On Thursday, Jan 4, 2024, journalist Shyam Meera Singh faces a court in Delhi to decide whether his Youtube programme “How Gurmeet Ram Rahim fooled his Bhakts?” should be taken down, pending hearing of a civil defamation case filed by the chief of the religious order, the Dera Sacha Sauda.
The case comes up before Justice Jasmeet Singh. On Dec 30, 2023, Shyam Meera Singh acquiesced to the suggestion of the vacation judge of the Delhi High Court to delete tweets posted in relation to the case. However, he said he would not delete or take down the video as that would strike at to his right to freedom of expression.
Talking to Free Speech Collective, Singh said that he was taken aback by the speed with which the case proceeded against him. He received a legal notice late on Sunday, Dec 24, 2023, giving him barely 24 hours to respond. By the time he could figure out a lawyer, given the vacation, the case was listed for hearing on Dec 28 and was heard on Dec 30.
The Dera chief was convicted in 2017 with 20 years in prison for the rape of a devotee and with life imprisonment in 2019, for the murder of his manager Ranjit Singh and journalist Ram Chandra Chhatrapati, who wrote about his misdeeds in his newspaper “Poora Sach.” Lodged in a jail in Rohtak, Haryana, he has enjoyed parole multiple times since, the last being for 21 days from Nov 20 last year.
List of Parole Period granted to Gurmeet Ram Rahim
February 2022 : 21 days
June 2022 : 30 days
October 2022 : 40 days
January 2023 : 40 days
July 2023 : 30 days
November 2023 :21 days
(Update: On Jan 20, 2024, the Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, was granted a 50-day parole and Haryana government said it follows standard jail manual procedures. According to this report, the fresh parole comes just 29 days after the chief of the Sirsa-headquartered sect walked back into Rohtak’s Sunaria jail after spending 21 days out on a furlough. The 21-day furlough, starting Nov 21, was his third temporary release from jail in 2023).
Singh, who runs a highly popular Youtube channel with 619,000 subscribers, had hosted a special show on the case relating to Gurmeet Ram Rahim. The show was a summary of all hitherto published accounts of the case, the chargesheet and order of the CBI court in the case and a book authored by journalist Anurag Tripathi (Dera Sacha Sauda and Gurmeet: A Decade-long Investigation, Penguin, May 2018)
Till date, the video has garnered 516,734 views. It deals with the manner in which Gurmeet Ram Rahim became head of the Dera and then goes into the entire rape case and the two murder charges, re-visiting the investigation and sting operation by Tripathi, then a journalist with Tehelka, in 2007 and the detailed struggle of the family of journalist Ram Chander Chhatrapati, who was murdered in 2002 because he courageously published the accounts of harassment and sexual exploitation of the devotees of the Dera chief.
(Read the detailed interview of Chhattrapati’s son Anshul Chhattrapati on the struggle he waged with such tenacity from “Clampdowns and Courage: Impunity (IFJ Press Freedom report 2017-18)”)
Chilling effect of cases against journalists
No stranger to controversy, Singh’s services were terminated from Aaj Tak television channel in July 2021 after he voiced criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In November 2021, he was booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) by Tripura police over a single tweet “Tripura is burning,” stated in the context of the violence that broke out in the hill state in October that year. Tripura police charged users of 102 social media accounts under the draconian UAPA.
Singh and Mukesh and Ansar Indori, two lawyers and human rights activists who had prepared a report on the violence, sought the quashing of the FIR lodged against them. On November 17, 2021, they managed to secure protection from arrest by the Supreme Court.
While the Dera head has filed for damages of Rs Two Crore, he also sought the removal of the video on grounds that it is false and defamatory and amounts to a media trial when an appeal against his conviction is pending before the High Court at Chandigarh.
Singh is worried about the chilling effect the case will have against journalists who continue to keep the Dera chief under the scanner.
Indeed, it is amply clear that the Gurmeet Ram Rahim continues to wield immense political influence in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh and the three of the six times he was granted parole in 2023 alone hardly went unnoticed.
In 2014, before the Lok Sabha polls, the Dera chief came out in open support for the BJP and in 2022, top local BJP leaders attended his religious meeting in Rohtak when he was out on parole just before the Adampur bye-poll on November 3 and Haryana panchayat elections on November 12.
As the Dera case shows, apart from a chilling effect over any curbs or restrictions on reportage and commentary, the tracking of impunity is also vital to continue to fix justice even in cases where a conviction has been obtained.