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Politics

Punjab: A Look at Influential Deras and Their Roles in Elections

Ahead of the polls, Dera Sacha Sauda's infamous chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was released on furlough, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi met the head of another influential dera.

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Jalandhar: As Punjab heads for assembly elections on February 20, two developments in the past fortnight have once again highlighted the influential role played by ‘deras’ or religious centres that are headed by a preacher, who generally teaches philosophy, religion and way of life.

The first development was the 21-day parole granted to Dera Sacha Sauda’s infamous chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. The second was the head of the Dera Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Baba Gurinder Singh Dhillon, meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 13. Both these deras enjoy considerable sway over people.

There are many more deras in Punjab, but some prominent ones always come into the picture whenever elections are around the corner. Since a large number of people follow deras, politicians from across parties also visit them to seek support, a testament to their clout. The Wire traces some influential deras in Punjab.

Dera Sacha Sauda

The Haryana-based Dera Sacha Sauda was thrown into the spotlight in August 2017, when its chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted of rape. His followers then went on the rampage in Punjab and Haryana, leading to the death of 38 people.

The dera’s political wing has a history of backing different parties. While its supporters include people from different sections of the society, their largest support base is from Dalits. Though the dera is based in Sirsa, Haryana, it wields influence in Punjab’s Malwa belt. This region of Punjab is the largest and accounts for 69 of the state’s 117 assembly seats.

Among the key districts where the dera enjoys a strong base are Bathinda, Ferozepur, Fazilka, Sangrur, Muktsar and Mansa.

Earlier, the SAD, the BJP and the Congress had taken support from the dera, but its alleged involvement in the 2015 sacrilege case – apart from Ram Rahim’s conviction – has meant that parties are treading cautiously ahead of this election. Even the dera is yet to announce its support for any party.

In the 2002 assembly polls, the dera supported Amarinder Singh, after which the Congress came to power. In 2007, the dera again supported the Congress but the party lost the polls. During the 2012 polls, the dera supported individual candidates instead of a party and threw its weight behind the SAD-BJP in 2017, but the alliance was voted out.

Ritin Khanna, the executive editor of Uttam Hindu, said if the dera decides to support the BJP, it could prove to be a gamechanger. “On average, it commands the support of at least 15,000 people in 30 seats of Malwa. As we have a multi-cornered contest in Punjab, these votes can play a crucial role. Moreover, the BJP’s surveys in Malwa have found that dera votes can boost its chances in other constituencies of Punjab too,” Khanna said.

However, the Dera Sacha Sauda’s political committee member Ram Singh Insan said, “We have not taken any decision on this issue. All politicians visit our dera, as they have every right to seek votes.”

A dera follower, Jyoti Joram (20) from Bathinda, said, “We will vote as per the directions of the dera authorities. It is our good luck to fulfil the guruji’s command.”

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.

Dera Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Amritsar

An ‘apolitical’ organisation, Dera Radha Saomi Satsang Beas in Amritsar suddenly made headlines after its chief Gurinder Singh Dhillon met Modi in Delhi on February 13, leading to speculations in the poll-bound state.

Dhillon also met Union home minister Amit Shah on February 16 at the dera headquarters in Beas. A photo of the meeting was tweeted by Shah.

Earlier, in December 2021, the dera chief met CM Charanjit Singh Channi at his house. The meeting led to speculation as it came a day after an FIR was lodged against SAD leader Bikram Singh Majithia. His wife Ganieve Kaur is a distant relative of the dera head.

As per a book published by the dera titled Equilibrium of Love, it has 5,000 branches across the country. It also has branches in 90 countries. A prominent dera, its followers come from all religions, castes and from all walks of life, including retired Army officers, bureaucrats, politicians, actors, singers, writers, NRIs, farmers and labourers. Even Bollywood actor Shahid Kapoor is a follower of the dera. His father Pankaj Kapur’s voiceovers have been used in many short films on social issues, which are played during satsangs.

A dera functionary, requesting anonymity, said, “The dera chief’s meeting with PM Modi has raised eyebrows because ideally, dignitaries visit the dera and attend the satsang, and take langar. But the meeting with the PM was outside the dera in Delhi. We have learnt that a senior official of the dera, who is reportedly close to Modi, was behind this meeting.”

The dera functionary said that Rahul Gandhi had visited the dera in early 2020 and stayed for two days on the premises. “Even during the 2017 assembly and 2019 parliamentary polls, a section of dera functionaries supported select candidates in the state. They do play an active role in elections but not overtly,” the official said.

Dera Sachkhand Ballan, Jalandhar

The Dera Sachkhand Ballan in Jalandhar is a revered place of the Addharmi or Ravidassia community of the Doaba region of Punjab, which covers Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala and Nawanshahr districts.

The dera is headed by Sant Niranjan Dass and has followers across Punjab and even abroad. Such is the political prominence of this dera that before elections, all politicians come to pay obeisance.

It hogged the limelight when the then head of the dera, Sant Ramanand, was killed in Vienna, Austria in May 2009, leading to violence by agitated followers across Punjab, particularly in Doaba.

CM Channi, who hails from the Ramdasia Sikh community, stayed overnight at the dera in January. This was seen as an attempt to consolidate Dalit votes.

Charanjit Singh Channi with Satguru Swami Niranjan Dass Maharaj at Dera Sachkhand Ballan Jalandhar. Photo: Twitter

Not many people know that the Guru Ravidass temple in Benaras, Uttar Pradesh was constructed by the Dera Ballan in 1965.

Baldev Kumar, a dera follower from Nawanshahr district, said “The dera authorities have never told us whom to vote for. Neither have they interfered nor do they have any political interests. All they want is the upliftment and empowerment of Dalits.”

Jagdev Jassal, another follower from Sham Chaurasi in the Hoshiarpur district, said, “We have never been controlled by the dera on any issue.”

Dera spokesperson Sat Paul Virdi said, “We have never asked people to vote for any party. It is purely their decision.”

Divya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan, Nurmahal, Jalandhar

The Divya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan situated at Nurmahal in Jalandhar came to the limelight after its founder-head Ashutosh Maharaj was found dead under mysterious circumstances on the dera premises on January 30, 2014.

Following his death, its functionaries claimed that Ashutosh Maharaj had gone into “samadhi” and was not dead. The incident had led to major controversy but the sansthan authorities remained firm on their stand.

Until now, nobody has seen the body of Ashutosh Maharaj in ‘samadhi’, which is kept in a freezer. The dera authorities claim that Ashutosh will come out of samadhi soon. Post this incident, the then SAD-BJP government had named a village, ‘Divya Gram’, after the sect.

Despite a lot of pressure for investigation, the government has played safe and went in sync with the dera authorities’ claim. The dera is based on Hindu religion and philosophy and holds satsangs on Sundays and important days. It is usually flocked by politicians.

Swami Vishalanand, a functionary of the sansthan, said, “We have a neutral and non-political stand on elections. As per our head Ashutosh Maharaj, voting is the right of a voter and they are free to cast votes as per their liking.”