For an onlooker, he remains an enigma. A huge following of admirers who swear by his name, an array of philanthropic activities to his credit, a Z-plus security cover, flashy outfits, and also a string of controversies surrounding him. The head of Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS), 45-year-old Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh enjoys godly status among his followers.
The self-styled godman comes from a Jat Sikh family of Gurusar Modia village in Rajasthan's Sriganganagar district. He was inducted into the sect at the age of seven by his predecessor Shah Satnam Singh Maharaj. The third of the dera's chiefs, Gurmeet Ram Rahim took over the reins when he was barely 23. He is married and has children, though he is said to have sacrificed his personal life for public service, and thus not much is known about it.
He has probably never looked back since.
FAME AND GLOOM
The Sirsa-based cult has attained both fame and discredit with Gurmeet Ram Rahim at the helm. While the socio-spiritual organisation has earned eminence for humanitarian work - blood donation, eye donation, rehabilitation of prostitutes, relief operations during calamities -- it has its share of controversies, including two murder cases including that of journalist Ram Chander Chattarpati, a case of sexual exploitation of women followers, and a case of alleged castration of devotees.
Dera supporters are quick to term the "infamy propaganda" as part of "well-planned conspiracies of various anti-dera elements". It must be mentioned, though, that Gumeet Ram Rahim has been exonerated in a case pertaining to the murder of a former dera manager, Faqir Chand.
The dera chief was also at the centre of a religious controversy in 2007 when he purportedly tried to portray himself as the tenth Sikh Guru Gobind Singh at a public function in Salabatpura in Bathinda by donning attire resembling the guru's. The incident set off widespread violent clashes between radical Sikhs and dera followers. As the radicals demanded his head, the dera chief had a narrow escape in February 2008 when his cavalcade was attacked in Karnal. Later, a Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF) operative and six others were arrested and sentenced to imprisonment in the case.
The outbreak of recent clashes between the dera's followers (called 'premis') and Sikhs has its origin in the 2007 controversy. "Deep seeds of hostility were sown in 2007 when the dera chief made a public appearance dressed as the tenth Sikh guru," says a senior Haryana official monitoring the recent situation. Many in the state administration also believe that the fresh round of hostilities may continue for a while. The police booked about 2,000 dera followers following Saturday's violence in Sirsa.
"We may not like to spell out the exact reasons but it seems that whenever certain pending court cases against the dera head or the followers arrive at a critical stage, the 'premis' become edgy and start flexing their muscles," says another government official.
Dera spokesperson Dr Aditya Insaan denies the charge. "We never started the altercation. But still we are being blamed. People on the other side were issuing open threats on November 24 but have not even been booked," says Insaan, showing some video footage of the recent Sirsa incident.
ATHLETE, WHO LIKES THE GOOD LIFE
He may be under fire in one sense, but Gurmeet Ram Rahim certainly lives in style. He drives a Range Rover sports utility vehicle (SUV), wears flashy clothes and headgear, delivers sermons from an ostentatiously decorated podium, and enjoys proximity to influential politicians. A Z-plus protectee, he also has a select band of private security guards forming an inner cordon to protect him. During his religious discourses, four elegantly dressed ceremonial guards stand close to the podium.
"He is a tireless worker who is an example for others," says Dr Aditya Insan.
An avid sportsperson, Gurmeet Ram Rahim is often seen playing cricket, football or throwing the javelin with what Insan calls amazing strength and prowess. He himself sings bhajans (religious songs) during the satsang (discourse and prayer).
In fact, a new video of the dera chief donning the role of a western singer is about to be released. The music video, titled Insaan, features Gurmeet Ram Rahim in a western outfit, wearing fingerless gloves, tapping to the tunes of a self-composed song - 'Thank you for that'. Dr Insaan says the composition also carries "a message of goodness and morality".
POWERPLAY, AND THE PRICE
Having excelled in large-scale humanitarian work, the dera, probably in a rather ambitious shift, decided to subtly dabble in politics. It has set up a political affairs wing.
In the 2007 Punjab assembly polls, it supported the Congress. The party may have lost overall, but the dera's political affairs wing helped it do well in Punjab's Malwa region, which was traditionally considered an Akali stronghold.
The dera's emergence as a power player, however, did not go down well with many and invited the wrath of Sikh Panthic organisations. Some political observers relate the 2007 controversy with the dera's growing political clout and ambition.
However, in the 2012 assembly polls in Punjab, the dera seemed to have lost much of its political credence. "Even the father-in-law of his (dera chief's) son, a Congress candidate from Bathinda-urban, lost the polls this time," underlines a dera watcher.
The dera spokesperson, however, insists that the sect has never issued any diktats to its followers. "In fact, it is the sangat (followers) that decides on its own and chooses the best candidate, irrespective of party or affiliation," he claims.
Politicians of various hues and shades, however, continue to visit the dera to solicit the "blessings" of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.