Faith

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Print edition : February 20, 2015

The controversial godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh “Insaan” at a press conference in Gurgaon on January 16. Photo: Manoj Kumar

The controversy surrounding the release of the film MSG: The Messenger of God, featuring Dera Sacha Sauda head Ram Rahim Singh, highlights the problems of growing identity politics and commercial exploitation of faith.

IT is not very often that a film claiming to have a social message courts controversy of the kind that results in the mass resignation of members of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), known in short as the censor board. Hakikat Productions’ MSG: The Messenger of God managed to do precisely that even though the reasons for the resignations apparently went beyond the controversy surrounding the film.

The film, of which Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh “Insaan” is one of the producers, failed to get the clearance from the CBFC, which decreed that the overall impact of the film was likely to provoke conflict and hurt religious sentiments. The title was also misleading, it said. MSG, which has since got a clearance from the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, revolves around the main protagonist, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who is not new to controversy.

One of the earliest “godmen” in northern India, Gurmeet Ram Rahim heads the Dera Sacha Sauda, a sect that originated in Sirsa district in Haryana (though Ram Rahim himself belongs to Gangangar in Rajasthan). The Dera (a camp) has its base in Sirsa, located within a sprawling gated complex, and has a huge following among the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan and parts of central India.

Every mainstream political party, especially those that have ruled Haryana, are known to have “sought” Ram Rahim’s blessings before elections to garner the electoral support of his followers. It is an open secret that in the recent State Assembly elections, the public declaration of support by Ram Rahim was instrumental in swinging Dalit and OBC votes in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), resulting in massive gains for the party, which formed the government on its own for the first time.

Over the years, the sect has successfully managed to present itself as a “spiritual alternative” to people rejected or marginalised by organised religion and the dominant caste groups representing them. Essentially, the constituency represented by the Dera is non-Jat and non-Jat Sikh. Members of the Scheduled Castes constitute nearly 43 per cent of Punjab’s population and the State also has the highest proportion of Dalits as a percentage of the population in the country. This binary opposition of caste groups is basically an extension also of the unequal economic equations and land relations in Punjab and Haryana.

The official theatrical trailer of the film opens with Ram Rahim, dressed flamboyantly in multicolour clothes, cracking his knuckles on a few “bad” characters. An image of the “tough godman” emerges with a voice-over in a mixture of Hindi and English saying, “Kill him”, only to be warned by another voice: “It is not a joke to kill him. It is like taking a chance with the whole Hindustan.” The trailer shows him singing and taking on many villainous characters in an arena as women and followers look on devotedly. The promos call him the “Braveheart of India” and a “legend”. He is seen on a self-improvised and self-designed bike whose wheels let out fire, much like the one in Nicholas Cage’s Ghost Rider. How much of the movie is inspired by Hollywood is not yet known, although the snippets in the trailer seem to be quite in sync with all that is typical of a standard “action movie”.

His recent music album “Love Charger”, despite its banal lyrics and below-average music and singing, sold millions of copies. His rock concerts are called Ru B Ru Nights. He owes his rock-star status and popularity to the carefully crafted image of a spiritual leader despite the serious charges he faces, including rape, murder and even castration.

Rape, murder, castration

While the cases of rape (following anonymous letters from one of his women followers to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Haryana Chief Minister, and a sessions judge, alleging sexual exploitation) and murder date back to 2001 and 2002, the case of the alleged castration of around 400 followers goes back to 2000. A petition was filed in this connection in 2012. A medical examination of the petitioner confirmed the charge of castration. The murder charge relates to the killing of Ram Chander Chatrapati, editor of Poora Sach, a local daily from Sirsa, which carried news stories and reports on the Dera, not all of which were flattering, and that of a Dera follower. Among the news items that Chatrapati published were reports of sexual exploitation.

Ram Rahim does not appear in court like other individuals. His appearances are through videoconferences because the Panchkula police pleaded that he be exempted from court appearances because his followers could create a law and order problem. Ram Rahim is known to have even told the court that he was unfit, mentally and physically, to have sexual intercourse.

A slew of political organisations, including parties such as the Indian National Lok Dal and the Akali Dal, and the newly formed Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, demanded a ban on the screening of the film on various grounds, including that it hurts the sentiments of many sections of society. Some of the organisations highlighted the charges he faced as a reason to ban the film. While the Sikh groups continue to object to him portraying himself as a Sikh Guru (he uses the title Guru before his name interchangeably with Sant or Saint), Ram Rahim has always denied that he called himself God. In 2007, he was accused of insulting Sikhism after he was photographed dressed like Guru Gobind Singh, who is revered by Sikhs. There were clashes between his followers and those of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which resulted in the death of one person. The same year, he extended his support to the Congress in the Assembly elections, leading to substantial gains for the party in the cotton belt of Malwa.

Social influence

A Dalit Sikh government employee in the Education Department in Haryana said: “Had [Om Prakash] Chautala or [Prakash Singh] Badal received the blessings of Ram Rahim during the elections, they would not have objected to the film. The local people are not protesting. Those objecting are the ones who’ve lost out electorally. The Jats consider Haryana as their riyaasat [territory]. It is a fact that had he not appealed in favour of the BJP, there would not have been a BJP government in the State today. Women voted hugely for the BJP following his appeal. They believe that Baba can stop addiction. Why doesn’t the SGPC enrol women and Ravidas Sikhs in their committees? They get the women to clean the gurdwaras, don’t they?” The majority of Ravidas Sikhs (those who follow Sant Ravidas, a 15th century social reformer of the Bhakti Movement) belong to the Scheduled Castes.

MSG claims to address social evils such as drinking, drug abuse and female foeticide. Ram Rahim’s followers have to pledge their support to various activities such as blood/eye donation, fighting corruption, maintaining cleanliness and “quitting” homosexuality. One of the reasons for Ram Rahim’s huge popularity among women is his public campaign against alcoholism and drug addiction, which are huge problems in parts of Punjab and Haryana.

The film is expected to be a big grosser in some States largely because of the controversy it has managed to stoke. That there might have been political considerations—a BJP quid pro quo—which led to the reversal of the censor board’s decisions is not under question. What is more serious is whether real-life characters, however spiritual and social reformist their quest might be, facing serious charges such as rape and murder should be deified and given an opportunity to validate themselves and the obscure ideas they represent to a large audience.

MSG is not just another venture showcasing spiritual characters and heroes. It is about a man who has a huge following, enough to determine the electoral fortunes of political parties in several States. In an era of growing identity politics and commercial exploitation of faith, the godmen of India cannot be ignored any longer, and Ram Rahim, despite the unsavoury nature of the charges against him, most definitely cannot be, even if his film is likely to blur the lines between a moderate scientific temperament and unquestioning spiritual faith.

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