The Ram Rahim verdict is a win for unsung activists on the ground in Haryana

Policemen walk past a poster of the self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim while patrolling a street in Sirsa, Haryana, after the pronouncement of the sentence in the rape cases against him, in 2019. Ram Rahim was convicted of two murders as well, and was sentenced to life imprisonment for both. Vijay Verma / PTI
31 October, 2021

Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the head of the religious cult Dera Sacha Sauda, was sentenced to life imprisonment on 18 October for the murder of a former devotee Ranjit Singh, in 2002. A special CBI court in Panchkula, in Haryana, had earlier convicted the chief and four of his Dera associates—Avtar Singh, Jasbir Singh, Krishna Kumar and Sabdil—for the murder. The court also imposed a fine of Rs 31 lakh on Ram Rahim and Rs 50,000 each on the others. Nearly twenty years after Ranjit’s death, the five accused were sentenced under sections 302 and 120B of the Indian Penal Code—relating to murder and criminal conspiracy. Avtar, Jasbir and Sabdil were further sentenced under sections of the Arms Act.

This is the second life imprisonment imposed on the self-styled “messenger of God” Ram Rahim. The first sentence was awarded in 2019, after he was convicted for the murder of journalist Ramchandra Chhatrapati, who reported extensively on the Dera’s criminal activities in his newspaper Pura Sachh. Ram Rahim is also serving a 20-year sentence for raping sadhvis, the women followers of his cult. He is still being tried in another case, where he stands accused of forcefully sterilising hundreds of male devotees of the cult.

Among those that can be credited for bringing Ram Rahim to justice, Chhatrapati—a scribe who lost his life for investigating the misdeeds of a powerful religious leader—occupies pride of place. After his death, the fight to bring the Dera Sacha Sauda’s litany of crimes to light was sustained by dozens of social workers, lawyers and activists, many of whom did not back down despite being named in false cases and facing threats to their lives.

Ram Rahim’s fall began with an anonymous letter sent by a sadhvi from the Dera Sacha Sauda, in 2002. Marked to offices as high as the prime minister, the letter detailed grave allegations against the Dera chief, including of rape and murder. The letter mentioned that a prominent Dera follower from the Kurukshetra district had left the cult along with his family. This seemed to be gesturing towards Ranjit Singh—he and his family had recently quit the cult. On 10 July 2002, Ranjit was assassinated in his village Khanpur Kolian, in Kurukshetra. Ram Rahim had suspected that Ranjit asked his sister, who was also a Dera follower, to write the letter.

The 2002 letter had prompted local journalists, activists and civil-society groups to begin digging into the Dera’s inner workings. One such organisation was the Jan Sangharsh Manch Haryana, a collective that works in the interest of women, Dalits and labourers in Haryana. Sudesh Kumari, the general secretary of the JSMH and a lawyer in Haryana’s Kurukshetra district, has been working on the Dera cases since the letter came to light.

I had a long conversation with Kumari just days before the verdict. “After Ranjit’s murder, when we met his family and talked with his sister, we came to know that the girl had also been raped. The sadhvi from Kurukshetra who was mentioned in the letter—it was her,” Kumari said. “She was very scared. Crying, she told us, ‘My brother and I used to consider Gurmeet Ram Rahim as our God. My brother had made a special room for him in the house. Whenever he used to come to this area, he used to stay at our house.’” Ranjit’s sister was afraid for her life, fearing that she too would be murdered, like her brother. “She also told us about the rape and beatings of other sadhvis in the dera. She said that the police was not listening to anything they said.” Ranjit’s family felt that only an investigation by a national agency like the CBI would help shed light on the case.

The JSMH’s own investigation had just begun when Chattrapati was killed, in 2002. This was the second murder in this case. The murderers, who were arrested shortly after, turned out to be members of the Dera. They later testified that Kishan Lal, a Dera manager, had sent them. “When Chhatrapati’s ashes reached Kurukshetra, a condolence meeting was held in which journalists and many mass organisations participated, in solidarity,” Kumari recounted. “At the meeting, a resolution was passed to conduct a signature campaign demanding a CBI investigation into the Dera, so that Chhatrapati, Ranjit and the sadhvis could get justice.”

The terror of the Dera was such that no one dared to take this resolution forward. The JSMH decided it would have to take the initiative. It released a pamphlet titled, “Circumstances suggest that the Dera chief ordered these murders.” The pamphlet was widely distributed among the people of the state.

Sudesh Kumari, the general secretary of the Jan Sangharsh Manch Haryana, which worked for close to two decades to bring the Dera Sacha Sauda’s crimes to light. Courtesy Shiv Inder Singh

The JSMH decided to launch the signature campaign at the Gita Utsav, a celebration of the religious text Gita, held every winter in Kurukshetra. In 2002, the program was held in December, and the then vice president of India Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was the chief guest. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Sudesh and several others from the JSMH began a protest march in the middle of the program, demanding an investigation into the rape and the murders. “We thought that if this was raised in front of the vice president, it may have some effect,” Sudesh said. It did, but not entirely the one the JSMH was expecting—many of the protestors, including Sudesh, were detained.

Undeterred, the JSMH carried on with the signature campaign. It put up posters in buses and trains, and collected lakhs of signatures. “We set up camps in different districts, in public places, colleges, bus-stands, and so on. We covered 15 districts,” Kumari said. She added that members of the Dera attacked and threatened JSMH’s workers regularly. “We were threatened with murder, they made videos of us. No political party came forward to help or support us.”

On 5 February 2003, a 14-member team of the JSMH Manch, comprising 5 women and 9 students, reached Fatehabad district as part of the campaign. Hundreds of Dera supporters—over five hundred by Kumari’s estimation—attacked them at the Fatehabad bus stand. “They tore the clothes of the women workers, pulled their dupattas and beat them up,” Kumari said. Meanwhile, the Fatehabad police took JSM workers to the police station, telling them that their life was in danger owing to the presence of hundreds of Dera volunteers. But the police then registered a first information report against the JSM workers, under sections related to attempt to murder, criminal intimidation, and rioting, among others. It alleged that the social workers had attacked the Dera supporters with intent to kill.

The JSMH workers were not given bail. “We were kept in Hisar Jail. We stayed in jail for one and a half months,” Kumari told me, adding that the state’s administration appeared to have sided with the Dera and did not offer them any support. But the JSM’s work continued. It declared that it would continue its efforts. “Even after we went to jail, there were big protests in the state. The Manch continued its campaign,” she said. Local lawyers and journalists in Fatehabad came forward to support Kumari and the other workers. “They supported us fearlessly and fought our case for six whole years without fees. At that time, the Journalists Association of Haryana and the Kurukshetra Bar Association condemned the police action and supported us,” Kumari said.

Kumari and her associates were acquitted after six years, on 10 June 2009. Among the evidence that the police presented in support of the charges, it included a poster demanding for a CBI inquiry into the Ram Rahim case.

“When I met Ranjit’s father after coming out of jail, he was very emotional. He said ‘beta, you went to jail for our sake.’ I told him not to think so because it was the duty of our organisation,” Kumari told me. “The victim sadhvi also told me, ‘If you are not afraid, sister, then I will not be afraid at all. If CBI comes for investigation, I will record my statement fearlessly.’”

The people’s struggle was bolstered by a legal fight as well. Though the police had investigated the Ranjit Singh murder, Ram Rahim was not named as an accused. Dissatisfied, Ranjit’s son Jagseer Singh finally filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2003, seeking a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The high court ruled in Jagseer’s favour. The CBI subsequently registered a case against five people including Ram Rahim, who was implicated by the testimony of his driver. The accused were eventually charged in 2007.

Master Balwant Singh, the leader of the Tarksheel Society—a rationalist group—in Ranjit Singh’s village, was one of the witnesses in the murder cases. Balwant also edits the Tarksheel Path Pathrika, a rationalist paper and teaches at a school. His testimony was used in the other cases as well. Balwant Singh had also received the anonymous letter in 2002, via registered post. He told me that he was close to Ranjit’s family. “Ranjit’s father was elected the sarpanch of our village seven times. They were a wealthy family,” he recounted. He told me that Ranjit had joined the Dera as a young man. Youths from zamindar families in the region often lost their land and property after becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol. “Ranjit’s father was glad that his son did not consume alcohol or other intoxicants because of the Dera, so he did not stop Ranjit from going there. When Ranjit’s house had a boy after two girls, his reverence for the Dera increased,” Balwant said. Ranjit began to organise satsangs, or prayer meetings, for the Dera, and began living within the cult. He took his family with him. “It was only after Ranjit’s murder that I came to know that he had left the camp and had come back to the village,” Balwant said.

“When I received the anonymous letter through registered post, other fellow teachers of the school got photostats done and thus, the letter began to circulate like fire,” Balwant told me. “It also reached the local Dera devotees.” The anonymous letter was marked to the prime minister of the country, the chief justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court, the police superintendents of all Haryana and various media persons. Apart from Balwant Singh, the letter also reached the state president of the rationalist society, Rajaram Handiyaya. Rajaram, too, also testified in the Dera cases.

Balwant Singh, a rationalist leader, teacher and journalist from Ranjit Singh’s village. Balwant testified against the Dera Sacha Sauda and Ram Rahim in the case concerning Ranjit’s murder. Courtesy Shiv Inder Singh

Both Balwant and Handiyaya faced attacks from the Dera members. They had presented the letter in their rationalist society meeting, and had decided to proceed with an investigation of their own after consulting other civil-society organisations. “The Dera’s followers and devotees would often come to threaten me, sometimes ten, sometimes fifty, always inquiring about the distribution of the anonymous letter. They suspected that I had written and distributed the letter along with Ranjit,” Balwant told me. “I kept explaining to them that I had received the letter by post and that Amar Ujala and Punjab Kesari had also published news on the basis of this letter. They would leave satisfied at that time, but would come again a few days later.”

In 2002, Balwant had organised a mental-health awareness camp with the rationalist society. “Two people associated with the Dera came. A man who had hung a pistol from his pajamas started asking me, ‘Did Ranjit give you the letter?’ I told him, ‘How many times have I have told you guys that I received the letter by post?’ He said angrily, ‘Either you have written this letter or Ranjit has had you write it. Not only will we will kill Ranjit, we will not spare you either.’ Then I also got angry and said loudly, ‘Just shoot me.’ When I spoke loudly, the people who were attending the camp immediately gathered around me. The men then left.” Balwant said he later learned the men were Sabdil and Jasbir Singh, who were recently convicted along with Ram Rahim. “From that day onwards I started being cautious. A few days later, Ranjit was murdered,” he said.

Balwant said Ranjit’s family initially suspected their political rivals of having killed their son, and named them in the FIR. “Only after Ramchandra Chhatrapati’s murder did the family suspect the camp,” he said. When Ranjit’s father attempted to register a complaint against Ram Rahim by going to the police again, he was refused. “The police told him to bring some concrete evidence or witness for the complaint. Then I came forward and testified,” Balwant said. Even while the case was ongoing, Balwant told me, “I was constantly threatened, chased and lured with money. But I listened to the voice of my conscience.”

According to Balwant, the credit for the verdict belonged to those who had worked on the ground, especially the families of the victims and the sadhvis, who all came forward at great risk to themselves. “It is the result of 19 years of dangerous and risk-laden effort by Ranjit’s family that someone who proclaims himself God, who had immense political reach, could be punished for his crimes,” he told me. “This will send a message that no one is above the law.”

Balwant added, “If an organisation like Jan Sangharsh Manch Haryana had not struggled on the ground, perhaps this justice would not have come.” He only lamented that the process had taken close to two decades. “I wish it would not take so long to get justice in our courts,” he said.