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Their god still: Convicted Dera Sacha Sauda leader’s followers keep the faith

Dera set to flex its political muscle with a vengeance as efforts on to keep support base intact; political options such as NOTA or fielding premis being debated as Haryana goes to the polls next year.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2018 12:01 IST
Pawan Sharma
Pawan Sharma
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
dera verdict,dera sacha sauda,Panchkula violence
Followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda at a naam charcha ghar (prayer meeting centre) in Bhiwani. Prayer meeting like this are held every Sunday across the 175 centres in Haryana.(HT File )

The neatly framed photos of Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, attired in colourful costumes, are a picture in contrast to the stark surroundings of the humble dwellings of his Dalit followers in Haryana’s hinterland. They belie the faith and respect he still commands a year after he was sent to Sunaria jail in Rohtak for two decades for raping two sadhvis (women disciples).

Hoardings and billboards are back at the naam charcha ghar or prayer houses of the sect, which claims to have a following of six crore with most followers based in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

The footfall of followers, also called premis, has been on the rise of late across the 175 prayer houses in Haryana. Till a few months ago, these centres wore a deserted look.

The anger that followed the court verdict against their leader, Ram Rahim, drove them to take the law into their hands last August, triggering violence and arson in Panchkula and other parts of Haryana and Punjab. A year on, several followers, who were jailed for rioting, have been released on bail. They have returned with a resolve, to avenge the arrest of their leader.

Return with resolve

“Jagat ne bhakt ko sadaa dabaane ki saajish rachi hai (The world has always conspired to suppress the faithful),” says Sandeep Insan, a Kurukshetra-based key Dera activist since 2002. “The sacrifice of our martyrs (those killed in last year’s violence) will not go in vain. It has only strengthened our resolve,” he says

Jasmer Chand, an Ambala-based advocate and dera follower, says: “Every premi believes Pitaji (Ram Rahim) is innocent. He will be out soon. His case was not argued well at the trial stage. We don’t hold any grouse against the government for the police action against followers gathered in Panchkula last year. The families of those killed and injured remained quiet. There was no agitation. That’s because we are peaceful and law-abiding people.”

Endorsing his views, Nanhi Devi, an elderly devotee from Kaithal’s Kichhna village, says: “Bhagwan Rama (Lord Rama) was exiled for 14 years. His subjects remained loyal to him. Similarly, the premis will never desert their guru who has been framed in a false case.”

Some even believe that Ram Rahim’s going to jail is a part foreseen by him.

Every Sunday, his followers assemble at the prayer houses and pledge to stay united in spite of, what they say is, “state-sponsored assault to defame the dera chief and demolish his empire”.

Dera Sacha Sauda leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh at a sect function Sirsa on February 01, 2016. He is in jail for raping two sect followers. (HT file photo)

Politics at the root

A visit to the districts of Kaithal, Jind, Kurukshetra, Karnal, Ambala and Yamunanagar, where the dera has a presence, reveals that politics and premis are inseparable even as they maintain they are apolitical. Every effort is being made to keep the support base intact. Political options such as NOTA (none of the above) or fielding premis in the next elections are being debated.

ALSO READ:A year after Dera Sacha Sauda verdict, rioting cases collapse

Anger is palpable among family members of those killed or injured in the post-verdict violence.

“Political parties were scared of us. They fear premis will dominate the political scene if we start contesting. As a result, the conspiracy to fix the Pitaji (the dera head) was hatched. It was a political conspiracy to destroy the dera and its followers,” says Dalvir Insan, 43, a resident of Titram village in Kaithal. He suffered multiple fractures in the police action at the Kotda naam charcha ghar in Kaithal and was jailed for five months.

“NOTA is an option. So far, we’ve been used by political parties,” says Dharamvir Insan of Kurukshetra, who joined the dera in 1980.

Santro Devi of Kaithal’s Serda village whose husband Jagdish Insan was killed in the police firing in Panchkula and whose son Sunil’s leg was broken in the police lathicharge at the Kotda naam charcha ghar, says: “Mahara mun naa dolya (Our faith is firm).We know our guru is pure. The allegations are false. We can’t tolerate anything adverse against our guruji.”

Sunil echoes her views, while other premis at her house nod in unison. They say they are looking forward to next year’s state and general elections to exact their revenge.

Deciding factor

Dera followers are not just Dalits. From Jats to Brahmins and traders, from the illiterate to highly educated, the sect has a following cutting across communities.

They vote as advised by their leader and their support can play a decisive factor in changing the poll outcome in many seats of south Haryana and in the Malwa belt of Punjab.

ALSO READ:Followers keep Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s Rs 2,100-crore empire afloat

The dera’s frosty relations with the ruling BJP, the party it supported in last Lok Sabha and Haryana assembly elections, has renewed the debate and curiosity about which party its followers will support.

Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leader Abhay Chautala hopes the dera will not let itself be “misguided by the Congress and the BJP” in the 2019 elections.

Congress leader and former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, however, accuses the BJP and the INLD of cheating the dera followers.

“The sangat (followers) will decide the appropriate political action. It was a political conspiracy to crush the premis. We will respond politically,” says Dalvir Insan of Titram area in Kaithal.

This time, the dera is gearing up to flex its political muscle with a vengeance even as its head, a shrewd power broker, cools his heels behind bars.

Dera’s political plunge

For the first time in the 2007 Punjab assembly elections, the dera openly gave a call to its devotees to support the Congress. Though the Akali Dal-BJP combine won, it was decimated in nearly two dozen seats of Malwa.

In the 2012 Punjab assembly elections, the dera leaned towards the SAD-BJP though it backed the Congress in certain seats.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha and Haryana assembly elections, the dera backed the BJP. The BJP’s liaison with the dera head suffered a setback after he was jailed and more than 30 of his followers were shot dead in Panchkula last year.

In the 2017 Punjab assembly elections, the dera extended support to the SAD-BJP combine but the Congress regained power after 10 years.

First Published: Aug 26, 2018 11:23 IST