The guru sits in jail now and his town is already showing the signs of economic recession. New factories have their shutters rolled down, and men are complaining of unemployment.
Sirsa, a town in northern India, headquarters of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, is reeling without its spiritual leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who was sentenced Monday to 20 years’ in jail for raping two women followers.
The conviction came after a decade-long legal battle, during which victims revealed details of being invited into Singh’s underground home where he watched pornographic films and forced himself on them.
Minutes after the judge pronounced Singh guilty, violence erupted in Sirsa and outside Panchkula court, where Singh’s followers lined the streets. A total of 38 people lost their lives, as rioters threw stones and burned vehicles.
Now, the riots have ended, but the townsfolk are left with fears for their future.
Singh claimed to have more than 60 million followers. Dressed in flashy costumes and gold jewellery which earned him the nickname “guru of bling,” he produced outlandish music videos. Over the years, Singh’s popularity made Sirsa prosperous.
“From a purely business perspective, his organisation was good for me,” said Pradeep Saini, a 25-year-old shopkeeper.
Singh’s is not the only outsider sect to have a large following in India. In this rapidly industrialising country, “alternative spirituality” persists despite increasing levels of education and increased economic prosperity, said Ronki Ram, a professor of political science at Panjab University. Sermons from religious teachers are beamed into homes on religious channels, and a number of self-styled “godmen” have amassed fortunes selling branded products.
People buy into alternative religious promises, Ram said, because godmen are often charismatic speakers and make their followers feel part of a brotherhood.
“People from all walks of life go and attend,” he said. Establishment religions such as Hinduism, he said, trap lower castes at the bottom of the social pyramid, offering no way to rise up. To them, being part of the “alternative” religious clubs offers “equality, dignity and social justice,” he said. “A poor man goes and finds himself in a room with a minister, and suddenly he feels, ‘Oh god, I’m not alone!’ ”
Singh lived a life of luxury, surrounded by followers who attended to his every need. Luxury cars and furniture surrounded him. His residence included a hotel, an auditorium for sermons and a large meditation hall. His larger-than-life personality attracted rich businessmen and politicians who came to seek blessings ahead of a new business deal or an election.
“It has been profitable here,” said Prabhu Ram, who sat under a tree playing cards with his friends. “There has been employment for the men in the factories, schools for our children. Even the value of land has appreciated.”
But now all that seem in jeopardy.
“Everyone fell silent, and it felt like we had gone numb,” a resident named Satbir Singh said of the moment when the verdict was announced - on television. “Our father has gone to jail, but we hope someone keeps the organisation running.”
In a village less than a mile away from the Dera sect’s headquarters, a group of farmers sat in a muddy field smoking a pipe. “He provided so much employment. So much development,” said Mahaveer, who uses only his first name. “We all think that the accusation was false.”
Shaking his head, Mahaveer said, “The Sirsa district will fall back now. I feel they should release him. Earlier this was such a poor area. Now look at the difference. We have public transport here, two fire engines and a hospital. We have nothing else that we need or want right now. The Dera has given us every facility. We have schools to educate our children. Colleges for them to study as much as they want.”
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A number of godmen like Singh have held on to vast numbers of followers despite being accused of crimes. Baba Ramdev, a stomach-flexing yogi who led an anti-corruption campaign, was investigated for tax evasion. Asaram Bapu has been jailed on charges of rape. But supporters are willing to overlook crimes, Ram says, because they see their own lives improving economically after joining sects.
“It is a social protest for a new identity,” Ram said, noting that holy men are often praised for their vast and wide-reaching social programs. Singh particularly was known for his huge blood-donation drives, anti-drug messages and performing mass marriages of sex workers.
“I have been a follower since the beginning,” said Prabhu Ram. The sentence was wrong, and harsh, he said. “They have given hospitals; there are eye camps,” Ram said. The state government, he added, “would not have made all this progress.”
A young woman of 18 named Pinky refuses to doubt Singh’s moral character. “He did so much good. He never did anything bad,” she said as she washed cooking utensils in a drain running alongside the road. “I believe the rape charges are false,” she whispered.