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Friday, Nov 22, 2019

In jail for rape, Dera chief still a key factor in Haryana elections

Prakash Singh Sarwara, the editor of the Dera mouthpiece Sach Kaho, said that they have a political wing and a proper process to endorse “the right party and the candidates”.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2019 03:09 IST
Sunetra Choudhury
Sunetra Choudhury
Hindustan Times, Sirsa
Dera Sacha Sauda sect members overturned an OB van on the streets of Panchkula on Aug. 25, 2017. Deadly riots had broken out in the north Indian town after a court convicted their guru, who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan, of raping two of his followers. Mobs had also attacked journalists and set fire to government buildings and railway stations.
Dera Sacha Sauda sect members overturned an OB van on the streets of Panchkula on Aug. 25, 2017. Deadly riots had broken out in the north Indian town after a court convicted their guru, who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan, of raping two of his followers. Mobs had also attacked journalists and set fire to government buildings and railway stations.(AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
         

On a pleasant sunny Saturday afternoon, Dera Sacha Sauda sect headquarters on the outskirts of Haryana’s Sirsa town suddenly came alive as loudspeakers began blaring out songs there just before 4 pm. The songs eulogised the sect’s jailed head, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, and referred to him as pitaji (father).

Hundreds of Dera followers continue to visit the headquarters over two years after Ram Rahim was convicted and jailed for raping two female followers, castrating his male followers and murdering journalist Ram Chander Chhatrapati for exposing abuse there. Over 30 people were killed in the violence that followed the conviction in August 2017.

The Congress, Indian National Lok Dal, and the Jamnayak Janata Party have repeatedly cited the violence to attack chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s governance record in Haryana that goes to the polls on October 21. But the opposition parties have been mindful of Dera’s following and have been nuanced in their attacks. They have made it a point to ensure that the attacks are not seen to be that on the sect.

Dera followers say millions of the sect’s followers have a significant presence in every constituency in Haryana and Punjab.

Prakash Singh Sarwara, the editor of the Dera mouthpiece Sach Kaho, said that they have a political wing and a proper process to endorse “the right party and the candidates”. Sitting in his office inside the Dera headquarters, Sarwara said that they meticulously carry out surveys among their followers to first understand how they rate the political situation. “People who write about this broad-brush it as saudabaazi [commercial dealing] but it is not that,’’ said Sarwara, “...it is part of our vision to endorse the most suitable candidates. We always make them sign affidavits that they will serve the people and follow our principles before we endorse them.’’

Sarwara said that they backed the Congress in the 2009 election and later endorsed the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. “It is wrong to say that we switched to the BJP because we wanted the government to go easy on our leader [Ram Rahim] in the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] cases [he faced],’’ said Sarwara. “We did it because we felt the BJP was more moral and less maasahar [meat-eating] than the Congress,’’ he said.

Anshul Chattrapati, the son of the journalist who Ram Rahim has been convicted of murdering, said that the Dera went with the BJP because they were arm twisted and threatened with the CBI cases. “Right now, they are in the process of negotiating deals with all parties. They will shortly announce who they will support,” he said.

Sarwara said that they decide the endorsement a day or two before polling and then convey it to their followers through their network.

The influence of the Dera may be waning but few are willing to underestimate it just yet. “They have a full list of those followers who stopped coming after Ram Rahim went to jail,’’ said Chattrapati, “Their block representatives pressurised them by saying they would be cursed if they did not come back or they would cajole them by telling them that the CBI case was just a way of politicians to take away power from their beloved leader or that he is in jail just to help the followers who really need him. So in that way, they managed to get back many of their original followers,” he said.

Anurag Tripathi, who has authored a book on the Dera, said that the sect’s influence may have reduced but it is still something to reckon with. “Dera followers, in certain pockets of Haryana, can swing the fortunes of a particular political party. No wonder, from the BJP to Congress and regional players, all parties are approaching them...” he said.

Ashok Tanwar, a former Congress Parliament member from Sirsa, said that the Dera remains socially and politically influential across Haryana. “Their matter is in court but their influence cannot be ignored,’’ said Tanwar.

Rampal Insaan and other members of the Dera’s political wing and the BJP leaders refused to comment on the sect’s influence.

Bharat Singh, a Dera follower who runs a snack shop outside the sect’s headquarters, said that the visitors there have reduced but they still get around 1,500 daily. Hymns are sung daily to the pitaji and Ram Rahim’s sermons are shown on a screen projector between 4 to 5 pm. On Sundays, a two-hour extended session called shabdwani is held from 11 am for up to 5,000 visitors.

On Saturday, Dera followers, including kids, arrived at the headquarters on buses and autos. Gate number 2 at the headquarters is meant for women and number 1 for men. Wary of the media over its coverage of the 2017 violence, no cameras, phones or any kind of recording devices are allowed inside the headquarters. Visitors are allowed inside the headquarters after rounds of frisking.

Shweta Insaan, 36, a follower who has taken the sect’s surname denoting she has given up her caste identity, said that she was at the headquarters for her monthly visit along with her 11-year-old son. She said that sometimes her husband tags along. “I do not look to him [Ram Rahim] for who I should vote for. I do not care about that,’’ she said. When asked if Ram Rahim’s incarceration made any difference, she added: “...there he is in front of me on the stage where he always was.’’

(With inputs from Bhaskar Chatterjee)