Sprawling deras, impenetrable walls and self-styled godmen commanding massive vote banks. 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 behind the frequent bushfires in the two states are not just the deras’ ideological conflict with the orthodoxy of mainstream sects, castes and religion but some of their godmen being in crosshairs of the judiciary for charges such as rape, kidnapping and murder.
Unarguably, the most controversial among these godmen is Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim who is facing cases for murder and rape of a disciple, forced castrations and hurting sentiments of Sikhs by imitating Guru Gobind Singh. His blasphemous act had led to violent clashes between Sikhs and dera followers in Punjab in June 2007.
Violent clashes erupted in June 2009 in Punjab after the murder of Dera Sachkhand Ballan deputy chief Sant Rama Nand in Vienna as followers of the dera went on a rampage. The Jalandhar-based dera has significant influence in Doaba among followers of Guru Ravidass. The Vienna attack was a result of a simmering tension between the dominant Jat Sikh community and Ravidass sect leaders.
Another dera with a cult following is the Divya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan led by godman Ashutosh Maharaj. Last month, its followers had clashed with Sikhs in a village in Tarn Taran resulting in over two dozen people being injured.
Another controversial godman is self-proclaimed baba, Piara Singh Bhaniarewala, who heads the Baba Bhaniarewala sect based in Ropar district. He is accused of penning his own holy book and his followers have been accused of burning the Guru Granth Sahib.