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.