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Eye of the storm

The veneration he commands from his followers the world over would never make one believe that the attire he wore would trigger off a demand for his head, writes Hitender Rao.

india Updated: May 26, 2007 04:07 IST
Hitender Rao

The veneration he commands from his followers the world over would never make one believe that the attire he wore would trigger off a demand for his head. But then, Sant Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh, the 40-year-old head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, is not alien to controversies. His latest act of purportedly trying to imitate the 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh at a public function in Salabatpura, Bathinda, has created a perilous situation. It not only threatens to put at risk the lives of his followers but engulf Punjab in flames.

The self-styled Godman was born on August 15, 1967 in a Jat Sikh family of Gurusar Modiya village of Rajasthan’s Sriganganagar district. He holds tremendous sway on his followers, a fact that his devotees vouch for through words and deeds. In fact, there are numerous anecdotes of the Sant’s magical powers that have reportedly saved his followers from the brink of disaster.

Mighty mysterious

All this lends a mystery to his persona. “Tales about him are a cherished treasure trove for the Dera, strongly bonding him and his sect with his followers,” says an observer who refuses to be named.

The Sant’s penchant for life’s luxuries is obvious: He travels in a self-designed car from his palatial residence, Goofa, to the Majlis compound, escorted by a police vehicle. His home has a sprawling campus all around. He dons flashy garments and headgear while addressing congregations from a battery-operated mobile podium. His discourses are televised live and the Dera provides facility for overseas viewers to get audio-visual feed through Skype software. And he has close ties with the political high and mighty.

Dera followers, however, insist that, like all his devotees, the Sant toils hard. “Come sometime to the fields and watch Guruji toil,” says Dr Puneet Maheshwari, an anaesthetist at the Dera Hospital. “He pays for all his expenses and not a penny on him is spent out of the Dera funds.” Among the Sant’s most ardent followers are a group of doctors from AIIMS. The first of them to join the sect, Dr Pankaj Garg speaks of the Sant’s appeal: “You will have to feel it to believe it. It cannot be explained.”

The fable regarding his induction into the sect and his gradual ascendancy from follower to leader has been well-documented by the Dera. It says the sect’s first master, Shah Mastanaji, in his concluding spiritual discourse in 1960, had indicated that seven years later he would reincarnate as the third master of the sect. “The followers could not comprehend his remarks then. The truth dawned when the devotees discovered that Sant Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh was born in 1967,” says Khushal Singh, a Dera volunteer from Hanumangarh. Gurmit Singh, as the Sant was known in his initial years, was inducted into the sect at the age of seven by his predecessor, Shah Satnam Singh Ji.

The documented text calls him ‘a child prodigy’. Gurmit Singh, it says, excelled in everything — including learning to drive at age eight. “His educational qualification is only till high school but his spiritual power ensured that he stood out in whatever he did,” says Balwant Singh, an elderly sect follower. At age 23, Gurmit Singh was coroneted and handed over control of the Dera.

Controversies galore

The Sant’s first brush with controversy was in 2002 when an anonymous letter, supposedly written by a sadhvi, alleged sexual exploitation of women followers within the Dera. The matter is being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The CBI is investigating a few other cases against the Dera followers, too. These include the alleged murder of a Dera disciple, Ranjit Singh, who had reportedly spoken against the Sant — five sect followers are behind bars for this case. Another probe pertains to a Sirsa-based journalist, Ram Chander Chattarpati, who wrote about the Dera’s ‘illegal’ activities.

On sexual exploitation, Dera lawyers insist that even after so many years, the CBI hasn’t been able to establish the source of the letter. “It is a conspiracy against the Dera,” says chief spokesperson, Dr Aditya Arora. “Our de-addiction campaigns have not gone down well with several industrialists, who stand to lose crores. But we have a firm belief in the institutions of law. The High Court is monitoring the CBI probe.”

Arora insists that any aberrant act by an individual from among the millions of Dera followers shouldn’t be labelled as a collective act of the organisation. “A teacher cannot be blamed for the performance of every student who fails,” he had said earlier.

Political overtones

The Dera has long been suspected of playing the politics of vote bank from the backstage — politicians across parties have solicited ‘blessings’ of the Sant. The sect, however, took an explicit plunge into electoral politics by supporting the Congress in the recent Assembly polls. It floated a political affairs wing that made a dent in the traditional Akali vote in the Malwa region of Punjab.

“The political affairs wing was a separately elected body of Sadh Sangat, and not an organ of the Dera,” argues Arora. “We had never issued any diktat to our followers to vote for a particular party.”

The political overtones became imminent a couple of years ago when the Dera head had his son married to the daughter of a Punjab Congress leader, Harminder Singh Jassi. Jassi, in fact, got elected as MLA from Bathinda this time, largely because of Dera support. All this has naturally invited the wrath of Panthic organisations and the Akali government.

In a CD released, clarifying his stand on the issue of his trying to imitate Guru Gobind Singhji, the Sant said: “It was a simple pink dress that I wore. People in Punjab normally wear such outfits… We respect every Guru and peer paigambar…There is no question of trying to copy the Guru. It is a misunderstanding that should be promptly removed.”

Be that as it may. A meeting ground between the two warring sides seems to be the only route to peace in Punjab.


hrao@hindustantimes.com