New Delhi, India, Aug 28 – Self-styled “godman” Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh inspired extraordinary devotion in India, where huge crowds flocked to hear his teachings — even after he was accused of rape in a high-profile case that ended in conviction.
Singh counted film stars, cricketers and politicians among his legions of supporters.
But the most devoted were the vast numbers of ordinary Indians, many of them poor, who flocked to the sprawling headquarters of his controversial sect in the northern Indian state of Haryana to hear his teachings.
There, delirious devotees were said to weep with joy and fall at his feet for blessings.
They called Singh “pita-ji”, or “revered father”, and said his message of living simply and eschewing meat and alcohol had changed their lives.
That Singh’s own life was far from simple did not seem to matter.
The extravagantly-bearded 50-year-old was dubbed the “guru in bling” for his flamboyant wardrobe, which included trousers emblazoned with sequins.
He travelled in a convoy of SUVs, starred in pop videos and even launched his own “Messenger of God” movie franchise in which he performed miracles, preached to thousands and beat up gangsters — all while singing and dancing.
In the latest, “MSG — The Warrior Lion Heart”, he played a secret agent fighting aliens and UFOs.
That spawned a line of merchandise including T-shirts, caps and other insignia emblazoned with Singh’s smiling face.
But the razzamatazz of his showbusiness career concealed a darker side to Singh’s story.
In 2002 an anonymous letter was sent to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee accusing the guru of repeatedly raping the sender and several other women at the headquarters of his sect in Haryana.
A judge asked the Central Bureau of Investigations to look into the accusations, but it took years to trace the alleged victims and it was not until 2007 that two women came forward and filed their complaint.
A local journalist who had covered the case was later killed. Singh still faces a conspiracy charge for alleged involvement, which he denies.
He is also being investigated for allegedly persuading up to 400 of his followers to undergo castration.
Despite the charges he faced, he was courted by Indian politicians eager to win his support — and by extension that of his many followers.
Recent images showed Singh taking part in a cleanliness drive with the Haryana chief minister, who has been criticised for failing to prevent his supporters from going on a violent rampage after his conviction on Friday.
– ‘Image of the lord’ –
Police say at least 38 supporters of Singh’s Dera Sacha Sauda sect were killed in the rioting that broke out minutes after the verdict was announced.
By then Singh himself had been whisked off in a government helicopter, accompanied by his adopted daughter, and taken to a jail in the city of Rohtak.
He had been chosen to head the Dera Sacha Sauda — a controversial sect that describes itself as pan-religious and has angered Sikhs and Hindus — as a child and formally took on the role when he was 23.
Despite his larger-than-life public persona, little is known about Singh’s personal life.
According to his website, he was born on August 15, 1967, the only child of wealthy parents in western Rajasthan.
“Soon, his parents realised that he wasn’t merely a child but the image of the lord. And thus, they never hurt him physically or verbally,” says his profile.
Singh is married and has two daughters and a son. In 2009 he adopted one of his female followers, Honeypreet Insan, who reportedly calls herself “papa’s angel” and is thought to be his intended successor.
He has sought to portray himself as a social reformer, promoting vegetarianism, campaigning against drug addiction and holding huge blood donation camps.
But he has antagonised other religious communities, notably the Sikhs. There were riots in the Sikh heartland of Punjab after Singh appeared in an advertisement dressed like Guru Gobind Singh, a revered Sikh guru.