As spiritual leaders go, Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) Chief Saint Dr Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan looks nothing like what you'd expect.
You don't expect the portly leader of a non-profit social welfare and spiritual organisation to be always dressed in bejewelled clothes and bright headgears, so much so that he's nicknamed Guru of Bling. You don't expect spiritual leaders to unabashedly make self-aggrandising films and reality shows and you most certainly don't think they will hold an eyebrow-raising 19 Guinness Book of World Records for feats as decidedly unconventional as finger painting, vegetable mosaics and oil lamp displays. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet despite, or perhaps because of, his larger-than-life personality, the man wields astonishing power among his estimated 60 million followers, particularly in Punjab and Haryana, where the DSS is headquartered in the town of Sirsa, about 260km away from Chandigarh.
Ram Rahim, or Pitaji, as he is fondly called by his followers, is currently on trial for rape after a woman devotee wrote to former Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 about how Ram Rahim raped her and other sadhvis. Once the CBI took over the investigation, 18 sadhvis were questioned and two came forward with rape accusations. A CBI court in Panchkula, a small town in Haryana, will pronounce its verdict in the case on Friday, 25 August.
Tensions are rife in Punjab and Haryana ahead of the ruling, to be made later today. Over one lakh DSS followers have reportedly already gathered in Panchkula, with the numbers swelling by the hour. The two states are leaving no stone unturned to beef up security due to fear of large-scale violence, in case the verdict goes against Singh. According to The Indian Express, 5,000 police personnel have been deployed in Panchkula. Even the army has been enrolled to help maintain law and order. A stadium in Chandigarh has been converted into a jail to hold followers if they get violent, reported NDTV.
The extent of Singh's power and reach can be surmised from the fact that since 2007, he has enjoyed Z+ security, the highest level of protection in the country, from the Central government due to the multiple attempts on his life. Only 36 people in India are on the VVIP list provided with Z+ security. Singh moves around with a fleet of imported bulletproof cars — Lexus, Mercedes, Audis and BMWs — fitted with jammers in the same colour, bearing the same registration numbers for security reasons.
So who is he and how did he come to enjoy so much clout that two states are on tenterhooks because of him?
Singh was born in Rajasthan in 1967. In 1990, Shah Satnam, then chief of DSS, conferred sainthood on Singh at a public satsang, making him the third leader of the sect at the age of 23. 50-year-old Singh has been heading the DSS for last 27 years now and, in that time, has earned himself the reputation of a social reformer by organising multiple cleanliness, sanitation and blood donation drives, diabetes and cholesterol screening campaigns, and by establishing a disaster relief and welfare agency. According to his website, "133 welfare activities are being pursued by the DSS under his leadership".
Self-proclaimed social work notwithstanding, what most people remember him for is his outrageous foray into the film and the music industry.
He calls himself the "Rockstar Baba" and claims to have invented a new genre of music called "Religious Rock". Singh believes he is "packaging a spiritual message in a modern wrapper" and has reportedly held over a hundred rock concerts called "Ru-Ba-Ru Ruhani Nights".
His concerts are notorious for the daredevil stunts he performs. During one, he sang a song called Chocolate while being suspended 30 feet above the ground on a moving crane. In another, while singing Love Charger, he drove into the stadium standing on one leg in a car, while steering the wheel with the other. His website lists this feat as one of his many talents.
Singh also seems to own several self-modified bikes that are routinely used in his concerts and performances. He has released six music albums since 2012, all released by Universal, and Dera sources claim that put together, these have sold over 10 million copies. They claim that the last one, Highway Love Charger, released in 2014, sold three million copies in the first three days and was an instant hit on Youtube.
Ram Rahim Singh has five films to his credit since his debut in 2015 with MSG: Messenger of God, in which he essentially plays himself: a social reformer fighting society's evils. The film was turned down by the CBFC because it promoted superstitions, but an appeals board approved it, which led to then CBFC chief Leela Samson quitting the board. The film was panned by critics as being excruciatingly awful and was a massive financial failure, according to most media reports, despite the DSS's claim that it has made over ₹100 crore.
Be that as it may, Singh went on to release five movies in the next two-and-a-half years. He is currently preparing for the release of a sixth called Online Gurukul. In each of his films, he is not just credited for acting but also the story, screenplay, directing, producing, music, lyrics, cinematography, editing ... In fact, in his 2017 film, Hind Ka Napak Ko Jawab - MSG Lion Heart – 2, he has been credited with a record-breaking 43 roles and responsibilities in a single movie, according to the Asia Book of Records. Several media reports say that such a feat was repeated in his latest film, Jattu Engineer, as well.
Singh's website has a special section called talents, in which his many talents — 34, to be precise — have been listed. These include "low cost housing expert", "exemplary administrator", "de-addiction specialist", "global warming mitigator", "karmyogi and gyanyogi", "feminist", "water and sanitation expert", "cost effective technology developer", "excellent chef", "nutritionist" ... and so on.
While non-believers might wonder at how an almost cartoonish figure like Singh could achieve such cult status, DSS followers swear by his powers to heal the chronically ill and perform miracles at will. It is probably this unshakeable faith that has helped DSS become a vastly wealthy organisation. According to a report in Jansatta, the Dera's annual income three years ago was over ₹60 crore, with assets worth billions of rupees, all tax-free.
With his tremendous influence on the Dera's followers, political allegiances are only natural to follow. While the Dera claims that Singh remains resolutely apolitical, it might not necessarily be true. His son, Jasmeet Singh Insan, anointed as his successor, is married to the daughter of Punjab Congress leader Harminder Singh Jassi. He is also reported to have supported the Congress in the 2007 Punjab assembly polls.
Is there anything Singh can't do? Apparently not.
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