In 1980, popular Bollywood actor, late Vinod Khanna, took a sabbatical at the peak of his career and headed for the United States. It raised eyebrows as Khanna was one of the most bankable stars in India’s commercial Hindi film industry. But leaving fame and fortune behind, Khanna sought to follow his spiritual guru Rajneesh, also known as Osho, who, after the initial years in Mumbai and Pune, had relocated to the US, setting up a sprawling ashram (hermitage) called Rajneeshpuram in Oregon. The controversial mystic’s preaching of an uninhibited pursuit of carnal pleasures earned him and his cult of followers a fair bit of notoriety. So it was a mystery why a popular figure such as Khanna would court such association — that too at the cost of a flourishing career?
Khanna returned to Mumbai in the mid-1980s and slipped back into filmdom without much fanfare. He seemed to have obtained his share of ‘bliss’ and ‘deliverance’ from a lodestone that was perhaps past its sell-by date! However, his sudden disappearance into the labyrinthine realm of seeking salvation through the diktats of a self-styled guru, bore the unmistakable stamp of subservience to blind faith and dogma — something that spoke volumes about the kind of hold such Godmen have wielded over a sizeable section of gullible masses in India.
This jaundiced subservience and its concomitant moral bankruptcy were laid bare in their ugliest form last week, when the disciples of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh simply refused to accept a Khanna-like quiet dissolution into everyday life after their guru’s brush with the law. They took to the streets of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, following the arrest and conviction of the ‘Baba of Bling’ in two separate cases of rape, wrongful confinement and intimidation, apart from a murder charge that is still under investigation. On August 24-25, 38 people were killed as complete lawlessness ruled vast swathes of northern India — with Sirsa, in Haryana, being the epicentre — as frenzied disciples of a shady sect that goes by the name of Dera Sacha Sauda (Camp for True Deal), where Gurmeet was the chief, made a mockery of the establishment, showing yet again the abyss to which a section of a 1.3 billion-strong nation can stoop to in its blind and unquestioned allegiance to a skewed sense of spirituality peddled by a fraud and debauch. Handing down a 20-year jail term to Gurmeet, a father of four, for raping two of his female disciples in the private quarters of the lavish and secured campus of Dera Sacha Sauda in Sirsa, Justice Jagdeep Singh said: “Awarding lesser than maximum punishment would shock the collective conscience of the nation.”
From performing in live musical soirees to acting in films and cutting audio discs, glib-talker Gurmeet has always been a ‘rockstar Baba’ (revered figure) whose fashionable clothing and obsession with garish accessories gained him traction, primarily with the backward castes, in the hinterlands of northern India. The sect claims to have 60 million followers spread well beyond the borders of India.
On August 25, when a special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) pronounced Gurmeet guilty of two counts of rape, following a CBI inquiry over a complaint that first surfaced in 2002, a crowd of no less than 200,000 descended upon the court premises in Panchkula, Haryana. The area turned into a virtual war-zone with an armed mob resorting to large-scale arson and violence, and fighting a pitched battle with the security forces.
Born on August 15, 1967, Gurmeet was the son of a Jat landlord in Ganganagar, Haryana. When he was just seven years old, Gurmeet was initiated into the Dera — a not-for-profit NGO headed by Shah Satnam Singh. Growing up, Gurmeet used to help his father with odd jobs and voluntary work at the Dera. When Satnam died in September 1990, Gurmeet, then 23, was anointed leader of the sect. That was the beginning of a life steeped in opulence, mired in controversies and smeared by tales of sexual exploitation of hapless sadhvis (female disciples) who were assigned the task of guarding the sanctum sanctorum of the Baba’s lair. The wealth and properties of Dera Sacha Sauda in the state of Punjab alone are estimated at Rs580 million (Dh33.32 million)! Exploiting the blind faith of the less-fortunate, Gurmeet and his clan built an empire on sleaze and lies by offering solutions and magic potions.
To fathom the monstrosity unleashed by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and his followers, one ought to look way beyond the streets of fire in Panchkula and Sirsa. As long as the political establishment in the world’s largest democracy continues to thrive on vote-bank politics and uses religion as a tool for socio-political machinations, a parallel system is bound to emerge in the shape of self-styled ‘spiritual’ leaders. This is the harsh reality in modern India. While sending a probe to Mars and presenting to the world some of the most innovative minds in information technology, it must also clear the cobwebs of social injustice, economic deprivation and a culture of cronyism that have only helped superstition and blind faith to proliferate. From a socially and financially accomplished matinee idol like Vinod Khanna to a hand-to-mouth daily wage earner in Sirsa, Gurdaspur or Kakinada this proliferation has cast its net far and wide, though it is the socially and economically backward section that is most vulnerable.
Quite like a black economy, the danger here is a parallel social order: Be it in the form of a quack in Delhi’s Daryaganj, who sells dubious concoctions to childless couples, promising to end infertility; or a Gurmeet in Haryana, who rapes disciples in the name of granting a ‘divine maafi’ (pardon).
You can follow Sanjib Kumar Das on Twitter: @moumiayush.