How a divided India fuelled the rise of the gurus

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Image copyright EPA
Image caption Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has millions of followers in India

The followers of a popular Indian guru in northern India have rampaged through towns, vandalising property, setting railway stations on fire, smashing cars, setting media vans alight and clashing with security forces. Several lives have been lost in the violence.

They are angry because a court found Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh guilty of raping two women at the headquarters of his religious group, known as Dera Sacha Sauda, in 2002.

To his millions of supporters - mostly underprivileged, lower caste men and women - Singh is a protean leader of his flock. He mutates effortlessly from spiritual leader to flashy entertainer.

He talks about a life lived in "reasonable restraint", but himself lives opulently. The guru of bling - as some call him - is the main actor in garish, self-produced films and the lead singer in noisy open air concerts packed to the gills by a captive audience of devoted follower-fans. His first music album was curiously titled Highway Love Charger and apparently sold millions of copies.

The guru's social outreach is equally intriguing. Singh runs charities, and so-called movements to promote blood, eye and cadaver donations. He campaigns for vegetarianism. But he also makes gay men sign declarations vowing to "give up homosexual behaviour" under his "holy guidance", and was once accused of forcing followers to undergo castration to "get closer to god".

A journalist who visited the sprawling headquarters of Singh's dera - a religious group, Punjab has more than 100 of them - told me she was struck by buildings with human ear-shaped windows and high turquoise walls topped with multi-coloured fruit-shaped water tanks.

"It seemed to me," she told me, "that he's a guru who lives out his dreams and fantasies - movie star, rock singer, do-gooder, political influencer - through his group and his devotees. In the process, he also helps his followers to dream big."

India has always had gurus for as longer as one can remember. There are global gurus like the flamboyant Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to whom the Beatles turned to for spiritual salvation in the 1960s. And there are domestic gurus for rich and poor with huge followings.

Image copyright Manoj Dhaka
Image caption Tens of thousands of the guru's supporters had flocked to Chandigarh

The gurus count politicians, film and cricket stars, bureaucrats and ordinary people among their devotees. They run schools and hospitals. They peddle influence as superstitious politicians run to them for advice and votes of their devotees. Proximity to a guru legitimises a politician and adds to his power. Gurus like Singh virtually run parallel states, providing services to followers.

The 50-year-old Singh, who will be sentenced on Monday, is one of the more controversial ones. In the past, gurus - or "godmen" as they are called in India - have been accused of murder, rape, trafficking, assault, sexual abuse and fraud.

Singh himself has been accused of mocking Sikh and Hindu figures, and investigated for murder and rape. Although the bulk of his devotees are lower caste, poor and underprivileged, his core group include highly-educated professional followers.

Many believe that millions of people flock to the dozens of religious groups like Singh's because they feel that mainstream politics and religion have failed them. In what they feel is an increasingly inequitable world, they feel let down by their politicians and priests, and turn to gurus and shamans for succour.

"In many ways the rise of gurus like Singh tells us something about how conventional politics and religion have been failing a large number of people. So they turn to unconventional religion to seek some dignity and quality. Such groups have arisen in many parts of the democratic, modern world. They find equality by sharing common spaces and ceremonies with millions of fellow followers," sociologist Shiv Visvanathan told me.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Supporters of the guru clashed with security forces on Friday

Not without reason Singh's followers share a common invented surname, Insan (Human) - as opposed to an individual surname which reveals your caste and place in society.

Clearly, the rise of the gurus and religious groups tells us how deeply divided and hierarchical India remains. Friday's violence once again showed how such gurus can end up running a parallel state, and the seeming powerlessness of the state itself.