Feb 18, 2015 - me,â he told me before I boarded the train in the capital. Bazigars are .... thought I was not deserving even of a handkerchief,â he said. Later.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in 2007. (Ravi S Sahani/The India Today Group/Getty Images)Published Feb 18, 2015
THE MESSENGER OF GOD An Indian guru has millions of loyal followers. He is also under investigation for rape, murder and the castration of hundreds of men. Story by Narendra Kaushik
SIRSA, India Hans Raj Chauhan has eyes rimmed with kohl and a smooth, hairless face. “I lost my body hair and even stopped growing them on my face,” he said, pulling a sleeve to reveal his bare arms. The eye makeup is because of his profession — he’s a Sufi singer — and because his mother likes it, he said. The smooth skin is one effect of hormonal changes he attributes to forced castration. I visited Chauhan at his home in Tohana, a small town about 200 kilometers northwest of New Delhi, because he is a chief detractor of a guru named Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. “Come to the Bazigar Colony near Brar Square. Ask for Sufi singer Hans, and you’ll reach me,” he told me before I boarded the train in the capital. Bazigars are a lower caste of people in India known for two things: poverty and performing arts talent. When I reached Brar Square the next morning, a shopkeeper directed me to a row of unpainted houses. Cows were tethered in the street. Chauhan, 35, ushered me into a room packed with trophies won for musical performances. There were photographs of him strumming a guitar and singing into a microphone with a bandana tied around his forehead. By 2000, Chauhan had become very close with Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a larger-than-life character who leads a religious sect based two hours from Chauhan’s home, in Sirsa. Singh claims to have more than 50 million devotees around the world, dedicated to his social crusade against consuming meat, addiction and prostitution. Yet he faces
ongoing criminal prosecution over allegations as serious as rape and murder. For his thousands of hermits, who are closest to him, he is like a father. So when Chauhan decided to become a hermit, he did not hesitate to undergo what he was told would be a “minor operation.” Years later, he bitterly regrets joining what he now believes is a cult, and he is pursuing his case in court. As Chauhan told me his story, his mother, a kind woman with worry lines crossing her face, brought us tea on a tray. Immediately, she started crying. Chauhan’s eyes moistened, too, and he wiped them. “Now the guru will be behind bars,” he told her, but she only continued to sob.
Chauhan was 5 when he first visited Dera Sacha Sauda, the ashram in Sirsa, which was founded in 1948 and has been led by three gurus. Singh is the third. His predecessor was a man with a scraggly white beard named Shah Satnam Singh. Chauhan’s parents were followers, and they made their boy dance before the guru and his hermits. The guru offered sweets and asked him to chant a mantra in Punjabi language describing God as omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. Chauhan didn’t know what the words meant, but he loved the sweets. His parents continued to bring him to the ashram when they visited. Ashrams — spiritual communities for Hindu sects — are all over India. In Sirsa alone, at least half a dozen sects prescribe their own brand of meditation, promising an interface with the divine. Generally, ashrams have two types of followers: people who practice the meditation techniques and ascribe to the philosophy but live at home, and people who live in separate rooms or halls connected with common bathrooms in the ashram precincts.
Sometimes, ashrams become so influential, their gurus become politically connected. Dhirendra Brahmchari, for instance, was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s yoga teacher. Because India is a secular democratic country and the Indian constitution grants religious freedom, the government tends to give ashrams free reign in their communes and only gets involved when a crime is alleged. Crimes are frequently alleged. In 1980, Acharya Rajneesh, a sect leader better known as Osho or simply “the sex guru” for the reputed orgies in his compound, was attacked in India. He migrated to the United States in the middle of 1981. In 1985, he was arrested in the United States for immigration fraud, pleaded guilty, paid $400,000 in lieu of jail time and was deported. One godman called Asaram Bapu, from the western state of Gujarat, is currently in prison on rape charges. But prosecutors have struggled to make their case: Asaram’s former chef and his doctor — two key witnesses — were each gunned down. In November, police raided an ashram in Barwala, another town in northern India, to arrest Guru Sant Rampal, who refused to appear for questioning in a 2006 murder case connected to his sect. Dozens of armed supporters tried to defend him, reportedly using members of the community as human shields. By the end of the raid, hundreds were injured and Rampal was in custody. When police searched the ashram, they found six dead bodies. Five were women; the other was a baby. Some had broken ribs and had been beaten with blunt objects.
Dera Sacha Sauda has satellites in 11 Indian states, overseen by senior hermits called managers. They run hospitals, schools and orphanages. They own factories, markets, farms, restaurants and hotels. As a
religious operation, Dera Sacha Sauda pays no taxes. In 1990, before the sect’s elderly guru died, he anointed a successor: a stocky man in his early 20s named Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, from a village in the desert west of India. Singh’s appointment made him something like head of state, pope and chief executive officer. In colorful turbans and jewel-studded sandals, Singh drives around the country in a fleet of Mercedes, former members of the ashram told me. Sect followers willingly heed his orders. When the guru offers sweets to guests, he places his little finger on them first, to sanctify the food. Fruits and vegetables he touches command exorbitant prices at market. “At times, the prices would run into tens of millions of Indian rupees for a single basket,” Chauhan said. Chauhan, a skinny boy in his early teens at the time, was in awe. He took on voluntary duties in the Sirsa ashram and in the other hermitages across the country — offering water to visitors, announcing the guru’s arrivals and discourses, making audio cassette copies of the guru’s lectures and growing vegetables in the ashram’s farms. In 1994, Chauhan helped a team of masons construct an ashram in Himachal Pradesh. As payment, the guru gave them a gift: a 5-meterlong piece of fabric. Chauhan was overcome with joy. “At that time, I thought I was not deserving even of a handkerchief,” he said. Later that year, he requested to become a permanent disciple and live in the ashram. “I was told I’ll have to make a personal request,” he said. So he went to Singh’s private chamber and asked “to let me be at his feet.”
Aditya Insaan is the spokesman for Dera Sacha Sauda. He is an ophthalmologist trained at India’s premier medical institution in New Delhi, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. He also runs the
ashram’s English weekly newspaper and often argues the sect’s position on television news programs. I first met with Insaan in New Delhi and again at the ashram in Sirsa. He told me he used to be “a sex hound and would chase women.” But, he said, “I’ve transformed after joining the sect, though it took six months for complete transformation.” Insaan introduced me to several devotees. Salvation is the recurring message. Many claim to have experienced miracles. Many claim to have experienced miracles. A middle-aged farmer from Punjab state believes the guru’s blessings secured a government job for his son, an X-ray technician. (The farmer is also a member of the guru’s Green S Welfare Force, a group of uniformed volunteers who wield batons. They act as a kind of militia, controlling crowds and protecting the guru when he is taken to the Sirsa court complex for criminal proceedings.) A restaurateur in Fatehabad, about 70 kilometers from Sirsa, praises the guru’s work against addiction. Punjab is riddled with alcoholism and addiction to opiates smuggled from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many of Singh’s followers believe he has cured them. The restaurateur’s son said he quit smoking thanks to the guru’s chanting regimen. Another, Rakesh Dhawan, is a young man who lives in the ashram, and we met outside the guru’s office. Dhawan claims a 5-millimeter stone disappeared from his abdomen after he started meditating. “The doctors had told me I’ll have to undergo operation. There was no other option,” he said. “I would chant the mantra prescribed by the guru in the morning and evening. After a while when I was scanned for the stone again, it was not there.”
Insaan proudly cites Guinness World Records for things like eye health screenings and blood donations (43,732 people gave blood on the same day). “The media should see how much social work he has done,” he said. Critics, meanwhile, say the social campaigns are to distract from criminal allegations. Fourteen of the 16 world records the guru claims to have set were achieved after the cases came to light. If Twitter is a measure of influence, Singh is notable for having more than 81,000 followers. (He follows no one.) Recently, after a long spate of violent assaults on women in India, Singh tweeted, “If u find any acid attack victim girl. inform me.I ll adopt her like my daughter and get her treated. Her marriage will be done if she wishes.” The message was retweeted 8,506 times.
As a teenager, Chauhan learned to sing and play music from the other hermits in the ashram. Gurdas Toor, another former hermit of Dera Sacha Sauda, remembers Chauhan had the best voice in his 60member band. “People would be eager to listen to him and songs sung by female hermits. He would make people dance,” Toor said. When Singh traveled to other hermitages, Chauhan often accompanied him to sing devotional songs. Singh’s son Jasmeet was married in 2003, and Chauhan sang in the wedding. Even by then, however, Chauhan had suffered moments of disillusionment. During a visit to Rajasthan state, Chauhan and five others were caught in a flash flood, he said. The swollen Chambal River had overwhelmed their Jeep, which soon was underwater. Chauhan knows how to swim. “I managed to open the window, climbed to the roof of the vehicle and swam to safety to a nearby temple,” he said. “There I procured a long iron rod. We put that rod across to the Jeep and pulled everybody to safety.”
The story of their narrow escape reached the ashram in Sirsa before they did. When the hermits returned soggy and tired, Singh welcomed them with a bouquet of flowers. Then he said, “I saved you this time, but be careful in the future.” Chauhan was confused. “How could he say this? He was not even with us.”
Hans Raj Chauhan in his home. (Narendra Kaushik) But Chauhan continued to rise in the ashram’s hierarchy. He was promoted to Singh’s “cave,” a circular room where the guru met his closest disciples. Sometime in late 1999, the hermits began pestering Chauhan to become a full-time hermit by renouncing all worldly pleasures and ties. Singh — himself a married man with three children and two grandchildren — criticized those who owned homes and had families, Chauhan said. “The guru would say, ‘Married people live like the worms live in filth. The life of a celibate hermit is best.’”
Chauhan resisted at first. His parents wanted him to get married, and they were scouting for a bride. But Singh promised attainment of God. He even traveled twice to Tohana to persuade Chauhan’s parents. “The guru would cite the example of Guru Gobind Singh” — the 17th century Sikh guru — “who sacrificed his life and family for the service of community,” Chauhan said. He knew a minor surgical operation was involved, but Chauhan claims he never believed this meant castration. He said he still believed the hermits were “good people.” Around that time, Chauhan said Singh caught a hermit passing a love letter to a sadhvi, a female ascetic. The sect has separate enclosures for men and women. Only the guru has access to female followers, and the correspondence infuriated the guru. He summoned his disciples to his chambers, where they found Singh shivering with anger, Chauhan said. In his tirade, Singh threatened to make them all eunuchs. Chauhan said he thought it was just something the guru blurted out of rage.
In September 2000, Chauhan and a fellow inductee were taken to Shah Satnamji Speciality Hospital in the Rajasthan city of Gursarmodia, where they were asked to report to a compounder named Rinku. Some colleagues already had undergone surgery, but Chauhan told me the whole event was shrouded in secrecy. Nobody knew what operations had been performed. Rinku gave Chauhan a soft drink. He sipped it and lost consciousness. He said he remembers doctors talking and exchanging surgical instruments. He felt a slight pain in his groin.
After the operation, Chauhan said, he was given an overdose of sleeping pills. “When I woke up three days later, I sensed the portion under my penis was bandaged. I realized they removed my testicles,” he said. Chauhan said he was hospitalized for 10 more days and then sent back to Sirsa. He was taken before the guru, who told him, “You are a real man now.” He gave his new hermits his old clothes, socks and caps to wear as a souvenir. “Cherish them,” he told them. “This is loot of love.”
In a petition before Punjab & Haryana State High Court against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, Chauhan named the two doctors who performed his operation as M. P. Singh from Sirsa (he is now Chief Medical Officer of the ashram’s hospital in Sirsa) and Pankaj Garg from Chandigarh. Neither Singh nor Garg could be reached for comment by phone. After Chauhan filed his petition, the court ordered a medical examination, which confirmed his castration. Later, when I asked Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh about the castration allegations, he denied them and attributed the charges — and others — to “the drug mafia.” He said his anti-addiction campaigns have cost drug lords billions of dollars. “I got a letter in 1992 which listed details of the loss I caused to the drug mafia through my campaign against alcohol and heroin. The letter said I won’t be spared,” he said. After the castration, Chauhan said Singh fawned over him and the other inductees. He was promoted to “A+ category,” the highest rank of hermits. “He would praise us in public, and we would feel good,” Chauhan said.
The ashram, Dera Sacha Sauda. (Narendra Kaushik) Chauhan continued to travel with the guru, covering 18 states and performing for perhaps 1,000 congregations between 2000 and 2009. But he was growing tired of it. “I realized I lost my childhood and half of my youth,” he told me. “This was physical exploitation. We would work every day and be paid nothing.” During these years, Chauhan said he frequently expressed his desire to leave the ashram. “I wrote 50 letters to the guru, but he never responded. I also frequently asked for permission to travel outside to buy musical instruments. But the guru would fetch me the instruments.” An incident in 2008 firmed his resolve to leave. Chauhan asked the guru to be allowed to enroll in school. “What will you do with an education?” Chauhan said Singh responded. “You’ll not become a
teacher. You’ll still be serving in the ashram.” Around this time, another hermit who was also denied education left the ashram. One evening in 2009, Chauhan announced to his seniors he was leaving at all costs. They tried to dissuade him. But he was unmoved. “I stuck to my guns, told them I’ll leave come what may,” he said. His parents were called to the ashram and they met with the guru in his cave. Chauhan said the guru relented but said, “You’re leaving me but will come back.” In 2012, Chauhan filed a lawsuit in the Punjab and Haryana High Court alleging that about 400 hermits were castrated in the ashram based on false promises by Singh that they would realize God after undergoing the procedure. Police in Sirsa began an investigation. They questioned seven incarcerated Dera Sacha Sauda followers, who also said they were castrated. In December, dissatisfied with the slow pace of the police inquiry, the High Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (similar to the FBI) to take over. In its order, the court referenced another sect, Divya Jyoti Sansthan, whose leader, Ashutosh Maharaj, had been lying in a freezer for close to a year because his followers believe their guru is meditating and will return to life. “Superstitions are now a constitutional anathema,” the judges wrote. “Courts cannot be privies to perpetration of harm on blind faith in the name of religion.”
In 1990, as Singh was taking charge, Ram Kumar Bishnoi, a senior hermit in the Dera Sacha Sauda, went to speak with the Sirsa police chief, V. Kamraj. Bishnoi had a suspicion that the managing committee of the ashram tricked the ailing guru Satnam Shah Singh into appointing Gurmeet Ram Rahim as his successor. “The committee members wanted to firm up their control of the ashram through the new guru,” he said.
But when Bishnoi went to the police, he said the chief told him, “Ram Kumar, you are alone. His followers are in the millions. It will be safer for you if you leave this place.” “His followers are in the millions. It will be safer for you if you leave this place.” Bishnoi, who has since quit the ashram, is among several former followers who have filed cases in court against Singh. His complaint seeks an investigation into suicides committed by ashram followers. Bishnoi’s petition names half a dozen suicides which took place either in the Sirsa ashram or near the court complex in the city in 2011. This included the suicide of a sadhvi, a young female ascetic named Sonam Tyagi, who was studying to be a teacher, near the guru’s cave. The cave, Bishnoi’s petition alleges, has a door that opens toward the hostel where the sadhvis live. Two sadhvis have told the CBI in written statements they were taken to the cave by senior female ascetics and raped by Singh at sword point. Last month, the Punjab and Haryana State High Court took up Bishnoi’s petition, and another hearing was scheduled for Feb. 20. Bringing allegations is a brave thing to do. In at least two instances, accusers or critics of the ashram have died mysteriously. In 2001, Ranjit Singh, a farmer in Kurukshetra, stopped allowing his daughters to go to Dera Sacha Sauda after a woman was allegedly sexually assaulted there. When an article appeared in a local newspaper condemning sexual exploitation at the dera, many members believed Ranjit Singh was behind it. On July 10, 2002, Ranjit Singh was returning home from bringing tea to his father in the fields when someone shot him in the head.
Less than four months later, Ram Chander Chhatrapati, the editor of a Sirsa newspaper called Poora Sach, or “complete truth,” was shot and killed following its publication of articles about alleged sexual assaults on female ascetics in the ashram. Seven members of the sect are in jail and charged with the murders. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has also been charged with allegedly ordering the killings but is out on bail. A close aide to Singh had told the Central Bureau of Investigation that he heard Singh personally give the orders. In court, however, he recanted the statement. Singh denied any involvement to detectives and said the investigation was “unfair, tainted and biased.” He added, “Dera Sacha Sauda is like an open book.” Meanwhile, Singh has been busy working on a feature film, MSG: the Messenger of God, which portrays the guru as a superman vigilante, fighting against criminals operating drug and prostitution syndicates. The film’s teaser shows the guru driving motorcycles and punching criminals; a packed arena chants in unison as Singh stands before them, arms spread wide. Gurdas Toor, the former colleague of Chauhan, said he always appreciated the work of the ashram — until Singh took over. “My parents were followers of the sect since 1971. The sect helped my father quit drinking. Satnam Shah had christened me as well as my brother,” said Toor, now in his early 40s. He left in 2002, however, after he saw the guru imparting arms training to his senior hermits in his chamber. He said he heard Singh tell them, “If somebody points a finger at you, I’ll cut that finger. How can you be silent about insult of your guru?”
Women and men are kept apart during lectures at Dera Sacha Sauda. (Ravi S Sahani/The India Today Group/Getty Images) When I arrived in Sirsa to interview the guru, he was addressing a crowd in a discourse hall in the ashram. The complex has room for thousands of people, with separate areas for men and women and classrooms. In one, school children were waving yellow banners with MSG written on them. I passed through a security gate where guards frisked me and stowed my laptop bag, which they returned to me after the interview. Aditya Insaan, the spokesman, led me to the enclosure where Singh was speaking about the meaning of MSG. The speech was being telecast, apparently globally, because he took a call from a follower in Australia. He explained that he became a filmmaker to convey his anti-drug message to young people. Afterward, I was taken to another room where guards frisked me again. When Singh appeared, he was wearing a white silk robe and a turban. He welcomed me into a room where a few followers were seated. When I asked him to explain the controversies, he said the murder, rape and castration charges are part of a conspiracy hatched by the drug mafia. He did not name the drug mafia, but he appears to be referring to the drug lords who operate in northern India and particularly in Punjab state. I asked him if he believed he should take responsibility, as the head of the organization, for the crimes that allegedly take place in his ashram. “I never told anybody to harm others,” he replied. “There are 50 million followers. Only Rama (a Hindu God) would know who bears what kind of character.”
The two women who have pressed rape charges in court said Singh told them he was God incarnate when he forced himself on them. He rejected their claim as ridiculous. “If the allegations were true, no female would have stayed in the Sirsa ashram. Would educated people send their daughters here if rapes had happened here? Would our number increase four-fold?” “If the allegations were true … would our number increase four-fold?” Singh receives government security cover when he travels, and when he appears in court, it is via teleconference: He fears someone will try to assassinate him in the Sirsa courtroom. Nonetheless, he has an assortment of private guards who are trained by retired police and defense personnel. Ansul Chhatrapati, the son of the murdered journalist Ramchandra Chhatrapati, believes Sirsa police and Haryana state officials help the guru skirt court appearances and hearings with the Central Bureau of Investigation on security grounds. Chhatrapati and his lawyer Lekhraj Dhot allege Singh has obtained more than three dozen court appearance exemptions in that case alone between Dec. 22, 2007, and Sept. 20, 2014, and spends the time shooting films instead. Singh denied all of this. “Barring one or two occasions, I’ve always attended the court proceedings. There was even an occasion when I attended the court daily,” he said. At this point, Insaan, the spokesman, whispered in my ear to restrict my questions to MSG. The guru said his involvement in filmmaking is aimed at communicating proper values to India’s young people. “The youth listens to music. That is why I started singing. The films attract them. That is why I am acting in films,” he said. After our interview, Insaan brought me to a printing press and requested that I not flag controversies and repeat the negative
“narrative” of the sect. He mentioned that a female volunteer of the Sirsa ashram, who was present in the anteroom during the interview, was upset with me for asking difficult questions of the guru. “She was saying, ‘The media is sold out,’” he said. Insaan made one more request before I left the ashram: that I delay publication until MSG hits the marquee. The film was slated for release on Feb. 13.
A journalist by vocation and storyteller by nature, Narendra Kaushik loves travelling and exploring the unknown. Based in New Delhi, he has worked with almost all genres of print media. This story was edited by Ben Wolford. Additional editing by Jackie Valley.