A convicted killer and rapist revered by millions as a religious guru has temporarily walked free from jail in India for the fourth time in 12 months, angering activists who say it sets a dangerous precedent in a country grappling with violence against women.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, head of the spiritual organization Dera Sacha Sauda, was released for 40 days on January 21 and is expected to remain free until early March, Sanjeev Verma, a senior official from the city of Rohtak, in the northern state of Haryana, confirmed to CNN on Wednesday.
In 2017, Singh was sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping two of his followers. Two years later, he received a life term for the murder of a journalist who exposed the sexual abuse of women within his group.
Singh was previously granted temporary leave from prison in February, June and October last year, authorities said, angering women’s rights advocates in the country.
“See how the rapist whom you let free in society is slapping the system,” Swati Maliwal, chairperson for Delhi’s Commission for Women, said on Twitter, sharing a video of Singh cutting a cake with a sword four days after his latest release.
“Great heroes once protected the weak with the sword, today this rapist is celebrating with the sword,” she wrote.
His release has also been opposed by the Sikh group, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
Despite the nature of his crimes, Singh maintains a cult-like following and his Dera Sacha Sauda group welcomed his latest release, saying on Twitter that it was “thrilled.”
Since walking out of prison last month, Singh has been seen preaching to his nearly 5 million followers on Instagram, offering “parenting tips” and releasing songs to discourage drug use.
Some people opposed to his release have petitioned for him to be put back behind bars, according to court documents.
However, last year, similar petitions challenging Singh’s previous temporary release periods were dismissed by the Punjab and Haryana High Courts.
Verma, the Rohtak district official, did not answer CNN’s questions about why Singh had been released, saying the matter was in front of the court.
CNN has attempted to contact the Haryana government, but has not received a response. Speaking to reporters in October last year, when Singh was previously out on temporary release, the state’s chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar said he had “no comment” on the case.
“It is the job of the court to give bail or parole to any person,” he said.
Singh, sometimes referred to as the “guru of bling” on account of his flamboyant lifestyle that includes his flashy dress sense and a penchant for diamonds, commands a vast and loyal support base in and outside of India.
His Dera Sacha Sauda group has ashrams – places of worship – across 10 states and union territories in India, and claims to have 60 million followers worldwide.
Singh wields considerable influence and is considered a cultural icon and performer among his supporters. He has starred in several films and numerous popular music videos, including the “Messenger of God,” in which he acts as a hero who saves India.
The 2017 rape verdict against him sparked riots that left 36 people dead and hundreds injured across northern India, prompting the government to tighten security in Haryana on the day of his sentencing, and to shut down internet and SMS services in some parts of the state.
He is one of several revered gurus in India to have been accused of violent crimes, including rape.
Earlier this month, an Indian court sentenced self-proclaimed spiritual guru Asaram Bapu to life imprisonment on charges of rape and sodomy. It was the second life term against the octogenarian, who is already serving a life sentence following his 2018 conviction for raping a 16-year-old girl.