The Tribune – Judgment day for dera chief

Hope floats for slain journalist’s family

Sirsa – Haryana – India, 10 January 2019. Back in 2002, a journalist dared to tell the unpleasant truth about a mighty sect head.

In his eveninger, aptly titled Poora Sach, he published an anonymous letter, written to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, about the alleged rape of sadhvis at Sirsa’s politically patronised Dera Sacha Sauda. His voice was silenced, predictably, with bullets.

Ram Chander Chhatrapati was shot at outside his residence in Sirsa. After a struggle lasting four weeks, he lost the battle for life.

Over 16 years later, judgment day is nigh. The CBI special court in Panchkula is set to pronounce its verdict in the murder case on Friday.

Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who is serving a 20-year term in Rohtak’s Sunaria jail for the rape of two of his followers, will make an appearance before the court through video-conferencing.

The once-bitten-twice-shy Haryana authorities seem keen to avoid a repeat of the mayhem triggered by his conviction in the rape cases on August 25, 2017. The Manohar Lal Khattar government had come under fire for grossly mishandling the situation and allowing a sea of dera supporters to invade Panchkula.

The post-judgment violence had claimed over 40 lives, besides the loss of government and private property worth crores of rupees.

The Chhatrapati family, which has bravely refused to bow before the sect all these years, is hoping that its long wait for justice and closure will finally end.

The developments are also being watched closely by the country’s journalistic fraternity, which remains vulnerable to threats or worse for calling a spade a spade. India’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index-2018 was a lowly 138 (out of 180 countries), one place below Myanmar and one above Pakistan.

Several journalists, including Gauri Lankesh, have lost their lives in recent years for taking on radicals.

Many others have been browbeaten into self-censorship by unleashing prosecution proceedings on them. The sorry state of affairs will only worsen for the fourth estate if it’s let down by the judicial system.


The Hindustan Times – After Ram Rahim’s arrest, Dera Sacha Sauda dies a slow death

After the conviction of the group’s leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the colossal empire is struggling to stay relevant as the number of followers has dwindled and business affected

Hitender Rao

Sirsa-Haryana-India, 10 November 2017. A colossal business empire, worth an estimated Rs 2,100 crore and spread over 800 acres, has come to a virtual standstill. Its manufacturing plants, for aloe vera products, bottled water, car batteries, confectionery, oil-seed expellers, and atta (flour), are shut down. The nearby newspaper office, resort, shopping mall, cinema, petrol pump, restaurant, and hotel are all closed. The streets, too, are empty.

When Hindustan Times visited late last month, there was a lot of gloom and quiet in Sirsa, Haryana at the headquarters of the Dera Sacha Sauda. It started on August 25 when a CBI court convicted the group’s leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, of raping two disciples.

The announcement was greeted with fury: more than 45 persons were reported killed and more than 300 injured in riots across north India. This passionate anger was followed by rapid desertion. Interviews with both followers of Dera and officials of agencies investigating the group confirmed that it is in dire straits.

There are some signs of life though. The group’s much smaller, old base has remained active. Last weekend, the main headquarters was opened to celebrate the birth anniversary of Dera’s founder, Shah Mastana Balochistani. Sirsa police officials estimated that 4,000 people attended.

In general, however, recent months have seen the headquarters empty and the sect’s finances come under serious threat. “Neither are there buyers anymore nor anyone to pitch in with monetary contributions,’’ said Mangat Singh, a Dera follower from Sirsa. Dharampal, who runs a shop that sells Dera products outside the group’s headquarters, was one of the few premis (disciples) seen around last month.

“I worked at a Dera manufacturing unit,” he said. “Since it is shut down now, I look after this shop for couple of hours in the morning and the evening.” Not so long ago, Dera brand shops were full of followers of the sect; when HT visited, most stores, including Dharampal’s, were empty.

‘No one to take a decision’

For those that remain at Sirsa, there is a lack of direction and a struggle to maintain business as usual.

With Ram Rahim in prison and a number of his close aides on the run, Dera lacks a leader. According to the Sirsa police, Vipassana Insan, the chairperson, was unwell for a few weeks. Jasmeet Insaan, Ram Rahim’s son, is reportedly not interested in taking over.

“There was no one to take a decision or run the place though Vipassana is back in action since Sunday,” said a senior Haryana police official familiar with Dera. “The post-verdict violence has done them a lot of damage. A number of cases have been registered against Dera managers. It seems everyone is playing safe right now.”

Hindustan Times was unable to reach any official representatives of Dera for comment, since many appear to be avoiding contact with the press and it is unclear who is currently authorised to speak on behalf of the group.

According to a Haryana intelligence official, the number of people inside the compound has dwindled from 10,000 to only around 800. “There are no followers and there is no one to give directions,’’ said one of the remaining sewadars (volunteers). “There is hardly anything for us to do. It is a strange situation.”

The compound’s hospital, colleges and schools are struggling to function. The intelligence official said that all these institutions are seeing a low turnout, of either students or patients, and have sought the permission of the Punjab and Haryana high court to operate their bank accounts in order to meet day-to-day expenses.

These accounts are the subject of both Dera’s hopes and a grave threat against it. The Punjab and Haryana high court is attempting to quantify the damage caused by the riots and considering whether to hold Dera liable.

Meanwhile, on September 27, the high court directed the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department to investigate the personal accounts of Ram Rahim and his associates for possible money laundering.

Before it’s too late

Dera’s businesses have been closing, its followers have dwindled, and its savings are in doubt, but one important source of hope remains: politicians.

When the Haryana state assembly met last month, it made a point of paying homage to the Dera followers who were killed in the violence. The sympathetic representatives were from a wide range of political parties, including the BJP, the Congress, and the Indian National Lok Dal. Dera has been an important vote bank for parties for at least a decade.

The Congress received its support in the assembly polls of Punjab, in 2007, and Haryana, in 2009. Then, in Haryana in 2014, it was the BJP that received Dera’s support. In Punjab in 2012 and 2017, it was the Shiromani Akali Dal.

The diverse array of politicians who have depended on the group is the only indication of its strength. And now, it’s only hope.

The Indian Express – Curfew imposed in Sirsa as search underway at Dera headquarters, 41 central force companies keep watch

The operation is being conducted under the supervision of a retired District and Sessions Judge Anil Kumar Singh Panwar, who entered the dera premises at 8:35 am on Friday. However, the police forces had entered the dera early in the morning.

Sukhbir Siwach

Sirsa-Haryana-India, 8 September 2017. The Haryana police and paramilitary forces have begun the search and sanitisation operations inside the Dera Sacha Sauda’s headquarters at Sirsa on Friday morning.

The operation is being conducted under the supervision of a retired District and Sessions Judge Anil Kumar Singh Panwar, who entered the dera premises at 8:35 am on Friday.

However, the police forces had entered the dera early in the morning. Panwar has been appointed as Court Commissioner by the Punjab and Haryana High Court to monitor the search operation.

The sources have hinted that the sanitisation process could easily last a couple of days as the sprawling dera is spread in about 700 acres of land. Over a dozen blacksmiths have also been hired to break the numerous locks inside the Dera.

Forty-one companies of central forces accompanied by sniffer dogs will keep a strict vigil on security inside and outside the dera. Curfew has been imposed in areas surrounding headquarters in Sirsa which will continue till search operations last. Meanwhile, the media and public have been barred to enter the campus.

There is a lot of suspense over a suspected Gufa (cave) inside the dera where the dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had sexually exploited the sadhvis (female followers).

Two victim sadhvis, who had shown courage to speak against the dera chief, had told the court that the baba had raped them inside the gufa of the dera. During one of the court hearings, one victim had identified Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who had appeared before the court through video conferencing.

“I used to reside at the Girls’ hostel of the Dera and Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had renamed me as ‘Nazam’…Sadhvis used to perform duty as guard at the door from Girls’s hostel to Gufa from 8 pm to 12 in the night and from 12 in the night till 4 pm,” the Sadhvi had told the court.

She had clarified that by “Gufa”, she meant the place where the dera chief used to reside. She further deposed that in September 1999, she was deputed on duty as guard from 8 pm to 12 in the night outside the gate of the Gufa and at around 10 pm, the Baba came out of the gufa and called her inside the Gufa where he raped her.

However, the dera management has made it clear that there was no Gufa inside the dera and the residential place of the dera chief was called the Gufa.

“The place where the saints used to meditate is called Gufa and in the same manner, the residence of the dera chief was called as Gufa by the dera followers. A place which is being projected as Gufa by the TV channels is actually a way to the dera resort, ” said an official of dera’s media wing.

Curfew imposed in Sirsa as search underway at Dera headquarters, 41 central force companies keep watch

The News – Indian city barricaded as ‘rape guru’ awaits sentencing

Sirsa-Haryana-India, 27 August 2017. Supporters of an Indian guru ended a tense standoff with soldiers Sunday after the “godman” was convicted of rape, but authorities are bracing for more trouble on the eve of his sentencing after rioting by devotees left 36 dead.

Thousands of followers of Ram Rahim Singh had congregated in the spiritual headquarters of his sect in the northern state of Haryana over the weekend and refused to leave, despite calls from police and troops for them to disperse.

Singh´s loyalists had gone on a rampage in many other parts of the state after the court decision Friday.

On Sunday, followers began trickling out from the compound in the town of Sirsa one by one under army guard.

Hundreds of soldiers and riot police had blocked approaches to the premises spread over 1,000 acres (404 hectares) and were urging those holed up inside to surrender peacefully.

A curfew imposed in Sirsa, where soldiers patrolled empty streets, was briefly lifted Sunday morning to allow Singh´s followers to leave the headquarters as spiritual anthems blared from megaphones.

Indian authorities have been on high alert since rioting and arson broke out minutes after Singh, who has starred in films and claims to have 50 million followers, was found guilty of raping two of his devotees.

Police said at least 36 people were killed as tens of thousands of followers took to the streets, attacking television vans and setting fire to dozens of vehicles.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said 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,” Modi said in his monthly radio address.

“Those who take law in their hands or take to violence will not be spared, whoever they are.”

But his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also in power in Haryana, has come under heavy fire for failing to prevent the outbreak of violence and allowing the 50-year-old guru to travel in a luxury chopper to jail.

Critics say state authorities grossly underestimated the risk posed by the 200,000-strong army of Singh devotees who poured onto the streets vowing to defend their spiritual leader who they consider innocent.

Father can do no sin” [bold]

Authorities are taking no such chances ahead of Monday, when Singh will be sentenced in a prison-side court hearing in Rohtak. He could face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The city has been heavily fortified ahead of the ruling, with roads blocked by barbed wire and residents warned to stay indoors.

“We have made multi-layered arrangements so that nobody is able to reach the venue (prison) or enter Rohtak district itself,” police deputy inspector general Navdeep Singh Virk told Indian broadcaster NDTV.

“I am fully confident everything will go on peacefully and there will be no untoward incident tomorrow (Monday).”

As a precautionary measure, all senior members of Singh´s Dera Sacha Sauda sect have been placed under “preventive detention”, he added.

The guilty verdict, and police response to the rioting that followed, enraged many of Singh´s supporters.

“Our father can never do any sin,” said devotee Trilok Insaan at a shop in Sirsa adorned with posters of a heavily-bearded Singh.

“This is a conspiracy. Authorities issued a ‘shoot at sight’ order at innocent devotees, which is totally wrong.”

India has been rocked by numerous scandals involving popular ascetics claiming to possess mystical powers, and Singh is no stranger to controversy.

He is known as the “guru in bling” because of his penchant for bejewelled costumes, and is often seen sporting flamboyant leather jackets and riding customised superbikes.

In 2015 he started a film franchise portraying him as MSG or the ‘Messenger of God’, performing miracles, preaching to thousands and beating up gangsters while singing and dancing.

His last flick ‘MSG – The Warrior Lion Heart’ was released last year, with the guru playing a secret agent fighting aliens and UFOs.

But he has previously been 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.