India

Who is Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh?

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Image copyright AFP
Image caption The 50-year-old 'godman' was convicted of rape on Friday

The flamboyant chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, has been convicted of rape by an Indian court.

The sect claims to have more than 60 million followers around the world and the 50-year-old "godman" is revered by his supporters. But, he is no stranger to controversy.

In 2002, Singh was investigated by India's federal police for murder and alleged rape, charges he has denied. He has also been accused of forcing 400 of his followers to undergo castration so they could "get closer to god".

He told the Times of India that the last charge was "cent-per-cent false. I never asked anyone to do so".

Image copyright Manoj Dhaka
Image caption The sect claims to have more than 60 million followers around the world

Known as "Rockstar Baba", Singh is often spotted in shiny, colourful clothes and has performed in half a dozen music videos. He has also earned the nickname "Guru of Bling" because of his preference for ornate jewellery.

On Friday, ahead of the court verdict, his supporters gathered across Punjab and Haryana, sobbing and threatening violence and self-harm if he were to be found guilty.

Singh was just 23 years old when he took over the sect that describes itself as "a non-profit social welfare and spiritual organisation".

Based out of northern India, the sect runs 46 centres across India and the world.

Image copyright Manoj Dhaka
Image caption For the hearing on Friday, thousands of troops were deployed in the region

In the past, he has been criticised for mocking religious figures.

In 2007, he antagonised the Sikh community when he appeared in an advertisement, dressed like Guru Gobind Singh, a revered Sikh guru.

In 2015, a Hindu organisation lodged a complaint against him over a video where he posed as the Hindu god Vishnu. Critics said that it had "hurt their religious sentiments".

Over the years, Singh has presented himself as a social reformer by organising cleanliness drives and blood donation camps.

In 2010, the sect organised a mass marriage where more than 1,000 followers "volunteered" to marry sex workers.

His official website describes him as a "spiritual saint, philanthropist, versatile singer and all-rounder sportsperson".

Image copyright Manoj Dhaka
Image caption Punjab and Haryana came to a virtual standstill ahead of the verdict

In recent years, he has also starred in films to add to his already larger-than-life image.

He has produced three films which have been released in several Indian languages after weeks of controversy. In the trailer for one of them, MSG: Messenger of God, Singh is seen performing daredevil stunts, fighting aliens, ghosts and elephants and taking on villains.

"His swagger is unmistakably Bollywood, enough to brand him the 'baap' [father] of all heroes," according to a review of the movie in The Hindustan Times.

Due to his large following, politicians across the spectrum have vied for his support. The sect has backed both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress party at different times.

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