Godman’s global empire in disarray

Controversial Indian guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was sentenced to 20 years in jail for sexually assaulting two female disciples this week leaving millions of his followers, including those in Canada in disarray.
The Canadian government has also issued a safety advisory for its citizens in India following the conviction of the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) chief, saying that tensions remain high in the States of Punjab and Haryana, and various other areas.
“Following the conviction of a prominent sect leader on August 25, 2017, tensions remain high in the States of Punjab and Haryana, and various other areas,” the Canadian government said in an advisory.
Thousands of supporters of Singh went on the rampage in the region last Friday after the court held him guilty for rape. At least 38 people, many of them his followers, were killed and more than 250 injured in the rioting.
The two 10-year sentences to be served consecutively was delivered amid a virtual lockdown across cities in Haryana, neighbouring Punjab state as well as national capital New Delhi.
Lawyers for the guru, who had asked for a lighter sentence in view of his philanthropic work, said they will appeal the sentence in a higher court.
Indian media reported that the 50-year-old chief of the DSS sect sat on the floor and wept as he was sentenced and asked for forgiveness.
The DSS' main centre is situated in the city of Sirsa in Haryana and the organisation has, reportedly, about 60 million followers worldwide and 46 ashrams across India and branches in countries such as the United States, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Australia and the United Kingdom (UK).
Born into money to a rich landlord’s family in Sri Ganganagar (Rajasthan) in 1967, Singh also known as the “Rockstar Baba’ took over Dera Sacha Sauda in 1990.
He was barely 23 years old. The dera expanded its influence beyond the borders of states (UP, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan) to US, UK, Canada, Australia and UAE. The opulence has raised questions about finances. Dera Sacha Sauda has maintained that its followers keep it going.
Singh is not a traditional godman. He belts out rock numbers, produces films and hosts packed satsangs. This is why his followers cut across age, caste faultlines and economic groups. He has six music albums to his name — Chashma Yaar Ka (2012), Network Tera Love Ka (2012), Insan (2012), Thank You For That (2012), Lov Rab Se (2013) and Highway Love Charger (2014). He has movies to his credit. Going by the name “messenger of God”or MSG, the three movies have been hits. Dera Sacha Sauda has a robust social welfare wing – Shah Satnam ji Green Welfare Force – which is often seen involved in massive tree plantation drives and even relief work during natural calamities.
The Shah Satnam ji Green Welfare Force has been active in the Toronto-area where the DSS has a place of worship.
India’s Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) is also looking into Singh's alleged involvement in the 2002 murder of a journalist who investigated Singh's religious order - Dera Sacha Sauda, which means "place of truth" - and exposed the rape allegations against him. He has also been accused of forcing 400 of his followers to undergo castration.
Under Singh, the sect, which is headquartered in the city of Sirsa in Haryana, about 260km from the capital, New Delhi, has grown substantially. Its headquarters boasts a cinema, hotel, sports stadium and schools.
The Dera, which describes itself as a "non-profit social welfare and spiritual organisation", advocates vegetarianism and opposes drug and alcohol consumption. High rates of drug and alcohol addiction pose a major problem in the region.
In recent years, Singh - who is married with a son and two daughters but now claims to be celibate - has acquired a colourful persona, making films and producing music albums. His penchant for bright outfits and jewellery has earned him the name the "guru of bling".
His Facebook profile describes him as "Saint Dr. MSG", while his Twitter bio presents him as: Spiritual Saint/Philanthropist/Versatile Singer/Allrounder Sportsperson/Film Director/Actor/Art Director/Music Director/ Writer/Lyricist/Autobiographer/DOP.
He is also an entrepreneur, dealing in India’s retail ayurveda industry and the spiritual leader’s brand boasts of 151 MSG products, to “provide organic and healthy food to every citizen”.
In 2002, one of his female followers wrote an anonymous letter to the country's then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, alleging that she had been raped by Singh and that other women had also been sexually exploited. This triggered a CBI investigation, which eventually led to Singh's conviction.
Since Friday's deadly violence, there has been a public outcry over Singh's close connection to the corridors of power, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the government at the federal level, as well as in Haryana state.
In the 2014 Haryana assembly election, Singh issued a public statement calling on his followers to vote for the BJP. The state's chief minister and other ministers have shared a stage with him despite the fact that he was under investigation for rape.
In a 2014 tweet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi applauded Dera's efforts to take part in a campaign to clean up the streets.
Singh also lent tacit support to the opposition Congress party in 2007.
In Haryana and Punjab state, there are tens of thousands of sects known as deras. A dera is a spiritual centre with living gurus around which the dera is organised.
Deras often attract members of the most disadvantaged castes, whether Hindu or Sikh.
In Punjab, where one-third of the population are Dalits, the most disadvantaged caste, whose members often face daily discrimination, there are more than 10,000 deras.

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