Already undergoing a 20-year sentence on rape charges, Friday’s conviction on murder and criminal conspiracy charges have come as a severe blow to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. The maximum sentence that can be given to the Dera chief, in this case, is death and the minimum, life imprisonment. He will be able to avail the legal remedy of challenging the verdict in higher courts of law.
Until August 2017 when he was first convicted on rape charges, the Dera chief had immense clout in the region’s political circles. Neither BJP, nor Congress could afford to antagonise the Dera’s lakhs of followers, seen as a “consolidated vote bank” by politicians.
Dozens of top leaders from both the parties used to visit Dera, seeking the chief’s “blessings”, read support, especially when elections were approaching.
In Punjab, the Dera supported the Congress in the 2007 Assembly polls. In 2012, however, it chose to remain neutral, and followers were left to decide on their own. In the 2014 Haryana Assembly elections, however, the Dera came out in full support of the BJP, which came to power with an absolute majority in Haryana for the first time, winning 47 seats in the 90-member Vidhan Sabha.
In the 2017 Assembly elections in Punjab, the Dera supported the BJP-Akali alliance. The Dera chief’s son is married to a Congress leader and former MLA in Punjab, Harminder Singh Jassi.
After Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s conviction on rape charges, his family decided not to appoint any successor. After an initial phase of turmoil, normalcy returned to the Dera’s headquarters in Sirsa. The Dera has got back to its routine satsangs and weekly congregations. However, the numbers of followers have reduced.
The conviction on rape and now, murder, charges has delivered a major blow to Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s image. For his family, it will be a huge challenge to explain these developments to the Dera’s followers and to keep them with it.
A majority of the Dera’s followers are Dalits and from the backward castes. With Lok Sabha polls due in a few months and Assembly polls in Haryana following soon afterwards, it remains to be seen how political parties approach this vote bank.