Will Dera Sacha Sauda's Distance This Time Cost BJP Dear in Sirsa?

Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s sect had openly supported BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, but following his arrest and the killing of over 40 followers in police firing, relations have soured.

Sirsa: Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, several senior BJP leaders including Amit Shah had made a beeline to Dera Sacha Sauda in Haryana’s Hisar and met its main preacher Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh to seek his support.

The Dera head agreed and consequently, several of his supporters actively worked for BJP in the election campaign. Many of them even pitched in as BJP’s polling agents.

The same trend was seem during the Assembly elections later that year. Then, too, the Dera supported the saffron party fully. After the first BJP government was formed in the state, several party leaders who had gone on to become ministers went to the Dera to give thanks.

Five years down the line, the situation has changed drastically. There has been a dramatic fallout between Dera followers and BJP. The former hold the Manohar Lal Khattar dispensation somewhat responsible for the Ram Rahim’s conviction for the rape of two women in August 2017. Also fresh in their minds is the memory of violence by police during protests by his followers over the conviction.

42 people killed

On the day he was convicted by the Punjab and Haryana high court in Panchkula, Ram Rahim’s followers had turned violent. In subsequent police action that followed, 42 people were killed. Thirty nine of them had gunshot wounds.

A traffic junction near Dera Sacha Sauda’s headquarters in Sirsa on the day of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh's sentencing. Credit: PTI

A traffic junction near Dera Sacha Sauda’s headquarters in Sirsa on the day of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s sentencing. Photo: PTI

Earlier this year, the Dera chief was also convicted for the 2002 murder of a Sirsa-based journalist and editor of Poora Sach newspaper, Ram Chander Chhatarapati.

In 2017, Khattar admitted to not having handled the situation properly. But that has come as little consolation for Dera supporters, who have been continuing the organisation’s activities in the absence of its main leadership.

While Ram Rahim is lodged in a Hisar jail, his ‘adopted daughter’ Honeypreet Singh, the administrator of Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda Vipassana Insan, and media co-ordinator Aditya Insaan went missing soon after.

Also read: Haryana Politics Has Long Been the Arena of Dynasts and Turncoats

When The Wire visited the Dera in Hisar earlier this Sunday, a social event was already afoot. The place was swarming with followers but there was little pomp surrounding the ceremonies, in great contrast with days when Ram Rahim would hold sway over social events and movie releases amidst great fanfare.

Invaluable in elections

There are a row of shops leading to the Dera, all of which display the words ‘Sach’, ‘MSG’ or ‘Insaan’ which have long since been associated with this sect. The Dera enjoys immense popularity among Dalits and ‘mazhabi’ Sikhs. In each of the nine Assembly segments under Sirsa Lok Sabha constituency, there are around 20,000 to 30,000 followers. This is what makes Dera support key to any election in this part.

The Dera has tight security and people are screened at all of the nine gates to the campus. For going up to the administrative block, one is required to deposit mobile phones and all equipment.

Unlike the Satlok Ashram in Barwala which was reduced to a shambles after its main preacher’s arrest, the Dera Sacha Sauda remains well maintained and socially active.

Congress flags at Sirsa, ahead of the October 21 Haryana assembly polls. Photo: Bazil Ashrafi

A spokesperson said the Political Affairs Committee of the Dera met recently but did not take a decision on which party it would support, if any.

This, in itself, is a big blow to BJP. The general secretary of Sirsa BJP’s district committee Rajender Lohia admitted that Dera followers were no longer working as polling agents for the party candidates in the region.

On the other hand, a former general secretary of the Congress district committee said the party is open to anyone joining it and working for its candidate.

‘Dera wary of antagonising any party’

A journalist who has been running a newspaper (which incidentally contains the word ‘sach’) told The Wire that the Dera has been proceeding cautiously as it does not want to antagonise any political party.

Also read: Swaraj India Makes Unemployment in Haryana a Major Poll Issue

“In the Lok Sabha elections, their followers supported BJP in Manohar Lal Khattar’s Karnal, and Deepender Singh Hooda in Rohtak. Deepender is son of former chief minister and Congress leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda. They have also supported supported INLD in some regions in the past. You never know who may form the government. And no one wants central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate or CBI to be gunning for them.”

With the Dera followers no longer ‘happy’ with BJP, the saffron party, which won just one of the nine seats in Sirsa last time has much to worry about. The only seat which had fallen into BJP’s kitty in 2014 was Tohana from where Subhash Barala, who later became Haryana unit president, won. All the others were won by INLD. However, following a split in INLD, BJP had got five of its MLAs in its fold.

Winning over Dera followers, especially after the firing episode, is, however, proving a much more difficult task for the saffron party.