At least 20 people died in less than three hours after the violence. Crores of public property was laid waste in arson that spread from Panchkula and Sirsa to Delhi and towns in Punjab. In Haryana, the BJP government led by former RSS pracharak M L Khattar watched helplessly as the crazed followers attacked. This was an eerie replay of the Jat agitation early in 2016 when Haryana burned and nearly 20 people were killed in violence that lasted more than a week.
This was a story of a violence and death foretold, yet no preventive action was taken. Singh was flown to safety from Panchkula after the verdict in a helicopter and the entire top leadership of the BJP maintained a circumspect silence as the riots were unleashed.
What is it about Rahim Singh that triggered the need for the army to be called in after thousands of his followers who call themselves "premis" surrounded the court?
Strength in numbers. It is not hyperbole on Singh's part when he says he commands crores of followers in his three main deras in Haryana, Punjab and Maharashtra; they worship him like a God and obediently follow his diktats when it comes to political support.
Even after Singh was accused of rape and other serious offences such as murder and forcing his male followers to get castrated, no leader of any political party had any qualms about seeking the endorsement of Pita-ji for easy votes. This May, the Yoga Federation of India recommended his name for the prestigious Dronacharya award, the highest honour for sporting coaches who have guided their wards to glory on the world stage. Earlier, Haryana Sports minister Anil Vij during a visit to the Dera in Sirsa was so impressed that he granted Rs 50 lakhs to Singh for his contribution to "traditional sports".
Singh had quite a role in the BJP's 2014 sweep in Haryana. 44 candidates were shepherded to the Dera by Kailash Vijayvargiya, in charge of Haryana for the BJP, for Pita-ji's blessings. Their wish was granted and Singh also tweeted a picture of himself voting as the Dera let it be known that devotees should back PM Modi's party.
Much before the BJP came in to power, Singh was granted Z-plus security which on Friday saw him enter Panchkula with a mammoth entourage of 100+ cars. When the PM praised him from a public stage in Haryana during his campaign in 2014, it's not as if the line of cases against him had yet to be revealed; the PM later hailed his contribution through cleanliness drives for the Swachh Bharat movement with a tweet.
Singh who has acted and produced in three films and song the popular "Love Charger" recently used his Twitter account to acknowledge the election to the Rajya Sabha of BJP President, Amit Shah and Information & Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani. Before Singh extended support to the BJP, in the 2014 election, Shah had a one-on-one meeting with him.
The prospect of captive vote banks ensures that politicians cosy up to all self-styled godmen who in turn gain proximity to political power. Criminal charges don't necessarily shake public support either. Asaram Bapu and his son Nityanand, jailed on charges of rape, continue to enjoy a huge following. In 2014, Jagat Guru Rampal-ji Maharaj's refusal to surrender to the police in his ashram in Barwala in Haryana led to a siege where four women died.
In all these cases, including Singh's, followers are completely unfazed by their gurus' long and heinous rap sheets. They are convinced it's all a conspiracy against their God and gripped by a siege mentality. The godmen in turn waste no chance to prove the abject devotion of their followers to acquire political influence and power for themselves.
Singh perhaps derived inspiration from "babas" such as Chandraswami and Dhirendra Brahmachari who wielded uber political clout. But those were behind-the-scene Rasputins. Well, perhaps not Rajneesh - remember his 100 Rolls Royces in an avowedly socialist India. But these days, the cult status and unbelievable wealth, complete with private aircrafts and luxury vehicles, is accompanied by over-the-top displays of political reach.
So since they have a co-dependent relationship with politicians, it's upto courts to end the levitating of godmen over mere mortals. Even after the colossal violence unleashed by the premis, it was the Punjab and Haryana High Court that decided all the sect's property will be annexed to help pay for Friday's damages. Khattar and his government ended the day seeming as helpless in handling Singh as they did in the morning. An ominous portent for India.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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