Twenty years of hard labour and a Rs 30.2 lakh fine for two counts of rape and criminal intimidation. His jail term, the judge told Singh, would be extended by an additional four years in the event of any default in depositing the fine. What occurred next is most revealing:,Twenty years of hard labour and a Rs 30.2 lakh fine for two counts of rape and criminal intimidation. His jail term, the judge told Singh, would be extended by an additional four years in the event of any default in depositing the fine. What occurred next is most revealing: an apparently devastated Singh turned remorseful. “Mujhe maaf kar dijiye (please forgive me),” bawled the convict, who only days ago was the omnipotent spiritual guru of Dera Sacha Sauda, with a claimed following of 70 million doting adherents. Eyewitnesses-jail guards present at the hearing-say Singh wailed and needed to be physically removed to the prison cell that will be his home for the next two decades. The fateful afternoon at the model jail outside Rohtak city, safely distant from the dera followers concentrated largely in Sirsa and Punjab’s Malwa region, was a huge comedown from the massive power, influence and political clout that was at Singh’s command while he was still a free man.”Hamein maarna apne aap ko maarne ke barabar hai (To kill me is akin to killing yourself).” This opening line of the trailer of MSG: The Messenger of God, Singh’s cinematic debut in January 2015, was meant to be a grim warning to all those who opposed him. The message: it would not be easy to take him down. And he wasn’t too wrong. After all, it took 15 years, over 200 court hearings and the dogged perseverance of the two young sadhvis (one of them a minor) who first accused Singh of raping them. “There is no doubt that I am God,” the beastly baba had said to ‘Prosecutrix A’, the young Kurukshetra girl who courageously described her torment in a 2002 letter to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.advertisementPhoto: Milind Shelte In the three-page letter she wrote to him, the young girl stated she wasn’t Singh’s only victim. Blowing the lid off a sordid saga of rampant sexual exploitation of young disciples, she wrote: “If the press or some government agency” were to investigate her allegations, “40 to 50 girls living on the Dera Sacha Sauda campus would come forward to reveal the truth”. CBI officers who investigated the case reportedly tracked down 18 of Singh’s victims. But having escaped his clutches, most of them had got married and settled into a life safely away from the dera, and none but the two sadhvis, who stayed until his conviction, agreed to testify. Ram Chandra Chhatrapati, editor of the Sirsa-based newspaper Poora Sach, who had more than a fair notion of the sordid goings-on inside the dera, prominently published the sadhvi’s ‘cry for help’ in his newspaper. He was threatened, allegedly by Singh’s henchmen, but he refused to be cowed down, instead launching a campaign against Sacha Sauda. Chhatrapati was murdered in cold blood.Months before, Ranjit Singh, once a part of Singh’s inner coterie at the dera but also brother of one of the sadhvis who were raped, was shot dead in the fields outside his village in Kurukshetra district.Also probed by the CBI, the trial against Singh and others in Ranjit’s murder is in its final stages, with the next hearing on September 16.The contrast between these dark and sordid crimes and the garish mix of buffoonery, spiritualism and showmanship with which ‘Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’ made himself known to the world at large is stark. But behind the self-fabulism of the guru and the self-delusion of the flock of ‘millions’ lies a grittier story. A story of our times.Gurmeet Singh is the only child of Maghar Singh and Naseeb Kaur, a land-owning Jat Sikh couple of Gurusar Modia village in Rajasthan’s Sri Ganganagar district, who were devout followers of the then dera head Shah Satnam. Singh’s village schoolmates remember him as a “distinctly precocious and confident young lad, extremely fond of sport and very good in studies”. But there is evidently a generous proportion of ‘alternative truths’ infused into the narrative about him. There are also memories in Gurusar Modia of Singh ‘misbehaving with girl students’, ‘failing his final exams’ and eventually being ‘expelled’ while he was in Class 9. ‘Initiated’ into the dera when he was just seven years old, Singh went on to inherit its leadership when the ageing incumbent, Shah Satnam, “voluntarily” proclaimed him his successor and passed him the gaddi on September 23, 1990. Anointed a ‘saint’, he was thenceforth called ‘Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’. His supporters at the dera immediately proclaimed Singh the reincarnation of Beparwah Mastana Balochistani, who founded the sect in April 1948 and prophesied in January of 1960 that he would be reborn after seven years. Gurmeet Singh’s birth on August 15, 1967 proved convenient to his ascendancy. But here too, there’s an alternative, albeit carefully whispered, sequence of what may have actually transpired. Gurjant Singh alias ‘Rajasthani’, chief of the dreaded Sikh terror outfit Khalistan Commando Force and Gurmeet Singh’s longstanding friend, used to frequently drop by at the dera in Sirsa. Former Punjab Police intelligence officers say he even used the sprawling premises to stock arms and, on occasion, as a hideout. Rajasthani was there when Singh was anointed as the ‘third Master’, and according to one persistent rumour that has always been vehemently, sometimes violently, discouraged within the dera, “a revolver pointed at Shah Satnam-ji’s temple” was enough for him to pass on the mantle.Rajasthani was gunned down in an encounter with the Punjab Police in Mohali on August 31, 1991. But by then, Singh was in complete control of the dera, having resolutely stamped out every slightest sign of dissent. And that is also when he set about expanding Dera Sacha Sauda to achieve the huge power and influence it would eventually come to wield.advertisementWhat used to be a relatively humble ashram expanded to more than 700 acres with scores of new buildings-rows of shops, schools, three state-of-the-art hospitals, seven schools and colleges, two posh hotels for paying devotees, even two petrol pumps. And at the centre of it all, Singh’s own gufa (cave)-an ultra-luxurious abode with access zealously restricted to just a select few, other than the unfortunate young sadhvis. Unverified video images on social media, showing Haryana policemen entering the gufa on August 29, depict expensive, gilt-edged furnishings and air-conditioned chambers with larger-than-life pictures of the ‘guru’ adorning virtually every inch of wall space. The man clearly liked looking at himself.Singh also succeeded in growing Dera Sacha Sauda far beyond its modest beginnings in Sirsa. A list of the dera’s assets compiled by CBI investigators shows properties in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, as well as overseas centres in Victoria (Australia), Italy and the UK. A compilation of the dera’s assets still under way in Haryana and Punjab, on the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, has revealed over 230 premises, mostly naam charcha ghars (congregation centres). Not counting assets held in cash, bank accounts or other securities, the Punjab administration has conservatively valued the dera’s prayer centres at approximately Rs 60 crore. Adding to this, the takings from the dera’s hotels, sales from MSG Foods (an online groceries store) and sale of products to devotees at its many centres are estimated to be worth Rs 1 crore per day.But apart from all his wealth, the dera chief’s massive political clout also came from his mushrooming following. Consider this: from a relatively meagre ‘subscriber base’ of under a million adherents when he grabbed the gaddi in September 1990, the dera claims its following swelled over 70 times under Singh’s leadership. “Nearly a third of Guruji’s followers are youth who have chosen to forsake intoxicants, non-vegetarian food and immorality,” the dera’s chief spokesman, Aditya Insan, told india today months before Gurmeet Singh’s current troubles.advertisementIt was the burgeoning population of youth in his flock that led Singh to song, dance and eventually cinema. “It is a sugar-coated pill of quinine to attract the youth,” he admitted to a reporter in one of his first media interactions in November 2014.MSG: The Messenger of God was an over-the-top rendition of the Bollywood formula blockbuster, about truth triumphing over evil. It was an overdose of rock and rap music, dance and action sequences. His people proudly said, “Guruji writes his own lyrics and has arranged the musical score for each one of his songs.” Lead actor, co-director, lyricist, playback singer, set and costume designer for his movies, Singh plays himself, depicted as a larger-than-life protagonist pulling off impossible stunts while riding a series of custom superbikes, all-terrain vehicles, even hopping on and off helicopters, possibly inspired by a mix of James Bond and Akshay Kumar movies.His four subsequent movies- MSG-2: The Messenger, MSG: The Warrior Lion Heart, Hind ka Napak ko Jawab and Jattu Engineer-have been equally outlandish, but each one was lapped up by his followers. Together, Singh and the dera reportedly raked in over Rs 1,000 crore from the films.Despite, or perhaps in preparation of, his impending reckoning with the law, the dera under Singh also accumulated a long list of ‘achievements’ that would leave most other social outfits gasping. As part of 133 ongoing public welfare projects, voluntary blood donation campaigns run by Dera Sacha Sauda have collected more than 300,000 litres of blood (the dera’s website claims 35,000 units of blood are collected every year at the Sirsa premises alone), bringing in three successive Guinness world records. The dera also claimed to have won 22 Guinness awards for de-addiction, ophthalmological, diabetic and cardiac clinics, tree plantation and cleanliness drives. Also, from the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, devastating floods in Uttarakhand in 2013 to the floods in Kashmir in 2014, the Shah Satnam Ji Green ‘S’ Welfare Force Wing, by now a 70,000-strong collective of trained volunteers given to martial uniformed parades, has delivered disaster relief in some of the most adverse conditions.Singh and his supporters have long been insisting that the allegations of rape, murder and 400 forced castrations against him are false. He points to “conspiracies” by liquor and drug cartels and their political masters who, according to him, are losing business because of the dera’s sustained campaign against alcohol and narcotics.As per its own claims, the dera-since Singh assumed charge in 1990-has “rescued close to 65 million people from the clutches of alcoholism and drug abuse”. But wait, that adds up to more than the entire population of Punjab and Haryana put together!There was a clear and deliberate attempt to exaggerate the truth. Take the 22 Guinness records, most of them awarded to the ‘Rev. Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan’, for instance. They include awards for some decidedly trivial accomplishments-the largest poster, largest finger-painting, most people sanitising hands, even the most (32,207) birthday videos received in a single day-which dera spokesmen seldom talk of to outsiders. The dera’s smartly designed website (www.derasachasauda.org) is most revealing. It is mobile-ready, besides serving as a one-stop shop for everything, from healthy living tips to information about upcoming discourses to diet charts to shed flab. The portal also carries PDF files of 20 separate ‘pledge forms’ that devotees can sign and submit-to take an oath against female foeticide, volunteer as a blood, eye, skin, bone or whole body donor, surrender subsidies, promise never to tease girls, even, believe it or not, to quit homosexuality!There’s more. An entire section on ‘miracles’ performed by Gurmeet Singh, unbelievably, features testimonies crediting the godman with everything from “curing cancer and mental illness to restoring eyesight, even averting accidents, reviving a dead child and guaranteeing the birth of a boy”. Based on the pledges since Singh assumed the mantle, spokesman Aditya Insan, who’s been slapped with sedition charges following the August 25 Panchkula violence, claimed in a conversation with india today that the dera was the biggest repository of “human skin (for grafting), bone (as a cheap alternative to joint surgery), corneal eye tissue, and volunteer organ donors”. He also claimed that the dera has been the “single largest blood donor to the Indian army since 2006”. However, no offer was made to verify the claims. Pleading for a lenient sentence in the makeshift court in Rohtak jail, SK Garg Narwana, the dera chief’s longstanding legal counsel, predictably invoked Singh’s claimed social welfare enterprises. “The convict is running social work in Haryana, especially when the government of Haryana has failed to do such works,” Narwana told the court, adding references to Singh’s contribution to drug de-addiction and motivating his followers to marry “even prostitutes”. Judge Jagdeep Singh was not impressed.Dera Sacha Sauda’s claimed following of 70 million adherents in India and abroad is, in all probability, similarly overstated. But even if grossly exaggerated, the numbers have been more than sufficient to bring politicians of all hues flocking to Singh-seeking his blessings, but more importantly, his benevolence prior to an election.Gurmeet Singh’s spectacular rise and fall from grace may seem uniquely lurid, but his story is closely enmeshed in a larger and equally disturbing sociological phenomenon. In recent decades, Punjab, Haryana and other north Indian states have witnessed a growing ‘dera culture’ amid the mushrooming of socio-religious sects invariably headed by self-styled godmen. Their followers transcend religion and caste, but are largely from the economic and social margins of society. Dalits comprise 32 per cent of Punjab’s population. In Punjab and Haryana, a significant section of them is affiliated to some dera or the other.Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh launches a cleanliness drive in Delhi with the BJP’s Manoj Tiwari and General VK Singh. (Photo: Ramesh Sharma / Mail Today) Dera Sacha Sauda, like some 3,000 other deras in the region, draws adherents from among Hindus, Sikhs, backward caste converts to Christianity and Muslims. Pramod Kumar, political scientist and director, Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh, describes deras as “poor cousins of institutionalised religion”. He says their popularity is rooted in the region’s religious tradition where rather than engage with scriptures, devotees prefer listening to discourses delivered by glib-talking gurus or spiritual leaders. The rise of deras, however, is also a consequence of the failure of institutionalised religion (Sikhism in Punjab) to embrace such people as well as the inability of the state to guarantee a dignified living and security. Jawaharlal Nehru University sociologist Surinder S Jodhka says: “Deras offer a sense of security to their followers and a personal touch, which is completely missing in mainstream gurdwaras and temples.” Womenfolk, particularly, are fervent supporters. Apart from discouraging drinking and running successful de-addiction programmes, deras like Sacha Sauda have accumulated extensive wealth, which is spent on the welfare of followers. Kumar says deras provide followers everything that the state denies them. Since early 2000, the expanding base of six of Punjab’s biggest sects-Dera Sacha Sauda, Dera Baba Jaimal Singh of the Radha Soamis, Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan at Nurmahal in Jalandhar district, Dera Sachkhand Ballan in Jalandhar, the Namdharis and the Nirankaris-have brought their leaders extensive political clout. Sacha Sauda has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to swing elections in 27 assembly seats in Punjab’s Malwa region. An IDC study shows the Radha Soamis can influence outcomes in 19 assembly segments, Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan and Dera Sachkhand Ballan in eight each, the Nirankaris in four and the Namdharis in two constituencies. Most deras don’t proclaim their political preference, but Sacha Sauda changed that in the 2007 Punjab polls, announcing support to the Amarinder Singh-led Congress. It backed the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP in 2012 and 2017. And though Singh had always insisted that he has never directed his followers to vote for a particular politician or political party, the dera’s political wing, the Saadh Sangat Rajnitik, would invariably send out a clear signal on the preferred political direction ahead of any state assembly or Lok Sabha election. Just days before voting in the Haryana assembly elections in October 2014, Dera Sacha Sauda’s political wing declared support for the BJP. This after Kailash Vijayvargiya, the party’s election in-charge for Haryana, met the dera chief with 40 BJP candidates. Significantly, the decision to support the BJP was preceded by PM Narendra Modi’s public praise for the dera’s cleanliness drives, during an election speech at Narnaund.The quid pro quo with deras means political parties are unwilling to or incapable of acting against dera leaders, as evident in the case of Haryana’s Manohar Lal Khattar government. While Punjab (where the ruling Congress doesn’t enjoy the dera’s support) cracked down on troublemakers in the aftermath of Gurmeet Singh’s conviction, Haryana not only permitted some 100,000 dera supporters to gather in Panchkula, but also assured the courts that everything was under control-until, predictably, all hell broke loose.Sadhvis at the Dera ashram in Sirsa. (Photo: Ravi S Sahani) But all that is history now. While Singh’s 82-year-old mother Naseeb Kaur, on August 28, proclaimed his son Jasmeet Insan as the new custodian of the dera, this is certain to be challenged by Honeypreet Kaur aka Priyanka Gupta, a young woman Gurmeet Singh adopted in 1999. There is also a third contender in 34-year-old Vipassana, a young woman who is close to Singh and who was until now responsible for the day-to-day running of the dera. However, there may be no ‘spoils’ to share. A full bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, consisting of acting Chief Justice SS Saron, Justice Surya Kant and Justice Avneesh Jhingan, has ordered Punjab and Haryana to compile and attach all assets of Dera Sacha Sauda while also barring any transfer, sale or mutation of such assets, including bank accounts. This, the bench said, would be used to pay for the damage caused by dera supporters in Panchkula and elsewhere.Dera Sacha Sauda ashram in Sirsa. (Photo: PTI) And while many of the dera’s now disillusioned adherents might well go their way, even perhaps returning to the fold of mainstream religions, more trials await Rohtak jail’s ‘Prisoner number 1997’-Gurmeet Singh.Apart from charges related to his role in the 2002 murders of journalist Chhatrapati and of Ranjit Singh, the CBI has also been probing allegations that Singh ordered the forcible castration of 400 followers. Trials in all these cases are expected to conclude by the end of this year.