Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s case may have blown up in the news because of the ferocity of the reaction to the verdict, but it’s hardly the only case of its ilk. Over the years, godmen from all over the country — from Swami Nithyananda and Seer Raghavendra Bharati in Karnataka, to godman Mehdni Kasam in Maharashtra, to Asaram Bapu in Gujarat and many others — have all been accused of, and sometimes convicted for crimes against women, from rape to sexual harassment to criminal intimidation to even murder. The commonalities between these cases tell us something important about the way in which such godmen operate in India, and especially how they often interact with women.
Despite his show of supporters’ ‘strength’, godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has just been sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping two of his disciples. Ram Rahim’s lawyers tried and failed to plead for a lighter sentence by citing his “philanthropic work” – but surely if anything, his organisation’s good work only make the horror of his own crimes much worse.
Godmen in India exist at the intersection of religious fervour, political power, public support and often, massive wealth. This puts them in positions of unimaginable and multi-dimensional power that they can wield in many ways, from the soft power that Gurmeet Ram Rahim tried with his hit film MSG to the MNC route preferred by Baba Ramdev. This immense non-State and non-corporate power also leads some godmen to believe that they can do anything, act against anyone with impunity and allows them to prey on the most vulnerable of women, often their own devotees, without fear of consequences.
Many such criminal godmen follow the same MO: they prey on their devotees and couch sexual assault in verbiage that makes it seem as if it’s part of their spiritual process. Ram Rahim called it “pitaji ki maafi”. Nithyananda told his victims that they were engaging Madhura bhava, or the relationship a lover has with god (like that of Radha and Krishna). In the child sex abuse allegations detailed against Sathya Sai Baba, alleged survivors claimed that Sai Baba referred to oral sex as a “good luck chance”.
Nithyananda took it even further, requiring his “chosen few” to sign a contract to make them eligible for a special “Learning from the Master” programme. This contract included a clause agreeing to take part “in the learning and practice of ancient tantric secrets”, which included physical contact and intimacy, the viewing of graphic physical depictions, and more. It also included a non-disclosure clause that gave unconditional acceptance of the actions committed by the foundation and its leader. Most women signed the document without reading or understanding it, placing blind faith in the leader. They did not reportedly know or consent to the sexual activities in the contract and were brainwashed or intimidated into signing it.
They say that rape is a crime of power, not sex. When you look at the way some godmen operate and interact with women, it becomes clear that whatever the crime is motivated by, it’s certainly power that facilitates it. A clear pattern of abuse emerges, in which a certain kind of godman uses his immense mental and spiritual power not only to rape and harass women but also to convince them that this is a good thing: that they are being gloriously singled out for preferential treatment from the leader due to their “cosmic specialness”. It’s called grooming, and it’s what child sexual predators do to their victims too. These criminal godmen create situations where the power dynamic is completely out of whack, and eager-to-please devotees can be brainwashed.
Many of these devotees are enrolled in such ashrams and institutions by their staunchly devoted families, who see the leaders as gods on earth. This is a belief that’s instilled in the women by their families and amplified when they live at the ashrams. In some instances, the women themselves are shocked at what their “god” has done to them, but they also realise that their families may not support or believe them, and in fact might even turn against them. This leaves many of them who do want to speak out helpless and alone, convinced that they’ll have no support in their fight, and worried about ostracisation from the family and community. The victim in the Asaram Bapu case, for example, didn’t tell her parents the truth for several days because she worried about how they might react to hearing that their daughter had been molested by a “god” while they were only a few rooms away.
Even when the family and community do come around to believing the survivor’s account, there is still a lot to go up against. Amrut Prajapti, one of the prosecution’s main witnesses in the case against Asaram Bapu, was attacked many times, kidnapped and beaten, before finally being murdered. Another witness in that case, Akhil Gupta, was shot dead on his way home. The journalist who exposed the rapes in the Dera Sacha Sauda by Ram Rahim, by publishing an anonymous account of the rapes written by a sadhvi, was shot dead outside his house.
While many of us were shocked at the organised violence the Dera was able to unleash in Haryana and Punjab over the last few days, no devotee who had spent time in the community and witnessed their training would have taken their military might lightly. Similar to Ram Rahim’s followers, Santh Rampal’s supporters too descended in the hundreds to protest his arrest in a murder case in 2014 and disrupted court proceedings. The violence that these groups can unleash is another, deadly layer of influence that enables such godmen to act with impunity, and makes it that much harder for survivors of violence to speak out.
All of this is compounded, of course, by the huge political support that these godmen openly enjoy. One of Ram Rahim’s children, for example, is married to a Congress MLA, while Haryana BJP ministers like Anil Vij, Manish Grover and Ram Vilas Sharma frequently donate money to his organisations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has praised his work in the past. Swami Nithyananda openly said he had the support of the AIADMK, and when the child sexual abuse allegations against Sathya Sai Baba came up in 2001, then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as well as two former chief justices of India, among others, wrote an open letter rubbishing the allegations against “Bhagwan Sathya Sai Baba”.
Many women who become prey to such godmen have either been raised all their lives to be faithful devotees or have sought spiritual guidance because of the turbulences of their past lives. Being groomed to see the godmen as powerful gods on earth that they should be eager to please, the mental trauma of trying to reconcile sexual abuse with a god-like figure, combined with the fear of retribution from the family, community and godmen themselves, creates the perfect situation for gross, sustained and repeated abuse of women.
This mesh of crime and godliness does offer up one point of hilarity. Godmen like Ram Rahim and Nithyananda, upon being caught, tried to use their godliness as a weird kind of defence: By saying they couldn’t possibly have raped anyone because their godman status makes them child-like, impotent and unable to have sex. It’s kind of amazing that this is the corner they’ve been forced to back themselves into, but it also shows how far they’re willing to extend their ‘godliness’ for their own personal gain.
Co-published with Firstpost.