Despite crime allegations, gurus in India hold sway

A flamboyant and hugely popular spiritual guru who was convicted of rape, triggering a deadly rampage by angry supporters, is not the only Indian sect leader to find himself on the wrong side of the law.

Like the guru who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, tens of thousands of others run religious empires across the 1.3 billion-strong deeply spiritual country. A look at some of them:

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ASARAM BAPU

The 76-year-old, white-bearded guru preaches chastity and worshipping one's parents. The guru who once declared that Valentine's Day was a form of western cultural invasion in India was arrested in 2013 after a teenage devotee accused him of raping her at a religious retreat. Another female follower later also accused him of rape.

He has been in jail since 2013 on charges of rape and criminal intimidation. His son Narayan Sai, who was a senior functionary in his spiritual empire, is also in prison on rape charges.

Yet the guru continues to inspire devotion and thousands of supporters flock to court when he appears for hearings.

He may be in more trouble still after several local newspapers reported on the mysterious killings of three witnesses in the criminal cases he faces.

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GURU RAMPAL

In 2014, six people were killed when followers of guru Rampal fought pitched battles with police who were attempting to arrest him after he repeatedly failed to appear in court in connection with a murder trial.

The standoff between police and thousands of guru's followers camped inside his sprawling ashram lasted for over two weeks as supporters fought government troops with petrol bombs, guns and sticks.

News report said that the guru, who claimed be a reincarnation of a medieval mystic poet, was bathed in milk, which was then used to make "kheer," a sweet rice pudding. The pudding was distributed among his followers who believed it had healing powers.

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SATHYA SAI BABA

The saffron-robed Sathya Sai Baba, who died in 2011, had millions of followers and ashrams in over 126 countries.

In India, his devotees included senior politicians, movie stars, world-class athletes and industrialists.

He was said to perform miracles, conjuring jewelry, Rolex watches and "vibhuti" — a sacred ash that his followers applied to their foreheads — from his halo of wild, frizzy hair.

But rationalist critics led campaigns against him, calling him a charlatan and his miracles fake. Several news reports alleged that he sexually abused devotees — accusations he denied as vilification campaigns.

A 2004 BBC television program called the "Secret Swami" featured interviews with at least two American male devotees who claimed the guru had fondled their genitals and exposed himself to them while claiming it was part of a healing ritual.

The guru denied all accusations and never faced any charges.