied all allegations.
Gurus like Singh, or “godmen” as they’re called in India, have long been a source of spiritual and everyday guidance for many. However, the mania surrounding his conviction points to a new and dangerous breed of guru in modern India.
Dera Sacha Sauda provides welfare services to his followers, the majority of whom are the underprivileged members of lower castes. These services include medical treatment, blood donation campaigns, disaster relief, and a school for girls. Soutik Biswas, the BBC’s India correspondent, noted that this organization effectively acts as a parallel state in a country where the elected government often fails to provide basic services to its poorer citizens.
Many people turn to gurus after losing faith in mainstream political and religious institutions, due in part to India’s rising inequality. Singh’s followers even adopt a shared surname – Insan, meaning human – in place of their caste-identifying birth names. This can be read as another sign of their unwillingness to follow convention or mainstream society, which has done little to improve their economic and social status.
Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan told the BBC: “in many ways, the rise of gurus like Singh tells us something about how conventional politics and religion have been failing a large number of people. So they turn to unconventional religion to seek some dignity and quality.” Visvanathan went on to note that a new sense of equality has been fostered among the chosen and shared community of Singh’s millions of followers.
In turn, the violent reaction of Singh’s followers to his conviction may be better understood as the actions of a marginalized group defending the only person to give them both welfare and dignity.
Singh was convicted of sexually assaulting two women at the Dera Sacha Sauda headquarters in 2002, and will be sentenced later in August 2017. His actions should and will be punished, especially given his powerful influence over his followers. Likewise, justice must be sought for the people wounded and killed in the riots.
However, the recent violence in Northern India reveals a much deeper systemic failure that must also be addressed.
While gurus play an important spiritual role in many people’s lives, and their organizations often provide necessary services to the Indian public, the government cannot use this as an excuse to shirk its own responsibilities. Many politicians leverage their association with a guru, rather than their own expertise, to gain voter confidence. This became painfully apparent when several BJP members of Parliament for Haryana were forced to justify visiting Singh after his endorsement helped them win their seats in 2014.
If the government provided better and more consistent welfare services for its people without substitutions by guru-led organizations, there could be a significant reduction in public violence towards state institutions.
State services could be modelled on ashrams at the local level by setting up medical clinics, schools, and other services within underprivileged communities and staffing them with well-paid, dedicated workers.
By publicly and meaningfully recognizing the concerns of India’s lower castes, the government can give them the social validation they now seek from gurus. Ideally, the Indian government would work to minimize the role of the caste system in an individual’s life. This could be done through affirmative action programs which currently exist but do little to directly address and condemn caste-based prejudices.
The Indian government should also find a way to work with public figures like Singh that helps ensure that their influence over the public is not abused. Both gurus and the government can play an important role in the lives of everyday Indians, as long as elected officials do not leave the responsibility for upholding the rights and welfare of their citizens in the hands of others.
This tangled relationship between the Indian state and celebrity gurus like Singh was brought to light by the recent violence in Chandigarh. Singh was put into protective custody by the army after his conviction.
Dera Sacha Sauda released a statement claiming it will appeal Singh’s verdict in a higher court. It claims that “Dera Sacha Sauda is dedicated to the betterment of humanity [and] request all to maintain peace.”
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