After 'Guru Of Bling' Sentencing, Indian State Stays On Alert For Violence
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now a story about a crime that triggered more crime. In India, a charismatic, self-styled guru has been sentenced to 20 years for raping two female disciples 15 years ago. His conviction last week unleashed a torrent of violence. Thirty-eight people were killed as throngs of devotees rampaged. And yesterday, thousands of police and paramilitary were deployed for the sentencing. Here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: A 15-minute drive from Chandigarh, an army convoy combs the streets of Panchkula, a palm-fringed city where Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh's supporters left a trail of destruction after the court here convicted him of rape last Friday. Cars were burned, columns of motorcycles were set on fire, government buildings were attacked. The deputy commissioner of police told NPR that 900 people have been detained in the unrest.
Monday, the army was on standby in the city of Rohtak where the once-celebrated guru Singh broke down at his sentencing inside the prison where he's being held. Local media at the hearing said the burly, bearded guru had to be dragged back to his cell, weeping. Human rights lawyer Navkiran Singh says the 20-year sentence isn't enough. He says that the chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect had intimidated witnesses and is under investigation for killing one of them.
The judge was flown to the prison to deliver the sentence rather than risk transporting Singh back to court where his devotees might repeat Friday's mayhem. Navkiran Singh says that was a perversion of justice.
NAVKIRAN SINGH: Well, it does belittle the judicial system. It still goes a long way to the mind of the people that the man is too powerful.
MCCARTHY: Lawyers for Singh had begged for leniency, citing his age - he's 50 - and his work planting trees and helping those with drug addiction. But the sentencing judge, Jagdeep Singh, said the guru had acted like a wild beast and did not spare pious followers. He wasn't entitled to mercy. Part showman, part spiritual leader, Singh scripted and starred in his own movies that exalted him as the messenger of God, a message that former follower Gurdas Singh Toor says was drilled into disciples.
Singh Toor travels with an armed guard.
GURDAS SINGH TOOR: (Speaking Hindi).
MCCARTHY: Needed protection, he says, after cooperating on criminal investigations against the guru, including one that accuses him of encouraging followers to undergo castration to be closer to God, a charge the sect leader denies. Singh Toor explains part of his appeal. He says many of the followers are Sikh Dalits, victims of discrimination who sit at the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. He says the guru offered them in the sect what they were deprived of in day-to-day life.
SINGH TOOR: (Speaking Hindi).
MCCARTHY: "He would make people feel respected, bestowing titles for deeds they did," Singh says. "Someone who married a prostitute would be called the magnanimous man as large as an elephant. He elevated their status if they donated blood, calling them honorable and closer to God," Singh explains. Singh says it will take time for these followers to come to terms with life without their guru. He languishes now in prison, a rare case of a self-styled spiritual leader being held to account.
Lawyers for Ram Rahim Singh say he will appeal. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Chandigarh.