Mar 16, 2015

India's Rockstar Saint Is a Spiritual Guru, Cinema Sensation, and Rape Suspect

March 10, 2015
Tom Lasseter and Kartikay Mehrotra

The black Lexus SUV rolled down a red carpet, past the line of white-clad girls in angel wings and gold-vested, barefoot men in turbans who jiggled as they danced. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had arrived.

The crowd roared with glee. Drums boomed and confetti filled the air as guards with assault rifles and TV cameramen sprinted to catch the Lexus when it came to a stop.

As he climbed from the SUV, his white pants ablaze in sequins, Singh's recorded voice boomed overhead in a techno-music inspired dance track. Many in the crowd knew the lyrics: "You are mine, forever." An accompanying video clip begins with the words "THE ROCKSTAR SAINT" emblazoned across the screen.

Singh had come on this day to a southern suburb of New Delhi to promote his movie in the run-up to its February release. Originally titled "MSG: The Messenger of God," the movie stars Singh as himself. At 47, he isn't conventionally leading-man handsome. He is portly, with an unruly black beard, long hair and a flowing mustache to match dark, intense eyes.

Singh is many things to many people: spiritual master, pop star, actor, political power broker. The Central Bureau of Investigation, India's equivalent of the FBI, sees him as something else altogether. The agency has formally charged him in one court case with rape and in two additional cases for conspiring to have men killed.

The CBI is also investigating Singh for allegedly convincing up to 400 of his followers to undergo castration, although no charges have been filed.

In interviews with Bloomberg News, Singh, who is free to move about on bail, categorically denied the murder, rape and castration allegations. He said his life work is dedicated to charitable and spiritual endeavors.

The scene in the Delhi suburb that day was by design a circus. As the leader of a religious organization that boasts millions of followers, Singh attracts large and enthralled crowds wherever he goes. More than 100,000 people were crammed into a series of tents covering a dirt plot next to a subway line. Fat, colorful balloons decorated with Singh's face floated hundreds of feet in the air.

The pomp made it easy to miss the meaning of Singh's story for present-day India. The nation has long been a land of "guru ji's" and "god men" sought out by business executives to advise them on which dates might be auspicious for brokering a deal and families wondering when they should schedule a wedding.

But spiritual consulting and public spectacles are just a sideshow to what underwrites the power, wealth and influence of god men in dusty villages and throbbing megacities alike: the dysfunction that is Indian democracy. While on paper, the nation is ruled by a prime minister, parliament and a web of local officials, the reality on the ground is shaped more often by corruption, poverty, moribund bureaucracy and constricting boundaries of class and social background.

For men such as Singh, that landscape creates opportunity. Offering basic services that the government often fails to provide, along with a welcome to lower-caste members who are shunned by much of society, the religious leaders amass congregations that number in the millions. Surrounded by throngs of adherents who vote as they are told, the god men become formidable political machines.

At Singh's compound, about a five-hour drive northwest of New Delhi, followers are told that they are all equal in the eyes of god, that the poor and rich are on the same footing. Thousands of people wear matching khaki and green tracksuits, with printed numbers corresponding to the dates they joined, which identify them as members of a volunteer "Welfare Force."

There is no formal religious doctrine, only tenets centering on feel-good notions like charity and treating people well. The singular focus of all activity is simply this: Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.

Yet when god men attain cult status, things can go bad. In November, some 200 people were injured in clashes between police in the northern Indian district of Hisar and the followers of a god man known as Baba Rampal when the police attempted to arrest him in connection with a murder. Rampal's lawyer said in an interview that he is "a law-abiding person” and he has denied all charges in accounts in India's press.

Another god man of national fame, Asaram Bapu, now sits in jail in the western state of Rajasthan on charges of sexually assaulting an underage girl. A lawyer for Bapu said his client is innocent and that he has gained, not lost, supporters.

Singh is himself accused by the CBI of raping two women from Haryana, the state where he is headquartered, between 1999 and 2000. He is also charged under Indian statutes for criminal conspiracy and murder in connection with the slayings of two local men in 2002. Copies of the CBI investigation reports — the documents that form the basis of the rape and murder conspiracy charges — were obtained by Bloomberg News.

The initial inquiries into the deaths and alleged sexual assaults were begun by a combination of the courts and police in 2002. The CBI didn't file charges against Singh until 2007, according to these documents. No verdict has been reached in any of the cases. Long delays in the Indian courts are common, and lawyers for the alleged rape victims and the families of the murdered men alike said they were not surprised that so many years have passed by.

The ongoing CBI investigation of the castrations of Singh's followers involves allegations that there were up to 400 victims.

In ordering the CBI to examine the castration issue in December, Judge K. Kannan of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana wrote, "In a democracy, numbers mean everything. The clout that a person enjoys with patronage lying outside the spiritual circles can make even a powerful police force go limp."

Singh denied the criminal allegations in filings at a CBI court and in interviews with Bloomberg News and dismissed the notion that he had used his influence to avoid prosecution. Asked why the investigations against him have piled up, Singh — shiny with perspiration after singing at the Delhi suburb event — listed a dozen charitable acts done by his organization, including opposition to drugs and prostitution.

"So the people who make money off of these sins, the people who benefit from the evil in the world, they don’t like what we do and they spread this filth about us," he said. "That's the main thing, my child."

The scandal hasn't scared away Singh's supporters or diminished his star appeal. At the movie event outside Delhi, Indian TV host Koel Purie Rinchet of Couching with Koel turned up to snag Singh for an interview. "All the guru ji's have been on my show," she said, smiling broadly at one of Singh's handlers. "I think with him I won't need the glamor — with him, he will be the glamor quotient itself."

Singh's reach is national. While campaigning for his party in state elections in the battleground state of Haryana last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a rally in the city of Sirsa. That's where Singh's compound — Dera Sacha Sauda, or "the place of real truth" — is located. The Dera, as it's known, publicly backed Modi's party in the Haryana elections, as it did in the contest for Delhi's chief minister in February.

Video of the episode recorded Modi looking out at the crowd of supporters in October before mentioning someone who was not present: "I have also sought the blessings of the Dera chief."

During an interview at the Dera, Singh said he and Modi aren't friends but that they pursue the same goals. "In 2011 we started the cleanliness drives, and when Modi ji came to power, he started with the cleanliness drive … He has been following all the precedents set by the Dera, which is why I salute and praise him," Singh said.

A spokesman in the prime minister's office, Jagdish Thakkar, did not respond to a request for comment when reached by phone.

At the interview, Singh was wearing a cap, vest and tunic decorated with peacock feather prints, a symbol associated with Hindu deities and one he frequently uses. He received a Bloomberg reporter in a brightly lit room with three blank white walls. A fourth, which he faced, held full-length pictures of himself and his predecessors. The only pieces of furniture were the white seat on which he sat and a small, white table holding a packet of disinfectant wipes and a wand with a peacock feather. Guests stood before him.

Outside, black-clad men holding assault rifles kept watch. "There are forces which fear that if Guru ji comes to politics, he will attain power and a preeminent position," Singh said, referring to himself in the third person with the honorific "ji." "These people are scared needlessly that Guru ji might want to head the country one day, but this Guru ji has absolutely nothing to do with politics."

Singh was just 23 years old when he was appointed the head of the Dera in September 1990. His two predecessors — the facility was started in 1948—were white-haired ascetics regarded locally as kindly monks.

He quickly established grander ambitions. The Dera moved the focus of its operations from a 25-acre complex in Sirsa to what records submitted to a CBI court in Haryana described in 2007 as a sprawling 600-plus-acre plot that sits south of town. The organization went from publicly reporting more than a million followers to claiming tens of millions.

Amid the growth, trouble started. An anonymous letter that claimed to have been written by a sadhvi, or nun, surfaced in 2002, alleging that Singh had raped her and other women. That document, and many more that have emerged in a series of court cases, present Singh as a ruthless leader with political connections and an expectation of absolute obedience from his followers.

The letter writer said that she had been summoned into an underground room where Singh, whom she referred to as "maharaj," or master, was sitting on a bed watching a "blue film" — euphemism for pornography — with a pistol on the pillow next to him, according to a copy of the letter in court records. When she resisted, Singh claimed to be god and said he could kill her, according to the letter. "Thereafter, the Maharaj committed sexual intercourse with me," the letter writer said.

A High Court judge in the city of Chandigarh, Haryana's capital, dispatched a district court judge in Sirsa to look into the allegations in September 2002. That judge's report was inconclusive. It confirmed that Singh was residing in a "palatial Gufa" (cave). As for "the sexual abuse of a number of girls,” the judge wrote that "the possibility of such acts cannot altogether be ruled out." The letter's author has never been publicly identified.

In an interview, Singh said the accusations and the stories behind them are fabrications put forth by his enemies. "We have utmost respect for the court and the matters are sub judice" — under the court's review — "but on a personal level, we would like to say that the charges are false," Singh told a Bloomberg reporter.

The Dera's suspicions about the circulation of the letter fell on a man named Ranjit Singh, a senior member of the organization's management who had left the fold in 2000 and later withdrew his sister and two daughters as well, according to the narrative presented in a CBI report. Three men from the organization visited Singh at his home and told him to "apologize to Baba Gurmeet Singh for circulating the said complaint or otherwise they had the orders of Baba Gurmeet Singh to kill him," the CBI said. Ranjit Singh declined to back down.

On July 10, Ranjit Singh rode his motorcycle over to his father's farm — they were wealthy landlords — with some tea for laborers in the fields. As he drove away, four men stepped out of a sugar cane blind and opened fire. He dropped to the dirt and died, according to the CBI report.

In the meantime, a newspaper editor in Sirsa named Ram Chander Chhatarpati printed articles throughout the summer about the fallout from the anonymous letter. During early October, a Dera emissary visited Chhatarpati and told him to stop writing, or "otherwise the day Baba Gurmeet Singh passed orders, he would be killed," the CBI report said. On Oct. 23, 2002, Chhatarpati ran a follow-up article about the case.

At about 7:45 p.m. on the evening of Oct. 24, as Chhatarpati sat down to dinner with his family, two men yelled for him. He walked to the street, and his children followed him outside, according to his son's account in a recent interview with Bloomberg News, which mirrored the one reported by the CBI. As they watched from the yard, one of the men raised a pistol and shots rang out. Police reports record finding five spent .32-caliber cartridges from the gun and four bullet wounds in the body.

A CBI report said that the men were carpenters who worked at the Dera. Police recovered a walkie-talkie that belonged to the Dera and a .32-caliber pistol registered to a Dera official, who confessed to have given the gun to the pair, according to police and CBI documents. The CBI concluded that in the deaths of Ranjit Singh and Chhatarpati, Gurmeet Singh was part of the conspiracy to have them killed. He was charged in both murders, according to CBI and court documents.

About four years after the two slayings, a woman, a former sadhvi, sat down with CBI investigators in July 2006 and said that Singh had raped her. She was interviewed by the CBI previously but told investigators that she had said nothing at the time because she feared her family would shun her and because Singh has a "large number of followers including politicians." A second woman came forward with similar allegations, according to the CBI.

Singh, in interviews, reiterated his innocence. "We have not only not done any of these things," he said, "but have never even thought of these things."

"I do not regard myself as a god man. I regard myself only as a simple man."

The Dera, Singh said, is a place of good works. On a tour of the facility, in which a reporter was constantly accompanied by minders, the faithful recounted stories of one miraculous cure after the next: cancer, alcoholism, depression, a severed tendon, problems at work.

One such guide was Aditya Arora, senior aide and spokesman in a baggy four-button blue suit and grey tennis shoes. He was in the middle of driving a subcompact Maruti Suzuki Alto around the Dera, past the excavated site for a new medical college and 110 acres of organic farm operations, when he suddenly hit the brakes and rolled down his window.

He called to a group of people to stop and answer. In what way had the blessings of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh affected them?

A man in a dusty brown coat atop a t-shirt with Singh's face and the letters MSG printed on it spoke up. "Life has changed so amazingly that it is beyond description," he said.

Arora nodded his head and drove off.

Like Singh himself and other serious Singh acolytes, Arora, an eye surgeon who lives at the Dera and has six pictures of Singh in his living room, has taken the last name of Insan, a Hindi word meaning human. It is a sign that he has ingested the "Nectar of Humanitarianism," a cloudy drink mix of milk, water and rose essence, and devoted himself to 47 principles that include, "You shall not listen to ill-spoken words against your Guru."

Hans Raj Chauhan, the man whose castration led to the ongoing investigation of the matter, described the Dera as a place where men are "brainwashed," according to court documents. Chauhan gave the court a list of seven followers of Singh who had allegedly been castrated on his command — "die-hard followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim" who "are ready to die for him," Chauhan said through his attorney in a court filing.

Four acknowledged in interviews with a court-formed medical team during 2014 that they have no testicles, and three said they had been sterilized. All seven maintained that the procedures had nothing to do with Singh and refused medical examinations.

Chauhan has also given the court a detailed spreadsheet, including the home villages and names of family members, of 166 former sadhus, or monks, from Dera whom he said were castrated. He said in an interview with a Bloomberg reporter that his own operation was preceded by a glass of Pepsi for comfort.

As for Singh telling him that he would be closer to god if he got the procedure, Chauhan said he inquired after the operation when he might expect to have that divine meeting. Singh's reply, as Chauhan recalled: "Don't you know that I am god?'"

Singh said in an interview that he doesn't use that sort of language. "I do not regard myself as a god man," he said. "I regard myself only as a simple man."

For miles outside the Dera, the streets are lined with posters of Singh — astride a motorcycle, holding a guitar, urging the faithful to follow him on Twitter, floating among the clouds. Loudspeakers in the middle of the road approaching the Dera broadcast Singh's voice on poles fixed at such regular intervals that it sounds like he is following visitors as they drive ever-closer to the facility.

The developed section of the compound resembles a small town, almost a mile long and half a mile wide. There is a full-sized cricket stadium, a college affiliated with a state university and the Shining Magic Grand resort — across from the Saint MSG Glorious International School — featuring replicas of the Eiffel Tower, a giant horse head and an Asian pagoda.

There is also a 400-bed hospital with a main building in the shape of a heart. It contains three interior buildings that, when viewed in satellite images, spell out initials from the names of the Dera's leadership to date.

"People have this fancy notion that this has been gotten by ill-gotten gains," said Arora, the aide, as he walked past a fountain with six small elephants on each side and a row of shiny golf carts outside the Shining Magic Grand. "But this is actually an example of integrated, sustainable development."

When Singh announced on his Twitter account in February that the film was ready to debut after a month-long controversy with India's film censorship board, its name got edited slightly to "MSG: The Messenger."

In an apparent gesture of deference to the state, the words "of God" had been removed.

Toward the end of the movie promotion event in Delhi, Singh walked to the back of his tent and climbed four red steps to a solitary, oversized red-and-black seat. A preview of the film played on a video screen in a blur of fisticuffs, dance numbers, adoring crowds, and fiery explosions — all taking place as Singh battled the dark forces of drug addiction and society's crisis of immorality.

Rising from his chair, Singh was handed a microphone. Cheers erupted. Men rose and began to shout.

"I can see you," Singh told those assembled before him, "I can feel you."

— Bloomberg News reporter Bibhudatta Pradhan contributed to this report.