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By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

A CBI court in Panchkula has sentenced controversial godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim and three other to life imprisonment for the murder of a journalist in 2002. The 51 year old self styled guru is already serving a 20 year sentence on two counts of rape. The verdict was pronounced by the special court  through video conferencing through much of the day today. Earlier, the CBI court had accepted the plea of the Haryana government which had sought appearance of Ram Rahim through video conferencing during the pronouncement of quantum of sentence for the murder of journalist Ram Chander Chhatrapati.

In 2002, the journalist was killed in Haryana’s Sirsa city after his newspaper published a letter alleging sexual exploitation of women by the self-styled godman. Chhatrapati was shot outside his house in October 2002 after his newspaper ‘Poora Sach’ published an anonymous letter narrating the alleged sexual exploitation of women followers by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh at the Dera headquarters in Sirsa. The Dera chief was named as the main conspirator in the case.

The self-styled godman, who had a blind following running into lakhs, is currently lodged in the high security Sunaria jail at Rohtak. Such is the apprehension of his diehard followers creating a ruckus and indulging in violence that the entire hearing in the case was done through video conferencing. Public memory is still fresh about the massive violence that followed his conviction in the rape cases. The violence had lead to the death of about 40 of his followers in police action and huge damage to property.

The Haryana government has specifically requested the CBI court, which had been hearing the cases against him at Panchkula, to make an exemption from the practice of the accused facing the judge to hear the verdict and the sentence. With security arrangements beefed up all across the state, the orders had passed without any untoward incident.

The latest conviction pertained to the gunning down of Sirsa-based journalist Ramchandra Chhatrapati. He was shot at in October 24, 2002 and succumbed to his injuries a month later. The firing took place outside his house after his Hindi evening daily “Poora Sach” published an anonymous letter in which tales of sexual exploitation of women at the Dera headquarters in Sirsa were highlighted. Prior to the attack, Chhatrapati had written to the local police about the threats he had been receiving from the Dera authorities. Despite his requests, no security was provided to him.

Fortunately for the police, one of the shooters was nabbed by locals. The  other managed to flee after the shooting but was subsequently caught. A murder case was registered in 2003 against two employees of the Dera, Nirmal Singh and Kuldeep Singh, for the shooting. Even though Chhatrapati’s son Anshul demanded that the Dera chief’s name also be included in the FIR, it was not done. He subsequently petitioned the Punjab and Haryana High Court for a CBI investigation into the shooting. It was accepted by the Court in November. The case of murder was later handed over to the CBI.

Rahim’s former driver Khatta Singh had earlier told the police that it was the Dera chief who had ordered Chhatrapati’s killing. After investigations, the CBI filed a chargesheet in 2007 with Khatta Singh as a key witness.

The case carried on for very long due to delaying tactics employed by the advocates representing the accused. This had led to the primary accused, Nirmal Singh, getting bail in January 2017, 14 years after he was arrested. The other accused, Kuldeep Singh, had already been provided bail shortly after the initial arrest.

The Dera, which has scores of ashrams in various states and abroad, had its main support base in Punjab and Haryana. Politicians of all hues, ranging from the Congress to the BJP to the Shrimoni Akali Dal, used to flock to the Dera headquarters in Sirsa to seek Rahim’s “blessings” and support before elections.

The Dera supported the Congress in the 2007 assembly polls, but in 2012, 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. The BJP won these elections for the first time ever, but it fell out with the Dera chief after he apparently rubbed party chief Amit Shah the wrong way. It is believed that the Dera chief had been taking the credit for the BJP victory in the state rather than giving the credit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Haryana government ensured that he was escorted to the courts from his base in Sirsa to hear the sentencing in the Sadhvi rape case.

The CBI court in its verdict held Rahim and his former manager, Krishan Lal, guilty under Section 120B (criminal conspiracy) read with Section 302 (murder) of the IPC. Kuldeep Singh and Nirmal Singh were held guilty under Section 302 (murder) of the IPC read with Section 120B (criminal conspiracy). Kuldeep Singh and Krishan Lal were also held guilty under Section 25 and Section 29 of the Arms Act, respectively.

The CBI, in its chargesheet, indicted all the convicts. “The investigation conducted by the CBI has, thus, established that accused Baba Gurmeet Singh, chief of Dera Sacha Sauda, Sirsa, accused Krishan Lal, Prabandhak of Dera Sacha Sauda and accused Kuldeep Singh and Nirmal, carpenters at Dera Sacha Sauda entered into a criminal conspiracy on or before October 23, 2002 to kill Ram Chander Chattarpati, a journalist of newspaper ‘Poora Sach, Sirsa’ and in furtherance thereof, accused Krishan Lal gave his licensed revolver and a walkie-talkie of the Dera to accused Kuldeep Singh and Nirmal Singh in the presence of Baba Gurmeet Singh. Thereafter, both Kuldeep Singh and Nirmal Singh shot at Ram Chander Chattarpati on October 24, 2002 at his residence at about 7.30 pm resulting in his death subsequently on account of the said gunshot injuries,” the CBI court said.

Recalling the sequence of events, Rahim’s former driver Khatta Singh told the court: “On October 23, 2002, Gurmeet Ram Rahim returned after attending a gathering of his followers in Jalandhar when the then Dera manager, Krishan Lal, showed him the newspaper ‘Poora Sach’. The paper, owned by Ram Chander Chhatarpati, carried a report accusing Gurmeet Ram Rahim of sexually exploiting women at the Dera. Kuldeep Singh and Nirmal Singh were also with Krishan Lal. Gurmreet Ram Rahim lost his cool and ordered to ‘silence the voice of the man’ behind the newspaper. Next day, on October 24, 2002, I received a call from my house that the journalist had been shot at.”

Khatta Singh said he received “numerous blood-stained threat letters” from Dera followers during the course of the trial. He was provided security cover by the Punjab police. Incidentally, Khatta Singh had in 2012 changed the statement he gave against the Dera chief in 2007. He later wanted to record a fresh statement, but a CBI court in Panchkula declined his request. In 2017, he moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court through advocate Navkiran Singh. The Court allowed him to record a fresh statement in the trial court. Later, the defense counsel of the accused challenged the High Court decision in the apex court, which rejected the plea of defense.

With the sentence of life imprisonment in jail, in addition to the 20 years behind bars for raping two sadhvis, Gurmeet’s fate is sealed. But that’s not the end. He now faces a further sentence in the case of alleged castration of several of his followers on the promise of salvation.

The self-styled guru has cooked his own goose, it seems.

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