The 10 year imprisonment handed down to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim by the CBI special court has brought to a close the 15-year case of rape and crimil intimidation of two female disciples. But the entire chain of events leading to the Baba’s conviction and sentencing once again go to show the unwonted clout such godmen enjoy in the country. And the reasons are not far to seek — politicians from across the spectrum woo them assiduously for votes and monetary support, while educated people including many top bureaucrats and professiols are at their beck and call. The Dera with reportedly 9,000 branches mostly in Punjab and Harya, had ebled its chief to build up a huge political network. He had played the role of kingmaker in the last Harya assembly elections, and was courted by the Congress as well as the BJP-Akali Dal combine in Punjab assembly elections this year. No wonder the Baba’s supporters engaged in a show of strength by virtually laying siege to the CBI court in Panchkula last Friday; the conviction led to the death of 38 people in the widespread violence that followed. It has to be remembered that the CBI in 2007 charge-sheeted the Dera chief not just for systematic sexual exploitation of female inmates, but also for the murders of a former Dera mager and Sirsa-based jourlist Ram Chander Chhatrapati. It remains to be seen whether the Punjab and Harya governments will now take on the Dera to further probe other alleged crimes like forced castration of hundreds of male devotees, illegal stockpiling of weapons, and fincial irregularities besides. In the aftermath of violence on Friday, the Punjab and Harya High Court has pulled up the Harya government for failing to properly enforce Section 144. All this just goes to show how some sects function like a state within a state, a law unto themselves. Investigators now suspect that the Baba’s followers may have been preparing to take on security forces by fortifying the deras with caches of firearms. Nearly three years earlier in November 2014, Harya police were forced to storm the ashram of a self-styled godman Rampal in Hisar town after a stand-off over several days, resulting in 6 deaths as heavily armed followers took on the police.
Only last year in June, 24 lives were lost at Mathura in Uttar Pradesh — including the SP of Mathura and another police officer — as the police carried out an eviction drive on court orders at a public park occupied by a sect. Long thought to be an innocuous sect with a vision to rebuild the country’s polity on Netaji Subhash Bose’s ideals, the ‘Swadhin Bharat Vidhik Satyagrah’ turned out to have followers trained in handling weapons, who used rifles, gredes and swords against the police. Facing flak for his handling of the situation, the then UP CM Akhilesh Yadav had admitted that the State machinery did not anticipate “they (members of the sect) would be so well armed”. It just goes to show how administrations tend to adopt a ‘hands-off’ policy when it comes to sundry sects and cults, apprehensive of the political patroge they enjoy. The same laxity, if not reluctance, is seen when governments have to conduct crimil investigations against errant godmen. In the latest such instance, the Supreme Court has questioned the Gujarat government over the slow pace of trial of Asaram Bapu in connection with a rape case. This godman, facing prosecution under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act for allegedly sexually assaulting a minor girl one of his ashram in Rajasthan 2013, is presently behind bars. Two separate complaints have been lodged by two Surat-based sisters against Asaram and his son rayan Sai, accusing them of rape and illegal confinement — which Gujarat government has to follow up. In April this year, the Supreme Court had asked the trial court in Gujarat to examine prosecution witnesses including the two rape survivors, and record the evidence. But with no action still forthcoming, the apex court has now asked the Gujarat government to file an affidavit. There have been many instances in the past of self-styled godmen abusing the trust of their devotees, who in their spiritual quest and intense desire for a meaningful life, surrender their all to the guru. From there onwards, brainwashing devotees to challenge the authority of the State, is but the next step for some godmen. In most instances, the courts have been the only resort for victims to bring vel godmen under the long arm of the law. But the courts can hand down a conviction only if the State’s investigative machinery does its homework, which is where the problem lies.