The Twitter bio of Gurmeet Ram Rahim calls him a “Spiritual Saint/Philanthropist/Versatile Singer/Allrounder Sportsperson/Film Director/Actor/Art Director/Music Director/ Writer/Lyricist/Autobiographer/DOP.” Ah, and there is also a “Dr.” before his name. And if you want to use his full title, call him “saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan.”
Gurmeet Ram Rahim is the leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda, a religious community based in the states of Haryana and Punjab in India. As such, Gurmeet Ram Rahim is one of the many holy men inhabiting modern India. What is rather uncommon about him, however, is that his ambitions reach out from the lofty heights of spiritual teachings to, well, rather mundane enterprises such as showbusiness.
Apart from producing music albums, the saint has established his own film company called Hakikat Entertainment (and haqiqat means “reality” in Hindi/Urdu). The firm has released a few movies in just three years and what they all have in common is the director, the writer, and the main star – because Gurmeet Ram Rahim keeps all of those roles to himself. The saint basically makes the movies about himself. He also scripts them, giving himself roles such as that of an ancient hero, a brave soldier of the Indian army or – guess what – a saint. The later films also reportedly star Honeypreet Insan (the holy man’s daughter) beside the host of people with the surname “Insan,” who are the guru’s followers.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s movies are a subject I have already written about in one of my earlier pieces for The Diplomat. Apart from this, the spiritual teacher claims to be involved in a number of other activities, including welfare programs and assistance to those touched by natural calamities. I do not negate the importance of this work, though maybe it is worth mentioning that one of these activities includes helping homosexuals by convincing them that they can “heal” themselves (just like in one of his movies the guru has targeted the tribal people to turn them from “devils” into humans). Right now, however, the Indian media are much more focused on the rape and murder case that the godman is facing.
In 1999, Gurmeet Ram Rahim reportedly raped a female devotee. Later, a journalist researching this story was murdered. Therefore, while the guru was busy with his welfare activities and filmmaking, the court was busy analyzing the two cases brought against him. The court case eventually become so famous that no amount of the godman’s showbusiness and image-building effort could cover it up.
As the August 25, 2017 judgement day approached, Punjab and Haryana became tense. As a measure of godman’s popularity and following, some 200 000 of his supporters started to camp in the court’s vicinity, closely watch by a growing number of policemen and paramilitary forces. “He is God for us,” remarked one of the female devotees about the guru. “We cannot do anything without him.” As authorities and ordinary citizens feared riots, trains were cancelled, plane bookings were withdrawn and mobile phone services were cut off in the most vulnerable areas. The court’s judgement could have been seen as not only deciding about Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s guilt or innocence but also would have shown whether a popular, possibly affluent, and politically important religious guru could function outside the reach of law.
Let me be clear here: the intention of this article is not to denigrate all Indian holy men. Neither I can verify if the allegations against Gurmeet Ram Rahim are true, though the court’s decision – which I mention below – is clear. Even apart from the legal issue, Gurmeet Ram Rahim is still obviously a special and rather surprising case: I do not know of any other guru who would make action movies about himself.
Historically, as well as at present, holy men constitute an important aspect of the religious traditions of the subcontinent, and not just the Hindu ones, but also the Islamic and Jainist ones. It is hard to imagine Hinduism without their contribution. While some of the spiritual leaders do preach radical and divisive ideologies, it is perhaps safe to assume that the majority of them spread the message of peace and coexistence. The holy men, threading the mystical path, often consider many faiths and communities as believing in the same God, but in different forms. Hence such spiritual teachers often functioned in the middle zone between religions – often balancing between Islam and Hinduism – where various communities and traditions could meet and mix. Most of them preach that people (including the untouchables and believers in other religions) are equal and that various religions can find a common ground. This idea is even to be found in Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s name, where each name is associated with a different religion: Gurmeet with the Sikh one, Ram with the Hindu one and Rahim with the Muslim one. The communities established by holy men are often the sources of social reform and places where people can cross the limits of traditional hierarchies. This is also reflected in the rules of Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s community. A person that joins Dera Sacha Sauda takes the surname Insan, which simply means “Human.” As in India, a person’s caste or community can often be told from their surname – and thus the surname carries with itself hierarchical status – giving each person a new surname makes them all equal. Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s Dera Sacha Sauda is actually one of the many deras in Punjab: communities of self-made holy men who often attract many followers from lowest castes.
But all of this cannot justify the few that have misused their spiritual position to commit crimes, just like it cannot explain the wrongs committed by religious leaders anywhere else. Some of the holy men exercise great financial and political power – and power can always be easily used to shield one from justice. There are a number of gurus that built well-organized networks of communities with thousands of followers. This gives them access to an obedient manpower and vast financial resources. Some of them can even utilize these to start successful businesses (Baba Ramdev is the best example). And these three factors – religious authority, obedient followers, and financial resources – also mean that the holy men can be seen as prospective allies by political leaders. Gurmeet Ram Rahim is no different in this regard, and his huge following in the states of Punjab and Haryana is considered an important electorate. In the past, he has been approached by various politicians and has supported a candidate from one of the parties in the state of Punjab and later from the rival party in the state of Haryana.
While this means that the successful holy men – like all powerful people – are more difficult to bring to court if they commit crimes, the Indian state does strive to make sure that the godmen will not levitate above law.
One of the fallen stars in the constellation of famous religious leaders is Asaram Bapu. He was not only accused of rape but also a suspiciously high number of deaths took place in his religious centers (ashrams). Asaram Bapu is now on trial by the Indian Supreme Court. Another holy man, Rampal Maharaj, was arrested in 2006 on similar charges of rape and murder but released in 2008. He was seized by the security forces again in 2014 and this time a veritable siege had to take place, as Rampal Maharaj had sealed himself with a number of followers and weapons in his ashram.
In 2016, a few policemen died when confronting an obscure, but surprisingly violent, community led by a religious leader called Ram Vriksh Yadav. Yadav’s community had illegally occupied a piece of land in the holy Hindu city of Mathura, claimed to run a sovereign government – the “Free India Government” – there and awaited for the return of Subhash Chandra Bose, who was the hero of the independence movement during the Second World War (and hence most possibly died in 1945). Despite resistance and casualties, the security forces took over the land and dismantled the community. Ram Vriksh Yadav reportedly died in the fight and somehow the Subhash Chandra Bose did not show up to defend him. To be sure, such cases are scandals and do not involve the majority of spiritual leaders. Yet, they do serve as measures of the state’s resolve in a country in which respect for religion and religious feelings run high.
At the day of judgement, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, a man often keen to boast about his fitness and the number of sport disciplines he has mastered, complained of “back pain” but still made it to court. On August 25, 2017 the court found him guilty of rape (the murder case is still in progress).
While the holy man was being taken out from court in a helicopter, hell broke out on the streets as his supporters started to riot. To his credit, Gurmeet Ram Rahim surrendered himself to the authorities and called for “maintaining peace” before his setting off to the court building. Thus, he did not behave like Rampal Maharaj who fortified himself in his spiritual center or Ram Vriksh Yadav who planted explosive devices before the police entered his self-declared republic. Yet, some of the Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s supporters were apparently ready to commit violence and reportedly brought sticks with them. In the few hours that followed the judgement, buildings and vehicles were torched and violence spread from Haryana and Punjab to nearby Delhi and even into to Rajasthan. As I am writing these words, the clashes are still taking place and the death toll is currently 29 people.
However, while the Dera Sacha Sauda sect – or at least part of it – seems furious, the Indian public opinion is overwhelmingly satisfied. A man that had once endorsed candidates of both the ruling party and the biggest opposition party was not defended by the government or the judiciary. While the court case did take long and a debate is now raging whether the pre-judgement security arrangements were adequate, there is at least no doubt that the whole issue was not swept under the rug. Criminals among the holy do not levitate above the law, and most of Indians, despite their deep religiosity, would not accept such immunity. And one more thing: the Indian cinemas are now safe from Gurmeet Ram Rahim movie-making efforts for a couple of years.