In the fall of 2002, Indian journalist Ram Chander Chhatrapati had a bombshell scoop that scared even his employees at the Hindi-language newspaper he ran in Sirsa, a city in the country’s north corner not far from the border with Pakistan.
Chhatrapati was set to print allegations that Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a powerful holy man leading a popular religious sect, was sexually abusing his followers.
“Sir, do not publish such dangerous news report, someone will shoot you one day,” an employee told Chhatrapati, his son Anshul would later recount to The Print magazine.
“A real reporter takes the bullet,” Chhatrapati said, according to his son.
On Oct. 24, 2002, five days after the article was published, the 53-year-old journalist was gunned down by members of Singh’s sect, Dera Sacha Sauda. But Chhatrapati’s work would be the first move in a series that would eventually bring down Singh, known as the “guru of bling.”
In August 2017, a court in the city of Panchkula found Singh guilty of raping two women who had belonged to his sect. When the verdict was announced, hundreds of thousands of Dera followers rioted across India. As The Washington Post reported at the time, 28 people were killed and 250 injured in the uproar.
Now, the flashy guru has been held accountable for the journalist’s murder. Currently serving a 20-year sentence for the rape convictions, Singh, 51, and three followers were convicted of the murder earlier this month. On Thursday, all four men were sentenced to life in prison for the crime, the Times of India reported.
“This is the triumph of truth, I feel relieved today,” Anshul Chhatrapati told the Indian Express. “The prosecution had demanded capital punishment but we’re satisfied with the punishment.”
Singh fully lived up to his “guru of bling” nickname.
The Dera sect started in April 1948, an organization that worked to “encourage spiritual awakening among the masses, to uplift humanity, and to create a better world,” according to the Dera’s website. The group’s mission, the site says, defines the sect as a “Social Welfare & Spiritual Organization that preaches and practices humanitarianism and selfless services to others.”
Born in 1967, Singh rose to the top of the Dera group in September 1990. He took a rock-star approach to the work of a holy man.
He wore Technicolor sunburst outfits straight out of the gaudiest Bollywood extravaganza. He was photographed gunning around on jazzed-up motorcycles. On his Twitter account, he described himself not only as a “Spiritual Saint” and “Philanthropist” but “Versatile Singer,” “Actor,” “Art Director” and “Music Director.”
The sect’s website says that during Singh’s time running the group, the “Dera has undertaken 133 social welfare activities like helping in road accidents and working for the protection of daughters from heinous fetal murder and solemnizing the marriages of harlots by inspiring them to quit this abhorrent profession.”
Chhatrapati’s devotion to journalistic truth itself verged on religious.
“He was a law graduate and had a short stint in the legal profession before starting out as a journalist,” his son told The Print in 2017. “As an advocate, he never got the job satisfaction he had been looking for. Then he quit his practice and started writing.”
The son added: “He told us that lawyers often resort to lies and manipulate facts and hence, he left that profession.”
Chhatrapati chaffed against the strictures of writing for others, so he decided to start up his own regional daily newspaper. He called it Poora Sach, which translates to “The Complete Truth,” the BBC reported.
“The paper that started on 2 February, 2002, stood for complete truth without any cuts or manipulation – just hard facts,” Anshul explained in 2017. “Something that my father always wanted. In the very first edition, he wrote an editorial on the front page taking an oath that truth will never be compromised, no matter what the circumstances, and he stood by it.”
That dedication to truth led the journalist to begin tracking down reports on Singh’s behavior. According to India Express, in May 2002, his newspaper published anonymous claims from Dera followers about sexual exploitation.
“Everybody was shocked as no one could imagine a person staying in Sirsa going against a man as powerful as” Singh, Anshul told The Print.
The reporting continued throughout the year. On the afternoon of Oct. 24, 2002, Chhatrapati returned home from work, then heard men calling for him outside. When he stepped into the street, he was gunned down.
Chhatrapati hung on for weeks before dying from his injuries. According to Anshul, before passing away, his father gave police a statement implicating Dera members as the likely actors behind the attack.
“Police deleted the relevant portions from his statement about the dera chief and his followers and no case was made out,” the son would say later.
Chhatrapati’s family continued to push the government for an investigation. Anshul, who was 21 when Chhatrapati was gunned down, took over the publication of his father’s newspaper. The government eventually relented, opening an investigation in 2003, the Hindustan Times reported.
The probe into the murder dragged on for year, in part because authorities had also begun a criminal inquiry into the sexual assault allegations. As The Post reported in 2017, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation questioned 18 Dera members.
Two women told investigators they were raped by Singh. One explained that “when she entered the Dera chief’s sprawling chamber, the doors automatically closed and she found him watching a pornographic movie on a big screen.”
Singh was eventually charged with rape and criminal intimidation, while investigators also dug into his role in the journalist’s murder. Following his conviction of rape charges in 2017, the murder case became a priority.
Prosecutors would eventually argue Singh ordered three Dera followers – Kuldeep Singh, Nirmal Singh and Krishan Lal – to carry out Chhatrapati’s assassination.