Rudderless Dera Sacha Sauda turns a shadow of former self
NON-POLL FACTOR: Once-politically influential sect losing ability to swing electoral fortunes as its representatives maintain a stoic silence when parties are out on the hustings for the Oct 21 polls
A once-powerful sect having the ability to sway millions of followers in the blink of an eye, a cult looked upon by politicians for its “electoral blessings” and pampered by successive governments, the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda now seems to have become a shadow of its past.
With its charismatic head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in jail after being sentenced to life, a slew of criminal cases registered against its supporters and depleting coffers and follower base, the sect is fighting for survival more than anything else.
At a time when all political parties are out on the hustings for the October 21 Haryana assembly polls, the dera followers and representatives are maintaining a stoic silence across the state, say intelligence officials.
“There has been no major political activity by the sect followers’’ said an official.
The August 2017 violence by the dera followers after a CBI court convicted the sect head for raping his two disciples resulted in the killing of 42 followers in police action. About 200 criminal cases were registered against the sect followers and over 1,000 of them were arrested. The wheel had started turning back on the dera.
Sanjay, a dera follower, says the number of premis (as dera followers are called) visiting the sect headquarters in Sirsa drastically reduced after 2017.
Despite the fact that its political affairs wing tried to galvanize the followers by holding a large number of naam-charcha (meditation) congregations in Haryana and neighboring Punjab during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and convey a message of the dera’s political relevance, the sect’s impact on the general elections was almost negligible, said an intelligence official on the condition of anonymity.
The dera has a massive support base across the social spectrum, majorly among the Dalits and underprivileged sections of the society. It once had the ability to swing the fortunes of political parties and their leaders. Not anymore. The absence of leadership is killing the sect.
Political analysts say that in the 2014 Haryana assembly elections, the dera emerged as an important factor behind the first-ever victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Kushal Pal, the Haryana coordinator of Lokniti, a social science research programme of Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), says that a study of constituencies indicated that in the 2014 polls the dera supporters had followed the diktat to vote for the BJP, irrespective of candidates, almost en block.
“The dera’s electoral intervention was felt in Punjab since 2007 but in it was for the first time in 2014 when a religious sect gave overwhelming support to a political party in Haryana. However, after the conviction of its head, a rudderless sect may not be able to make its presence felt in the political arena,” said, Pal, who also heads the political science department of Karnal-based Dyal Singh College.
Citing an example of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), whose party chief and former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala is serving jail sentence in a corruption case, Pal said even a closely knit group of supporters becomes disorganised due to the absence of a key figure.
Sources in the ruling BJP said ahead of the 2014 assembly polls, candidates from various constituencies had sought “blessings” from the dera chief.
While the BJP got the support of the sect, the Congress tried to consolidate Sikh voters in Haryana by enacting a law to form a separate Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee of the state.
“It was the BJP’s poll strategy to gain the dera’s support. After it rode to power, several Haryana ministers and senior BJP leaders, including then in-charge of the state Kailash Vijayvargiya, were regular visitors to the dera. Before his conviction, the dera chief was even invited by chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar to lead a cleanliness drive in Karnal,” says a Haryana BJP legislator.
Ram Singh Insan, a key member of the dera’s political affairs wing, says the premis have not taken any decision on extending support to political parties in Haryana.
Prof Ashutosh Kumar of the political science department at Panjab University, Chandigarh, says: “Like Punjab, Haryana also has experienced the impact of the dera factor. However, the conviction of the dera chief and the mayhem created by his followers led to the diminishing of the sect’s influence. It is highly unlikely that the dera will have a major role in the assembly polls in Haryana,” he said.
Beneficiaries of dera’s poll blessings
2007 Punjab assembly polls: Congress
2009 Haryana assembly polls: Congress
2012 Punjab assembly polls: Shiromani Akali Dal
2014 Haryana assembly polls: BJP
2017 Punjab assembly polls: Shiromani Akali Dal
The controversial sect
Rape case: Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is serving 20-year sentence for raping his two female disciples. He was convicted by a CBI court in August 2017.
Journalist murder case: The dera head was also sentenced to life imprisonment in the journalist Ram Chandra Chhatrapati murder case. Chhatrapati was the first to publish an anonymous letter about rapes and sexual harassment of woman disciples in the dera.
Ranjit Singh murder case: The dera head is also an accused in the murder of Ranjit Singh, a sect follower, who too, is suspected to have been killed for exposing sexual exploitation of women followers. It is alleged the dera head suspected him of writing the anonymous letter. He was killed on July 10, 2002. The trial began in 2008 and is in final stages.
Castration case: Charged as the main accused by the CBI in February 2018, the special CBI court in Panchkula on August 3, 2018, framed charges against Ram Rahim and two accused doctors. The case pertained to alleged castration of 400 followers at the dera headquarters in 2000. The Punjab and Haryana high court had ordered a CBI probe in December 2014 on the complaint of Hansraj Chauhan, a Fatehabad resident.
Attire row: The dera chief’s purported act of wearing attire resembling the 10th Sikh master Guru Gobind Singh triggered an outrage among the Sikhs leading to violence and arson in Punjab and Haryana.