Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh: Why India rapist guru remains 'god' for followers

BBC News/August 30, 2017

By Justin Rowlatt

In amongst all the coverage of the spectacular downfall of the self-styled Indian "godman", Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, one voice has been absent: that of his many hundreds of thousands of devoted followers.

His claim to have 60 million devotees around the world is probably an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that a huge number of people draw inspiration from this man who claimed to be a divine being.

"He is like my parents, in fact more than my parents," Saroj Yadav told me as we sat in her family's large house on the outskirts of Sirsa, a town in the northern Indian state of Haryana, where guru Ram Rahim's vast headquarters complex, or "Dera", is based.

The mother of three was visibly upset as we talked about the role the guru has played in her life and that of her large extended family.

"I have been a follower for 25 years. Three generations of my family have been his followers. I sent my children to the school and colleges in the Dera," she told me.

Guru Ram Rahim's devotees became notorious worldwide after thousands of them went on the rampage when he was convicted on Friday of two charges of rape. They attacked media vehicles and official buildings, and torched trains, buses and railway stations.

Violence spilled out across north India, and in the battle with the police that followed, almost 40 people were killed and more than 200 injured.

Saroj shakes her head sadly when I mention the unrest. These were a tiny minority of renegades, she insists. She says her family, like the vast majority of the guru's other devotees, are ashamed of their actions.

"He taught us to serve other people," she explains. "He gives accommodation to poor people to live, helps them a lot."

The guru's true followers would never become involved in violence, she says.

Her son, Sonu Yadav agrees. "Babaji [roughly translating to respected father] gave us moral values and taught us how to live like good human beings. He taught us meditation."

Guru Ram Rahim was born a Sikh but now dubs himself the "Messenger of God" or simply "MSG", and claims he is a "Reverend Saint".

I picked up a copy of one of the sect's magazines when I was inside the temple complex on the weekend. It claims the guru's "fans and followers don't belong to a particular religion, caste, colour, creed or community."

"Saint MSG," the magazine boasts, "is equally loved and welcomed by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians."

Many of his followers, including the Yadav family, believe he possesses magical powers.

"His powers protect us from any anticipated troubles that try to come our way," Saroj explains. "He has saved us from a lot of troubles."

"The guru mantra that we chant gives us immense confidence and strengthens our soul - that's nothing short of a magical," adds her son. "Sometimes we manage to escape situations like road accidents and all because of babaji's blessings."

Sonu recounts how a few years back his father suffered a stroke, losing movement down one side of his body. The family rushed him to a big hospital in the nearest city.

"As soon as we reached the operation theatre for the surgery," he recalls, "the doctors sent him back and declared him fit. What more evidence can be there for his magical powers?"

The gentle, saintly figure the family describes is very different from guru Ram Rahim's larger-than-life public persona, I suggest.

The so-called "baba of bling" may encourage modesty and self-sacrifice among his followers but he lived an unashamedly glamorous lifestyle.

Guru Ram Rahim starred in his own movies and boasted that, among his many talents, he was a spiritual saint, a writer, a musician, a sportsman, an agriculturalist, a singer, a director, a scientist, a feminist, a youth icon and the holder of a number of Guinness World Records, including for the largest ever greetings card mosaic, which measured 398.42 sq-m (1,307 sq-ft).

But the Yadavs say his flamboyant persona was an attempt to reach out to young people.

"He decided to appeal to the youth through the medium of films to give them moral teachings," says Sonu.

"A saint's purpose is to give good lessons to the public - it doesn't matter what medium they use. He just wants to make this world a better place."

But what about his conviction on these two charges of rape, I ask. Hasn't that undermined their devotion?

The entire family shakes their heads.

"We have complete faith in our guru," says Sonu. "This is a conspiracy by the politicians to get our votes. The verdict has been handed out based on an anonymous letter and is wrong. Everyone knows what the truth is."

His mother agrees. "I was deeply hurt by this verdict," Saroj tells me, tears welling in her eyes. "All the allegations are false."

"There is no question of us giving up hope," insists Sonu. "I know guruji [respected guru] as well as I know my own family. We will always follow the path shown by him."

"He is more than a god to us," says his mother. "I believe he will make a comeback. Truth will prevail in the end. I will never lose hope. I will keep visiting the Dera. We know he will be back there. His blessings are always with us."

"So what if he is in jail?" adds Saroj defiantly.

"A guru is always a guru."

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