Indian ‘guru in bling’ sentenced to 20 years jail for rape, lawyers plan appeals
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh claims to have more than 50 million followers worldwide
An Indian court sentenced a controversial religious leader to 20 years in prison on Monday for raping two of his followers, authorities said, days after his followers went on a rampage that left 38 dead.
A lawyer for the victims had said Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was sentenced to 10 years in jail, but India’s Central Bureau of Investigations later clarified he received two consecutive 10-year sentences.
“He has been sentenced for 10 plus 10, which is a total of 20 years of imprisonment. I have the judgment which details the sentence,” said Abhishek Dayal, spokesman for the CBI, which prosecuted the case.
Singh, 50, was convicted on Friday of raping the two women at the sprawling headquarters of his hugely popular Dera Sacha Sauda sect in the northern state of Haryana, in a case dating back more than 15 years.
A movie star, singer and cult leader with a penchant for all things bling, Singh commands the support of large numbers of mostly poorer people in northern India.
Spiritual gurus are believed to possess unique healing powers, and are popular among those whose economic insecurities are outpacing the state’s ability to deliver. As India becomes wealthier and increasing numbers of people feel left behind, they turn to gurus for spiritual and material sustenance.
Utsav Singh Bains, lawyer for the victims, said he would seek a longer sentence and asked India’s federal investigations bureau to look into dozens more alleged cases of abuse.
“We will file two appeals shortly. One for enhancement of the punishment and another for further investigation into the case,” Bains said.
“We believe there are at least 48 more victims who were sexually abused and who may have been killed or are too scared to come out and testify against Ram Rahim.”
Authorities have brought intense security to the city of Rohtak, where Singh is being held, amid fears of a repeat of Friday’s violence, when tens of thousands of his supporters set fire to cars and clashed with security forces.
Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the violence, his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – which holds power in Haryana – was criticised for failing to anticipate the riots.
More than 100 of Singh’s senior loyalists have been placed in detention as a precautionary measure, said Rohtak police chief Navdeep Singh Virk.
He said his officers would use “whatever force is required” to resist the guru’s devotees should they again resort to violence.
“If the situation so arises that (we) need to use firearms, my officers have complete authority,” the police chief told broadcaster NDTV.
Ram Niwas, a senior bureaucrat in Haryana, said authorities had “issued shoot-on-sight orders if anyone tries to start a protest”. Curfews were imposed in several areas of Haryana and Punjab states, while the capital, New Delhi remained on alert.
The judge was flown by helicopter to sentence the 50-year-old spiritual leader known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for bejewelled costumes.
“A library in the jail has been converted into a courtroom,” said Rajiv Pant, an official in charge of prisons.
The rape case was brought against Singh after an anonymous letter was sent to then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002, accusing the religious leader of repeatedly raping the sender and several other women in the sect.
At the time, a judge asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to look into the accusations, but it took years to trace the alleged victims and it was not until 2007 that two women came forward and filed charges.
An estimated 200,000 members of Singh’s Dera Sacha Sauda movement had gathered in the city of Panchkula on Thursday in a show of support ahead of his guilty verdict.
Violent protests followed, with police deploying tear gas and using a water cannon. Critics said Haryana state authorities grossly underestimated the risk posed by the army of devotees.
Over the weekend thousands of followers congregated in the spiritual headquarters of his sect at Sirsa, despite calls from police and troops for them to disperse.
Devotees eventually began trickling out from the compound on Sunday, under the supervision of hundreds of soldiers and riot police, after a curfew was briefly lifted.
Modi said on Sunday it was “natural to be worried” as the violence even briefly reached the capital New Delhi.
“Violence is not acceptable in the nation, in any form,” he said in his monthly radio address.
“Those who take law in their hands or take to violence will not be spared, whoever they are.”
Followers of the self-styled “god-man” continue to insist upon his innocence.
India has been rocked by numerous scandals involving popular ascetics claiming to possess mystical powers.
Singh’s Dera Sacha Sauda sect describes itself as a social welfare and spiritual organisation but he is no stranger to controversy.
In 2015 he was accused of encouraging 400 followers to undergo castration at his ashram so they could get closer to god.
He also stood trial for conspiracy over the murder of a journalist in 2002. He denied the charge and the case is ongoing.
Gurus have long existed in India, where the majority religion, Hinduism, lacks formal organised structures that would limit the emergence of self-ordained men claiming to embody god.
They are also popular in areas populated by Sikhs, including in Punjab and Haryana where Singh’s devotees largely live.
Additional reporting by Reuters