Sprawling deras with impenetrable walls and self-styled godmen commanding massive votebanks. Behind the growing affluence and influence of these new power centres in Punjab and Haryana are those who lived on the fringes -- the economically, socially and politically backward classes asserting their identity and clout. But what lurks beneath the frequent bushfires in the two states is a heady mix of politics and ideological rift of these deras with the orthodoxy of mainstream sects, castes and religions.
The clash between Rampal’s followers and the Haryana police in Barwala (Hisar) following arrest orders issued by the Punjab and Haryana high court is just another example of self-styled godmen caught in the crosshairs of the judiciary, misusing their sway over followers. With mainstream parties bowing to them during the elections, their political muscle and ambition has been growing and they are able to take political leverage despite facing serious charges such as rape and murder.
Politics of numbers
Unarguably, the most controversial among these godmen and perhaps also the most influential is Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who is facing cases on the charges of murder and rape, forced castration, and hurting sentiments of Sikhs by imitating Guru Gobind Singh.
The controversial dera claims to have a following of 2 crore people in various states and more than 30 lakh in Punjab itself. His blasphemous act had led to violent clashes between Sikhs and dera followers in Punjab in June 2007. The subtext here, too, was the dera’s political gamble of earning the wrath of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal by openly supporting the Congress in the 2007 elections. The godman flexes his political muscle each election and had announced his support for the BJP before the recent Haryana polls.
And every time he has to appear before the court for a hearing, his army of followers, referred to as premis, hold law and order to ransom. The dera is popular among women and families as it preaches against drugs and alcoholism, and its blood donation efforts are the biggest for any organisation. Time saved from personal appearances has helped the dera head pursue his creative interests -- he is now a rockstar and his latest music album, Highway Love Charger, has done brisk business owing to his huge fan following. The 47-year-old will soon also debut in movies.
Conflict of ideology
Most deras shot up in the late 1960s and early 1970s owing to growing alienation of Dalits from Sikh institutions such as the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which abhors dera culture. The Sikh religion does not approve of worshiping a Guru in physical form as Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru, had during his lifetime declared Guru Granth Sahib as the only living Guru.
Violent clashes had erupted in June 2009 in Punjab after the murder of Dera Sachkhand Ballan deputy chief Sant Ramanand in Vienna (Austria) as followers of the dera went on the rampage. Based in Jalandhar — the Dalit heartland of Punjab — it has significant influence in Doaba among followers of Guru Ravidass. The Vienna attack, too, was the result of a simmering tension between the dominant Jat Sikh community and Ravidass sect leaders who place the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, in their gurdwaras and during religious ceremonies.
Another dera with a cult following is the Divya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan (DJJS) led by Ashutosh Maharaj, based in Nurmahal (Jalandhar). Last month, its followers had clashed with Sikhs in a Tarn Taran village, resulting in more than two dozen people being injured. The provocation, Sikh groups said, was the non-Panthic programme being hosted by the dera followers. The DJJS has been courting controversy since the beginning of this year over Ashutosh’s reported death and the refusal of dera followers to declare him dead, claiming he is in a state of samadhi (meditation). Acting on a public interest litigation (PIL), the Punjab and Haryana high court has sought a report from the Punjab government.
Also espousing the cause of Dalits is the Baba Bhaniarawale sect headed by Piara Singh Bhaniarawale and based in Ropar district. He is accused of fanning trouble by asking his followers to burn birs of Guru Granth Sahib.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh
Took up reins of Dera Sacha Sauda, based in Sirsa (Haryana), in 1990. Though his dera claims to spearhead social work such as blood donation, fight against drugs and alcoholism, he is facing charges of rape, murder, forced castration and blasphemy. The dera’s main area of influence is Malwa (Punjab) and neighbouring Haryana.
An engineer-turned-godman, Rampal presents himself as the incarnation of mystic poet Kabir. He had established his Satlok Ashram first at Rohtak. He ran into trouble for derogatory remarks against Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati. In 2006, a clash between his followers and Arya Samajis started Rampal’s brush with the judiciary and the law.
Founder-head of Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan, Ashutosh Maharaj hails from Bihar. His dera is based in Nurmahal (Jalandhar) and has a following in the Doaba region. Reported dead in January this year, but the dera authorities refused to cremate him, saying that the guru is in samadhi (meditation). His body has been in a deep freezer for the past 10 months.
Piara Singh Bhaniarawale
Founder of Ropar-based Baba Bhaniarawale sect, he penned the book Bhavsagar Granth, describing his miracles. His followers are accused of burning birs of the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib. He had survived an assassination bid while appearing for a court hearing in Ambala in 2003. Was also attacked on the dera premises.
Baljit Singh Daduwal
Behind the Sant Samaj leader’s rise is also the dera-Sikh clergy conflict. Daduwal’s remarks against Gurmeet Ram Rahim led to a row between radical Sikhs and Dera Sacha Sauda followers. Punjab Police opened an old case against Daduwal after he supported the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee. Released after Haryana elections.
Sant Niranjan Das
Founded by devotees of Guru Ravidass, Dera Sachkhand Ballan, based in Jalandhar district, has a considerable following in the Doaba region. It is headed by Sant Niranjan Das, who was attacked in Vienna (Austria) in 2009. The dera’s deputy head, Guru Ramanand, was killed in the attack, which had triggered violence in Jalandhar and adjoining districts.