Here is a counterfactual. Would a phenomenon like Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and his dera have materialised had the State done its job? For millions of Indians, the State appears so distant and dysfunctional that they are willing to surrender their entire self to such parallel institutions.
Such a system leaves the field wide open for misuse by predatory operators like Gurmeet Singh who packaged himself as the aspirational guru. His bling, showmanship, larger-than-life persona were parts of the strategy to draw those bereft of hope and looking for a one-stop-shop to solve all their problems.
Deras are not a new phenomenon. The countryside — specially in Punjab and Haryana — is littered with hundreds of deras where people gather, the poor, the disempowered, those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. Disciples eat in community langars and seek solace and solutions from their guru. Crucially, when you enter a dera you leave your caste behind.
Many deras are probably doing honest philanthropic work, not unlike soup kitchens run by churches in many Western countries. But usually, someone going to a soup kitchen does not feel this is the permanent way out of an unbearable existence.
In contrast, many deras operate as a default State doling out basic amenities like healthcare and education and holding out the promise of security to those who feel disempowered and unable to navigate a system that privileges the already privileged and is deaf to the cries of others.
Dera Sacha Sauda ran hospitals and set up eight educational institutions — including girls’ schools, girls’ colleges, a management institute and even so-called “international” schools for boys and girls. A Chandigarh-based newspaper reported that some 6,000 students from Haryana’s Sirsa district are enrolled in these institutions which reportedly have excellent facilities for cricket, hockey, swimming, volleyball and basketball. Such facilities are available in top-end private schools but typically out of reach for children whose parents have neither money nor power nor social connections.
Gurmeet Singh set up not only a default State but also positioned himself as a job provider. Factories in his dera produced goods as much in demand in Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s “New India” as in Old India from pickles to shampoos. One question which has popped up since Gurmeet Singh’s double rape conviction relates to the fate of the 10,000-odd families who were in some way or the other drawing material sustenance from these enterprises.
After his conviction, Gurmeet Singh’s lawyers argued that all these philanthropic activities should be seen as mitigating factors during sentencing. Not that the ploy worked with the brave judge at the CBI special court, who has given a 20-year jail sentence to the self-styled guru.
Back to the counterfactual — how “attractive” would a Gurmeet Singh and his dera be in a society where basic facilities are not considered luxuries, where millions do not go bankrupt paying for their medical treatment and where schools with playgrounds and sports infrastructure are not beyond the reach of the vast majority.
It is the dysfunctional Indian State which persists as much in the new India as the one which preceded it which fuels the rise of men like Gurmeet Singh. The rapist who posed as a guru would be far less attractive had the State did what it is meant to do.
All societies have believers. And mentors, lifestyle coaches and spiritual healers. They are not necessarily problematic. What is problematic is the complete surrender and outsourcing of one’s thinking to such individuals and institutions.
There is nothing novel about this. Criminals and extremist groups use “development” as a bait to capture and hold followers. Maoists start out in a new village by providing education and healthcare. That does not detract from their criminal acts. Nor does philanthropy excuse or mitigate Gurmeet Singh’s abuse of power.
Which brings one to the rapes he has been held guilty of. “Having due regard to the peculiar fact and circumstances of the case, the court is of the view that if acts of the convict in sexually exploiting his own female disciples and intimidating them with dire consequences are taken note of, then such kind of a person does not deserve any leniency from the court,” CBI special judge Jagdeep Singh said in the nine-page order.
For so many years, the man got away with such despicable deeds because he completely controlled his “flock” and so great was their dependency on him and such was their fear and awe of him that few dared to speak out.
In this context, the role of doctors who worked in the dera also should be examined, as public health expert Anant Bhan has demanded. What about the medical records of all the women who were subjected to repeated rapes and trauma and the “disciples” who were allegedly castrated at the behest of Gurmeet Singh? Earlier, the few who dared to question the ‘guru’ on such points staked not only their livelihood but their lives.
Such a reign of fear became possible because politicians cutting across party lines were complicit. For years, they have sought to leverage Gurmeet Singh’s influence during elections. Such an influence can exist only when the State is dysfunctional.
The judiciary is forcing India’s politicians to confront inconvenient truths. But ordinary citizens too have their work cut out. The perseverance of rape survivors, two women whose names we don’t know, the much-maligned CBI and brave judges — helped unmask the ugly truth in this case.
But how do you encourage more people to speak out if those who do are killed or live in mortal fear? Neelam Katara, the mother of Nitish Katara, who was killed by politician and Rajya Sabha member D.P. Yadav’s relatives, and who struggled for years for justice, says the State has the necessary intelligence machinery to sniff out what is going on behind the closed walls of deras and similar places; it must be pushed to investigate possible abuses. There is also a need for a law which prevents people accused of heinous crimes such as rape and murder from contesting elections till there is a final verdict and they are declared innocent, says Ms Katara.
Will that happen in Narendra Modi’s New India? The jury is still out....