For many the name Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh did not ring a bell until 2015 when the trailer of MSG: Messenger of God came out. An outrageous pastiche of superhero movie tropes, the film saw the godman from Punjab, dressed in one over-the-top outfit after another, save the world and its attendant morals. Needless to say it was written, directed, edited by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan or Guruji, as he is to his followers.

Today the head of Dera Sacha Sauda, which was started in 1948 by ascetic Mastana Balochistani and is based out of Sirsa, is a household name. Not because the films (there have been three instalments) have been such huge hits, not also because of his over-the-top outfits, his concerts which see him belting out songs like Love charger or the outlandish stunts he performs in his films, but simply because the power he and his sect command is immense.

Dera Sacha Sauda describes itself as a “spiritual organization". The Dera draws its followers mostly from among Dalit Sikhs who have long felt discriminated against by upper caste Sikhs. The sect claims to have more than 60 million followers and it is from this huge number that it seemingly derives its power and political influence—political parties of all colours and hues make a beeline to the guru’s doorstep. Singh first hit the headlines in 2007 when he invited the wrath of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhism, when he allegedly imitated the 10th Sikh guru Guru Gobind Singh. Violent clashes followed, as did death threats. Eventually Singh was rewarded with a Z security cover and in 2015, owing to the political demands of the day, the Akal Takht also pardoned him.

Today Punjab and Haryana are under siege, with everything from the internet to flights curtailed as members of the Dera Sacha Sauda gather in huge numbers (rough estimates place them at more than 50,000) in Panchkula, Punjab, as they await the verdict on a rape charge brought against their guru. The charge dates back to 2002 when an anonymous female follower wrote to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee alleging sexual abuse by Singh, of not just herself but even other women in the sect. To add to it was a murder charge against Singh of a Sirsa-based journalist who was writing about the activities of the Dera.

Even as the charges were made, Singh started expanding his footprint and his base. From large-scale blood donation camps to rehabilitation centres, the Dera’s public service activities are much touted among its followers. And as the Guru’s illusions of grandeur have grown, so have his flirtations with politics. He has thrown the weight of the sect behind the Congress in the past, but in 2016, during the Haryana assembly elections, he supported the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). During the recently held Punjab assembly elections, he gave his “blessings" to Akali Dal rather than declare outright support.

The Ram Rahim case has echoes of the case of Baba Rampal in 2014 whose followers overnight turned into a private army when an order for the arrest of the godman was issued. Quick-fix solutions for enlightenment and providing large-scale support for people when the state fails to do so are just some of the means attract people. While a lot of godmen are business magnates with empires to their names, the spread of technology and the rise of religious channels on television has only aided them.

Singh, in an obvious attempt to replicate the success of yet another television success story, Baba Ramdev, last year launched his own consumer goods products ranging from eatables to groceries. It is titled the MSG range of products.

The Dera chief has ticked all the boxes of being a godman with his meteoric rise to success, affluence and power and brush with the law. It remains to be seen whether he emerges unscathed from the current crisis.

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