By Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan
From a distance, the godmen of India are darkly comic: a Victorian caricature of the superstitious Orient. Consider Guru Ashutosh Maharaj, whose followers have stored his body in a freezer since a fatal heart attack three years ago, claiming he is meditating. While his family wishes to cremate him, Punjab and Haryana High Court sided with his devotees, emphasising the “freedom of conscience”.
The deaths of more than 30 individuals following the Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s conviction of rape should shutter such illusions of benignity. The decision against the spiritual leader, actor and director prompted rioting from his religious group, the Dera Sacha Sauda.
This zealotry exposes fundamental flaws in how India’s politicians treat “godmen”. Rather than addressing societal issues which allow demagogues to amass fortunes and defy laws, India’s elite have treated them as useful intermediaries to vote banks of devotees. At its heart, the problem of godmen is about politics more than religion, although some are empowered by Hindutva nationalism.
The most prominent of these is Yogi Adityanath, the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who decried Mother Teresa’s work as a plan to Christianise India, and who ordered followers to convert 100 Muslim women for every Hindu woman converted. This sort of rhetoric costs lives: Gauri Lankesh, a journalist and critic of the Indian far-right, was murdered outside her home in Bangalore a few days ago. Yet for the most part, godmen are a bipartisan issue, with leaders of all hues viewing them as key to block voting. These include the now disgraced Asaram Bapu, a godman who received substantial plots of land from Congress and BJP governments for his ashram (religious centre). In a grim foreshadowing of Singh, Bapu fought arrest for rape by hiding in one of his ashrams, whilst his supporters attacked journalists.
For the most part, godmen are a bipartisan issue, with leaders of all hues viewing them as key to block voting Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh himself was courted first by the Indian Congress party, and called on members of his organisation (the Dera Sacha Sauda) to vote for them. After an abysmal showing in the 2012 Punjab state elections, Singh instead offered his support to the victorious Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On the day riots began, Ram Bilas Sharma, the BJP Haryana minister of education (who had recently given a donation of around £60,000 to the Dera), sought to place the blame for violence on lax law enforcement. Singh’s popularity looks paradoxical. Despite the Dera espousing an ascetic tradition, he is known for sporting excessive jewellery and for casting himself as a godlike figure in his 2015 movie.
But his message of equality for Punjab’s Dalits (nearly a third of the state’s population) was the pillar of his success — in somewhat Trumpian fashion, an ostentatious demagogue became a beacon for dispossessed victims of India’s rigid caste system. Godmen fill societal voids left by successive governments unwilling to tackle deep-rooted problems.
It was the cynical approach of Indian politicians to godmen which rewarded him, however. Sending in police or military forces to quell riots restores order, but this was a self-inflicted crisis: the result of offering political patronage to demagogues rather than seeking to fight the underlying inequalities which give rise to them. Godmen fill societal voids left by successive governments unwilling to tackle deep-rooted problems. It is not that India has inequality that is its greatest shame, but that governments view it as a political utility rather than a political, moral failing. Flirtations with religious fundamentalists are not uncommon, as the American experience shows. But godmen like Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh represent the fringe of the fringe: equivalent to courting the Branch Davidians or the Manson family. Indian politicians have allowed a national industry of hucksters to develop, whose followers view allegations against them as tantamount to treason.
The 15-year delay between Ram Rahim’s alleged rapes and his arrest speaks volumes about Indian politics, and none of it is positive.
The writer is studying for a masters in the social science of the internet at Green Templeton college, Oxford.