More dera heads and other spiritual figures in Punjab are opting for bullet-proof vehicles, beefing up their protective cover with hired gunmen in addition to the ones provided by state police. Some of these self-styled godmen are on the hit list of Sikh radicals, others fear attack from rival sects.
God’s will is supreme, they preach. But new-age ‘babas’ (spiritual leaders) — the self-appointed messengers of God — don’t take chances when it comes to their physical wellbeing, going by the security paraphernalia, including bullet-proof vehicles.
A number of them already have such vehicles and many are getting their luxury cars customised to survive attacks from sophisticated weapons such as AK-47 rifles or even grenades.
These spiritual leaders move in convoys that are no inferior to those of VIPs of the land. Head of Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, for instance, has a convoy of swanky bullet-proof cars, including Lexus, Audi, and BMWs. When he is on the move, his convoy has three cars of the same colour, make and registration number, besides jammer vehicles, to not let anyone know which car he is in exactly.
Head of Delhi-headquartered Nirankari sect Hardev Singh, who died in a car crash in Canada in May, also had a fleet of bullet-proof vehicles.
A top Punjab police officer, who deals with the security of ‘babas’ and dera heads, told HT that their security was “very important” for the police and state government because of large-scale following and chances of a law-and-order problem if something goes wrong. “Especially when we are going through days of low-intensity terrorism, and Punjab being a border state, deras and their heads can be possible targets,” says an officer of the rank of director general of police in Punjab.
Budha Dal Nihang Samparday chief Balbir Singh is guarded by a team of handpicked, trained followers, along with Punjab Police personnel. He, too, moves in a convoy of bullet-proof Land Cruisers, having recently upgraded from Mahindra Scorpios. “Dal’s army was established in the 18th century and, with such a glorious history, we need to protect our identity through elaborate security paraphernalia,” says Balbir Singh.
Many other sects are doing market research to get customised secure vehicles for their leaders. “We are looking for bullet-proof Toyota Fortuners to protect our baba-ji,” said a close aide of Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwala, who heads a dera on the outskirts of Patiala.
The dera supporters have approached vendors in northern India for the bullet-proofing of three vehicles.
Dhadrianwala had escaped unhurt in an attack on his convoy in May, though a follower in the same SUV was shot dead. To minimise the threat when in public, Dhadrianwala’s supporters are also contemplating to have a bullet-proof detachable glass enclosure that can be used to deliver sermons.
“Babaji doesn’t like to be under any kind of security, but we can’t take chances, especially after the attack,” adds the follower.
Namdhari sect head Udai Singh is also planning to buy a bullet-proof vehicle. The Bhaini Sahib (Ludhiana)-based sect has a considerable following and its head already enjoys Z-plus security from the government. About three month ago, the sect’s matriarch Chand Kaur (Udai Singh’s aunt) was murdered on the dera premises.
“We have received commandoes and jammer vehicles, and the government wants us to get customised bullet-proof vehicles of our choice,” said Udai’s aide Lakhbir Singh.
The sect is in the process of finalising the vehicles. Buying readymade bullet-proof vehicles from abroad is also under consideration.
A customised bullet-proof vehicle can cost between Rs 40 lakh and Rs 1.5 crore depending on the weapon one wants to protect the vehicle against. Preferred cars are Toyota Fortuner and Land Cruiser.
“Usually, spiritual heads go for level-3 bullet-proofing, which is resistant to grenades, and sophisticated SLRs (self-loading rifles) and AK-47. Customising vehicles involves fitting sheets of complex metallurgical alloy steel along the vehicle’s body,” said Gurvendra Singh of Jeet and Jeet Glass, a firm based in Jaipur.
Under police cover
Inspector general (security) of Punjab Police Naresh Arora loses count of the dera heads and other babas who enjoy state protection. “We give security to smaller deras and their heads as per need, but heads of the bigger deras are under constant security cover,” Arora said, adding that some babas have Z-plus security cover. They don’t have to pay for the police cover.
Security of heads of Namdhari sect, Bhaini Sahib; Dera Sachkhand Ballan, Jalandhar; Dera Garanwala, Phillaur; Bhaniranwala dera near Rupnagar; Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan, Nurmahal; Dera Sacha Sauda, Sirsa; Nirankari Dera, Delhi, and Dhadrianwala in Patiala, are some on priority of the state police.
Despite being prominent, Amritsar-based Damsdami Taksal head Harnam Singh Dhumma is not protected by the state police. The Taksal has its own men for that.
What’s to fear?
A number of dera heads have been attacked at some point of time, making the followers and the police concerned about their security. Dhadrianwala was attacked by Damdami Taksal supporters last month. Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh escaped unhurt in an attack by supporters of a Sikh radical group in 2008. Bhaniara dera head Piara Singh was attacked too. The second in hierarchy of Dera Ballan, Niranjan Das, was killed allegedly by Sikh radicals in Vienna, Austria, in 2009, leading to widespread protests in Punjab .
“There are also inter-dera rivalries due to various reasons. We can’t take chances with their security as there is a serious law-and-order threat if something goes wrong,” said a top police officer, requesting anonymity.