The Mix of Religion, Welfare and Politics That is Ram Rahim Singh's Dera

Though power has alternated between the NDA and Congress in Punjab or the INLD, Congress and the BJP in Haryana in the last few decades, politicians from all sides cultivated him and protected him.

A still from MSG. Credit: Youtube

A still from MSG. Credit: YouTube

New Delhi: Now that Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for raping two minors, who were also his followers, there is renewed curiosity about not just the social standing of the deras but the political patronage that they thrive on. The frenzied violence that Singh’s followers displayed after his conviction in Panchkula on August 28 underscores the significance of the phenomenon. As did the way that senior Bharatiya Janata Party members – from Sakshi Maharaj  to state-level leaders – lined up in his defence, even as many parts of northern India were up in flames.

What are deras?

Deras, literally meaning home, over the years, turned into shrines of saints who operated outside the ritualistic regime of mainstream religions. Known for their abstinence, the saints did not intend to replace the mainstream religion but offered a critique of discriminatory practices enshrined in it.

However, in the last 30 years or so, several deras mushroomed across north India. Many of them became powerful because of the large following they commanded. Chandigarh-based political scientist Pramod Kumar said that many of them portrayed themselves as messengers between people and god, eventually converting the deras into “poor cousins of institutionalised religions.”

According to various estimates, there are up to 3,000 deras in north India, each with a different spiritual message. However, what binds them together is their campaign against social problems like drugs and alcohol addiction, caste discrimination, domestic violence etc.

Sacha Sauda, Radhasoami, Sachkhand Ballan, Nurmahal, Nirankari and Namdhari are the biggest deras in Punjab and its adjoining states. Over the years, these deras have become industrialised, making healthcare and education affordable and accessible to their followers. Dera Sacha Sauda was one of the first to venture into fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) businesses, producing a range of products from cosmetics to packaged food and even films.

What is the social significance of the deras?

The deras offered a non-sectarian space to its followers in contrast to organised Sikh and Hindu religions. They have become important sites of social inclusion as a majority of their followers come from marginalised sections of the society, especially the Dalits and other landless poor. Punjab, with a population of around 32% scheduled castes according to the 2011 census, has the highest number of Dalits in the country. Many of them flock to the deras located in different regions of the state.

Reeling under the exploitation of feudal upper caste Jat Sikhs, who also hegemonise gurudwaras, the landless Dalits find a non-discriminatory space in the deras.

“Dalits espoused Sikhism in the beginning for three main reasons: First, Sikhism didn’t believe in the caste system; secondly, it allowed everyone to wear arms, which was perceived as a matter of pride and thirdly and most importantly, it glorified manual labour unlike Hinduism. But in reality, the caste system still prevails, leading to disillusionment among the Dalits. Perhaps, it is this contradiction between the perceived and the actual that is making the Dalits drift towards the deras,” Ashutosh Kumar, a political scientist in Panjab University, Chandigarh, said a few years ago.

Until the 19th century, Sikhism emerged as a religion which was largely pluralistic in nature, identified with multiple traditions such as Khalsa, Udasi, Nanak-Panthi, Nirmala etc. However, as Jawaharlal Nehru University sociologist Surinder S. Jodhka explained, the emergence of the Singh Sabha movement and gurudwara reform movement in colonial India, resulting in the formation of Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) as the chief organising body of Sikh gurudwaras, sought to standardise Sikh identity that banned idol worship and considered Guru Granth Sahib as the last guru.

As the religious system became exploitative, deras founded their own iconography, gurus, code of conduct and preachings to counter the Jat Sikh hegemony over Sikhism. With time, they emerged as the primary challenge to the Khalsa identity.

The transformation of deras as cults

The escalating agrarian crisis over the last two decades in Punjab and Haryana – both beneficiaries of the Green Revolution at one time – precipitated in a breakdown of the economy. The landed Jat Sikhs felt the pinch and diversified their businesses. However, the worst impacted were the landless Dalits who worked as agrarian labourers in farms. Their wages suffered in the process which increased the friction between the landed and the landless. As a result, Jat Sikhs started to prefer workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, leaving the Dalits workers to fend for themselves. The already hostile relationship between the two communities escalated to a point where the Dalits were socially boycotted by the gurudwaras. Many villages of the agrarian Malwa belt of Punjab witnessed resistance movements led by Dalits.

Left in the lurch, Dalits began to migrate to the west for better economic opportunities. In due course, while their economic status grew, the Jat Sikhs resisted any improvement in their social status.

In response, the Dalits constructed gurudwaras in their respective villages and made large donations to the deras to which they were attached.

In this context, Professor Ronki Ram, a sociologist in Panjab University, in his extensive research, has found that deras gradually transformed into a site of resistance, a faith that represented the Dalits’ “fight against social exclusion”. Ram said that the proliferation of deras as alternate spiritual centres for the oppressed is linked to this ascendancy in Dalit assertion.

“Only when we understand deras as independent sects outside the purview of mainstream Sikhism and Hinduism, we will be able to understand the phenomenon of deras,” Ram said.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. Credit: Facebook/ Dera Sacha Sauda

However, as deras became powerful with large foreign remittances, the dera chiefs turned themselves into cult-like figures or messengers between the people and God. Thus, deras not only became alternate spiritual centres but also a source of alternative employment. Many of them acquired huge tracts of land – both from the Jat Sikhs who were diversifying into other businesses and the governments – and employed their followers as agrarian workers. The deras paid them much better than what they used to get from the landed Jat Sikhs. Many of them opened other businesses to employ their followers. The deras also opened their centres across the globe. This, to an extent, explains the blind faith that the followers have on their deras.

This has led to many clashes between the followers of gurudwaras and deras, which ostensibly fought on religious grounds but deep within, had their own sociological roots.

For instance, the followers of Dera Baniarwala and a group of Sikhs clashed in 2001. More recently, in 2007, the followers of Dera Sacha Sauda and supporters of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) clashed after Gurmeet Singh allegedly posed as the tenth guru of Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh. Similarly, violence erupted in 2009 after Dera Sachkhand Ballan’s deputy chief Sant Rama Nand was killed by some Sikhs in Vienna, Austria.

The aspect of political patronage

With so much power in their hands, the dera chiefs became landed magnates themselves and diversified into different businesses. Gurmeet Singh and many others like Radhey Ma swiftly re-invented their deras into a new market-driven economy.

With a huge following that was largely resentful of institutionalised religions, the upper caste-led political class had no option but to liaison with the dera chiefs to mobilise votes. Deras became the new mediators between the political parties and the poor. In a context where the governments hardly invested in social infrastructure like affordable healthcare, education and employment, deras, a potent combination of alternate spirituality and employment, were not only attractive but were also seen as saviours.

With political patronage coming along, many of the dera chiefs transformed themselves into cult-like figures and began to exercise their political power willingly. A number of them have had to regularly confront charges of illegally acquiring wealth and parking unaccounted monies of politicians and businessmen. They have always dismissed these as false accusations made by apathetic politicians and have showcased their social welfare institutions as alibis.

The case of Dera Sacha Sauda

Within the story of this transition of deras, Sacha Sauda’s story is perhaps the most striking.

Founded by one Shah Mastana of Balochistan, a disciple of Baba Sawan Singh of the Radhasoami sect, in 1948 in Sirsa, Haryana, it began as a dera which undertook small-scale social work. After his death, Shah Satnam Singh took over as the chief who continued until 1990. Gurmeet Singh, a 23-year-old Jat Sikh from Sri Ganganagar in adjoining Rajasthan, took over the regime. Singh is the cousin of Khalistani militant Gurjant Singh Rajasthani who was reportedly instrumental in ousting Satnam Singh and anointing Gurmeet Singh as the Dera chief. According to police records, these were the last days of militancy in Punjab. Rajasthani had thought that Dera could route funds to the Khalistani movement but was barely successful in his endeavour as the militant movement was crushed by the government.

Under Gurmeet Singh’s tenure, the dera expanded from its humble origins to become a giant, commanding around five crore followers.

The entrance of Shah Satnam Ji Dham, Dera Sacha Sauda, Sirsa, Haryana. Credit: Wikipedia

The entrance of Shah Satnam Ji Dham, Dera Sacha Sauda, Sirsa, Haryana. Credit: Wikipedia

“He (Gurmeet Singh) wears flamboyant costumes and ornate jewellery, acts in films and makes money from them. He also knows how to use the electronic and social media,” explained Pramod Kumar.

“This young Dera Sacha Sauda chief, in a way, reinvented deras in this region. He evolved from a simple preacher to ‘Rock Star Baba’, shrewd power broker, techno-savvy media manager, and appropriator of commodity market. He traded, with the blind support of more than one million followers, in retail commodity market, power politics and the entertainment industry. He used cinema to build a larger than life image of himself and reinforced reactionary views. He also started an online business with more than 150 products to enrich dera coffers,” added Kumar.

This helped him attract the youth who were either exposed to the western culture or were born in a consumerist world.

However, with the expansion, Gurmeet Singh soon courted multiple controversies. Charges of rape, castration and murder began to haunt him. It was clear to many in Sirsa that the Dera chief was not a saint in any way.

It is in this context that Singh, in 2007, deflected the attention off him by posing as a Khalsa warrior dressed in Guru Gobind Singh’s attire. Since such incidents are considered blasphemous in organised Sikhism, there was a backlash from radical Sikh groups leading to violent clashes in many parts of Punjab an Haryana. The violence created further tensions between Dera Sacha Sauda followers and followers of Sikhism.

As the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)-led government supported the Sikhs during the episode, Dera Sacha Sauda gave an open call to its supporters to vote for the Congress party in the Punjab assembly elections which were around the corner. In response to the violence against Dera, the Bhupinder Singh Hooda-led Congress government provided Z Plus security cover to the Dera chief, a facility which was finally withdrawn only after his conviction on August 25.

This was the first time any dera openly declared its preference for a political party. It went on to formally start a political wing – again, the first dera to do so.

Although it was known that several deras informally communicated the political party of their preference to their followers, none of them had a formal political wing which did the job of power brokering. Congress MLA Harminder Singh Jassi, whose daughter is married to the son of the Dera chief, was seen as playing an instrumental role in getting Dera’s support.

Despite the fact that SAD (Badal)-BJP together formed the government in 2007, the alliance was virtually decimated in 21 constituencies of Malwa, the region where Dera has the maximum following.

In an 117-member assembly, this was a significant loss. This elevated the Dera Sacha Sauda into an indispensable political force and political parties made a beeline in front of Gurmeet Singh. Politicians also warmed up to the other deras in Punjab and Haryana as a result.

According to a study by Chandigarh-based Institute for Development and Communication, the deras of Punjab influenced the electoral results in around 56 constituencies – the Radha Soami in 19, Dera Sacha Sauda in 27, Dera Nurmahal in eight, Dera Nirankari in four, Dera Ballan in eight and Dera Namdhari in two constituencies.

The new SAD (Badal)-BJP government in the state ensured that it does not rub Dera on the wrong side and gradually withdrew many of the cases registered against Singh. As a result, the Dera chief unofficially supported the alliance in 2012 but declared his support for Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014 parliamentary elections and for the SAD-BJP in 2017. In 2014, however, its influence could not work as a majority of people voted for the Aam Aadmi Party in Malwa. Similarly, in 2017, Dera’s support for the ruling alliance could not work much amidst a strong anti-incumbency factor against the government.

Dera Sacha Sauda’s open allegiance to the BJP in the last few years is a widely-known fact. Ahead of the Harayana assembly elections, the BJP’s general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya led a team of 44 of the 90 BJP candidates to seek “blessings” from the Dera chief. A week before, the BJP president Amit Shah, along with party leader Captain Abhimanyu, had reportedly also paid a visit to the Dera in Sirsa to get his support in the upcoming assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra, where a large section of Sikhs are believed to be Dera supporters.

These moves by the BJP’s national leadership are the primary reasons the Dera drifted towards the saffron party. Earlier, it used to switch its support between the Indian National Lok Dal and Congress depending upon the conditions.

Political observers, however, said that the Dera chief appeared to have brokered a deal with the BJP that the saffron party would withdraw criminal cases against him. The claim made by Honeypreet, the Dera chief’s adopted daughter, that the BJP went back on its promise of exonerating her father from several cases, supports the observation.

Many reports have also said that at least three Haryana ministers, Ram Vilas Sharma, Anil Vij, and Manish Grover, have donated Rs 1.12 crore to the Dera since August last year even as Gurmeet Singh was facing heinous criminal charges. Ten days before Gurmeet Singh was convicted, state education minister Sharma had paid Rs 51 lakh on the occassion of the Dera chief’s birthday.

Union sports minister Vijay Goel is also said to have promised routing of some central funds to the Dera.

This patronage, however, appears to have percolated down from the top. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tweet had lauded the Dera chief for supporting his Swachh Bharat mission in 2014. Haryana chief minister, Manohar Lal Khattar, went a step further to launch a cleanliness drive with Gurmeet Singh from his constituency, Karnal. He even posed for a photograph with him holding a broom.

It has also been reported that senior BJP leaders Kailash Vijayvargiya and Manoj Tiwari were present at the “success parties” that the Dera held in honour of the BJP’s victory in Haryana elections.

The Dera chief’s open support for BJP in the recent state elections is also a departure from the Dera’s own policy of voting according to “merit.” In the last few years, Gurmeet Singh has reiterated the BJP’s agenda almost every time the BJP has been criticised. For instance, he has openly supported BJP cow protection programme and has posted hate tweets against beef eaters. Similarly, his movies have increasingly become Hindu nationalist in nature and have showcased a sudden jingoism which the Dera was never known for. Dera’s critics attribute this to the Dera chief’s desperation to land some favour with the ruling BJP, especially as his cases were near completion.

However, for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP, deras occupy a special place in polity. It thinks of deras as institutions which may help bring back Sikhs into the Hindu fold.

“Sangh’s aims are not always associated with the BJP. The BJP is focused on elections, Sangh works for society. Sangh has been cultivating various deras – Radha Soami Satsang, Dera Sacha Sauda etc – for some years now. The deras work with the Dalit community, particularly Dalit Sikhs, who are ill-treated by Panthic Sikhs. The deras help in bringing them back into the Hindu fold,” a Sangh functionary based in Amritsar told the Catch news.

Incidentally, RSS chief Mohan Bhagawat has also made several trips to deras, including Sacha Sauda, before the 2014 general elections.

Dera’s support has undoubtedly helped the BJP in elections. The Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), has found in its election survey that “the dera supportiers followed the diktat to vote for the BJP, irrespective of candidates, almost en block.”

Letting the mob spiral out of control in the aftermath of widespread violence by Dera supporters was the logical outcome of its political proximity to Ram Rahim Singh, even if the criticism it has had to face will cost it nationally. However, the point to note is also the soft approach that other parties like the Congress or the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) have shown in its criticism of the Dera after its chief was convicted of rape.

Followers of the deras like Sacha Sauda have undoubtedly lived through a systemic caste-based violence in the Sikh society and have ended up finding a space in these deras which offer them equality and dignity. This, perhaps, makes their faith unquestionable. However, political patronage to the deras in recent years has bred criminality and corruption at the top level of these institutions. It ensures impunity for the deras and tends to convert them into mere sites of electoral mobilisation instead of recognising its social significance.

Power alternated between the SAD and Congress in Punjab or the INLD, Congress and the BJP in Haryana in the last few decades. All of its politicians flock to the deras. But despite the growing political influence of the deras, the representation of the marginalised remained low, meaning that deras, too, are not an incorruptible force, however socially significant they may be. The case of Dera Sacha Sauda could be an exception but it still drives home this aspect of deras more than anything else.