“Holy-men” are hardly a novelty in modern India. Devotees from across the country regularly pay homage to their chosen spiritual guides, either by tuning into televised sermons or attending massive public processions. But the “gurus” sometimes go from being a popular preacher to a full-fledged “Messenger of God,” and when that happens, followers can find themselves coaxed into making extreme oaths of allegiance.
In an example that seems a bit too extreme, Hans Raj Chauhan, a former follower of pop-star guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, alleges he and close to 400 others were lured into having themselves castrated on Singh’s request. When asked what led him and the others to agree to the procedure he said that they had been promised a chance to “meet God.”
In response to a petition filed by Chauhan, authorities opened an investigation into the alleged cases going back to December 2014. While initial investigations failed to yield substantive results due to a lack of cooperation from members of Singh’s organization—the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS)—recent reports indicate that officials have been successful in tracking down other castrated followers.
Ram Rahim Singh and his organization have adamantly denied that they had anything to do with the castrations. “This business of castration is not part of the doctrine of the Dera at all,” says Dr. Aditya Insan, an eye surgeon who doubles as a spokesman for the DSS. “ No such practice can be attributed to either the guru or our organization.”
The DSS brands itself as a “Social Welfare and Spiritual Organization,” and is known for its humanitarian work, organizing everything from disaster relief efforts to drug de-addiction centers.
The organization’s official website also declares its firm opposition to female feticide, as well as expecting dowry from young brides, issues that often plague Indian women, particularly in rural areas. It’s worth noting, however, that the organization isn’t strictly liberal in all of its beliefs. Its website also includes a pledge for members to agree to “Quit Homosexuality.”
Insan credits Rahim Singh’s humanitarian efforts with the group’s tremendous popularity, with the DSS claiming over 50 million followers around the world. Rahim Singh has used that popularity to catapult himself onto the big-screen as well, starring as the lead in a recently made Bollywood film titled “MSG: Messenger of God.”
Similar to certain Evangelical Christian groups in America, the organization is built primarily around the leadership of one figure—Rahim Singh. But according to Professor Surinder Jodhka, “Followers need not leave their faith, per se.” Jodhka, who teaches sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, explained to me that the DSS is not a religiously “exclusionary movement,” but largely action oriented. “There is a large degree of liquor and drug consumption in several parts of rural Punjab and Haryana,” he said. “Men become addicts, women become victimized. These areas are the political base of movements like the DSS, and they tap into frustrations with their creation of quasi-addiction centers.”
But Rahim Singh’s humanitarian reputation among his followers stands in stark contrast to the recent cases alleged against him. In addition to the CBI investigation regarding the 400 alleged castrations, Rahim Singh is also facing trial in courts in connection with the murder of a journalist as well as allegations of sexual exploitation of some of his female disciples.
Insan is adamant in his denunciation of the accusations that have been hurled against his Guru, calling them a “perversion of democracy.” He claims that they are politically motivated, spurred on in part by his organization’s role in combating rampant drug addiction that affects Punjab and Haryana. “ The fact is that Punjab today is one of the largest entry points for drugs in the country,” he told me. “ The local mafias, as well as politicians in Punjab are the ones involved in allowing drugs to prosper here. Is this democracy?”
His suspicions are not completely without merit, as instances of collusion between Punjab’s ruling Akali Dal party and local drug mafias have been reported on in the past. But still, there are serious doubts about whether or not all the charges against Rahim Singh are just part of a political conspiracy. For instance, both the Akali Dal and the DSS are in alliance with the BJP run national government. The Akali Dal is traditionally composed of higher caste members, while the DSS has been known to be composed of by members of lower castes.
Sanjay Hedge, an Advocate at the Supreme Court in Delhi, believes that given their shared support of the BJP “they seem quite equally matched in terms of political influence.”
“The court obviously satisfied all doubts that a castration had occurred, and so they asked for an investigation to establish what happened and who is to blame,” he told The Daily Beast. “ Either way, aside from the state politics, the High Court is an independent organization. Its inquiry cannot just be a political ploy.”
Critics of the DSS have also pointed out the corrupting influence of Rahim Singh’s own political clout, and not that of his opponents, when it comes to the justice process. “ He is so powerful that he has been able to get away with crimes for a very long time,” said Navkiran Singh, who is representing Chauhan in the castration case. “It was only when (India’s Central Bureau of Investigation) began investigating the initial rape and murder charges that people gained the courage to come out and speak.”
But Singh admits that his client’s case is uniquely difficult, largely because those who were castrated did so seemingly out of their own free-will. Even still, he is hopeful that more followers will come out against their former-guru’s alleged coercion, spurred on by the continuing investigation into the matter. “This was a test given to these people,” he explained. “They were told; ‘If you are castrated, then you are my true followers.’ They were ready to die.”