Deras have been playing a vital role in elections in Punjab and this time is no different. Essentially a religious refuge, deras are the hub of all things worldly, come elections.
While concerns have been raised over the mushrooming of these religious sects across the state, political parties, except for the Left, have never shied away from putting to good use their vast network of followers.
Politicians have been making a beeline to these places to seek the blessings of sect heads. The blessings of a dera head, mostly referred to as baba or sant, can prove to be that divine intervention which can swing political fortunes.
The influence of deras, whose activities cover a wide spectrum ranging from religious to social, can be gauged from the fact that many of them even made sifarish (recommendation) to political parties for allotting party tickets to “favourite” candidates. While some deras have been open about their political allegiance, most shy away from clearly articulating their political leanings or participating in electioneering directly. The word of a dera head, however, carries considerable weight among followers.
The controversial Dera Sacha Sauda, headquartered at Sirsa in Haryana, has a large following in Punjab’s Malwa region. The support of the dera ‘premis’ will have a bearing on the poll outcome in the region.
Open support by the dera’s followers to Congress candidates in the 2007 assembly elections gave a new twist to the electoral and politico-religious scenario of the Akali heartland Malwa.
Later, Punjab saw large-scale communal violence between dera followers and Sikhs after the sect head allegedly dressed up like Guru Gobind Singh.
This time, the dera may opt for a ‘please-all’ formula by choosing more than one political party. In the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, the dera lent support to Akalis in the Bathinda, Faridkot and Ferozepur Lok Sabha seats and to Congress in Patiala, Sangrur, etc.
The dera has remained embroiled in various controversies, with cases of murder and sexual assaults pending in courts. Its head, Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh, is also under the CBI scanner.
Bathinda Congress candidate Harminder Jassi’s daughter is married to the son of Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh.
The ‘political affairs wing’ of Dera Sacha Sauda is seeking the opinion of followers before making a definite statement on the polls. A senior member of the wing, Ram Singh, said it was asking its members in all blocks and districts across the state to “take a unanimous decision over the issue of supporting one or more political parties”.
Majority in Doaba
Punjab has around 500 deras of Dalit communities, a majority of them in Doaba, followed by Majha. With an eye on the Dalit vote bank, especially in Doaba, almost all political parties have deputed senior leaders to meet dera heads ahead of the assembly elections. Dera Sachkhand Ballan in Jalandhar district has a mass following.
Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s family’s ties with Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan sect of Ashutosh Noormahalia have been controversial in the past.
The sect with headquarters at Noormahal (Jalandhar) has big branches at Dabwali Malko Ki near Malout and influence in pockets of Lambi, Malout and Muktsar constituencies.
Other major deras, which have been embroiled in controversies and frequented by top politicians, include Piara Singh Bhaniarawala’s dera in Ropar, Darshan Singh Dhaki’s in Ludhiana and Dera Sachkhand Ballan in Doaba area.
Malwa matters too
The Dera Baba Roomi Wala is situated in Bhucho Mandi town of Bathinda district. Senior politicians including the chief minister, Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president Capt Amarinder Singh and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal have visited the dera to pay obeisance.
Parkash Singh Badal made a sudden visit to Dera Roomi Wala and held a closed-door meeting with dera head Sukhdev Singh in December-end.
Dera Roomi Wala was established by Baba Harnam Singh more than a century ago. It was regarded as the headquarters of various sects, including the Nanaksar Sect near Jagraon in Ludhiana.
Dera Ram Tilla at Maluka village of Bathinda, Gurdwara Shahid Baba Tega Singh Ji and Gurjant Singh Salenewale’s dera at Saleena village have political leaders visiting them. Baba Baljit Singh Daduwal, head of the Daduwal Sahib Gurdwara in Haryana, also commands a sizeable following in the Malwa area.
Baba Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwale’s headquarters near Patiala, Lopo Wale Sant, Sant Dera Bhore Wale (Sukhanand), Hari Nau Wale Baba Ji, Jalal Wale Sant, Gurne Kalan Wale Sant and Sant Baba Daler Singh Kheri have their own pockets of influence.