For millions of Indians, a day that started with pride at a brave court verdict ended in rage, embarrassment, fear and an acute sense of shame.
It was the day a rapist held us all for ransom.
It was the day that tens of thousands of Indians went on the rampage in defense of a con man masquerading as a spiritual leader. Some have called it our very own Charlottesville moment.
Gurmeet Singh, a flamboyant, self-proclaimed guru who goes by the moniker “Ram Rahim” was found guilty of raping two of his followers. The case took 200 sittings of the court and 15 years to reach this conclusion; that it happened at all is an act of judicial courage.
Ram Rahim, the long-haired “godman,” is not your garden-variety shyster. He has a liking for motorcycles, Range Rovers, sequined and shiny silver clothes. He casts himself in music videos as the Punjabi Presley, belting out songs like “You Are the Love Charger.” Rahim is a publicity desperado who loves being called the “guru of bling,” the “messenger of God” or the “Rockstar Baba.”
But his colorful eccentricities do not mean he is benign. He is a man of enormous wealth and influence with political connections across parties. The cult he heads, a sect called Dera Sacha Sauda, is headquartered just hours from India’s national capital, in the northern state of Haryana in the city of Sirsa. The cult can make or break elections. A local journalist who reported the rape complaint against Ram Rahim was mysteriously shot dead outside his house in 2002. One of the investigative officers in the case has spoken of the pressure he came under from his superiors and politicians to shut down the inquiry. In other words, Ram Rahim is dangerous. And the judge who pronounced him guilty showed life-risking bravery in standing up to the system.
It’s what happened next that should terrify us and make us worry about where India is headed as a nation. The Haryana administration looked the other way as the crowds were allowed to swell, and an enraged court accused the government of colluding with Ram Rahim’s supporters. He arrived in court with the swagger of a celebrity, escorted by more than a hundred cars in his “convoy.” All hell broke loose as he was found guilty. Media vans were stoned and destroyed; police stations were set on fire, plumes of smoke rose above residential colonies where mostly retired soldiers lived, the army was called in and a high alert had to be sounded across three states, including the capital city of Delhi. By the end of the day more than 30 were dead. Scores more were injured.
As an Indian, I was struck by the appalling contradictions of my country: This week India’s Supreme Court struck down the retrograde custom of “triple talaq,” or instant divorce; we celebrated the watershed moment in the feminist fight for rights.
And three days later, our fellow citizens, in the thousands, marched in support of a charlatan and a rapist? What message are we sending to women who dare to complain about sexual assault? Think of the woman who showed the courage to write about her ordeal to the then-prime minister of India in 2002; she described how the “guru” lay on his bed, a revolver by his side, watching a pornographic film on television, when he first raped her. It happened repeatedly. She also documented how many other women were being exploited in the same way. How might she feel about the mass hysteria, not in her support, but in support of the man who did this to her?
And then, there are our politicians. This time it is Haryana’s BJP government that showed shocking, even criminal, incompetence and complicity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to sack the chief minister his party installed to recover from the political damage to his party. But, though in the 2014 elections Ram Rahim threw his political weight behind the BJP (there are photographs that capture their bonhomie); previously, it was the Congress party that courted him and even went so far as to give him Z-plus security, which is India’s highest security cover. The insidious mix of religion and politics has corroded our democracy. The courts have blasted the Haryana government, charging it with having “surrendered to agitators.” The betrayal by the political class has made many of us feel like the judiciary is our last hope.
The defining image of this week has been that of the rapist Baba leaving the court in a chopper, nibbling on a chocolate, with a girl who calls herself “Papa’s angel” sitting beside him clutching a pink handbag. The galling celebrity treatment hasn’t stopped even now.
As Indians, will we finally stop investing in these fraudsters who market synthetic spirituality? Think of the three rationalist writers and thinkers who were murdered in India between 2013 and 2015 for challenging superstition and blind faith. We didn’t march for them. Nor did we march for the 70 children who died in a Gorakhpur hospital this month. But our fellow citizens turned into arsonists for a rapist, who is also facing separate charges for murder and forced mass castration of his followers. As “Baba land” descends into la la land; when will we finally be shaken out of our delusions?