As Ram Rahim’s empire falls, thousands of people fear job loss
Thousands of people work across the Dera’s properties and thousands more get indirect employment. There are no conclusive employment figures for the Dera, which is estimated to have as many as 60 million followers.Updated: Sep 01, 2017 10:59 IST
Mithu Singh Insan’s tall frame convulsed as he dropped to his knees, covered his eyes, and let out a long, painful cry. The 72-year-old ‘Dera premi’ (follower of Dera Sacha Sauda) said he hadn’t heard anything until asked by HT if he had a survival plan following Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s 20-year imprisonment for rape.
Earlier in the day, a police officer had told him to pack up. Singh, whose family has followed the sect since the time of Mastana ji, the founder, had hoped to return.
His steady, daily wage of Rs100 working as a motor operator in a farm at the 150-acre Salabatpura Dera, the biggest estate of the sect in Punjab, has probably ended.
Only three months ago, he had taken a bus from his village in Rajasthan’s Hanumangarh district to the Salabatpura Dera. “Back home, it was becoming hard to find work as an old man,” said Singh, whose landless Dalit family — brothers, cousins, sons — works as agricultural labourers in Rajasthan.
He did what most working-class “Dera premis” across north India, a majority of whom are Dalits, do to earn their living: work at a Dera.
Thousands work across the Dera’s properties and thousands more get indirect employment. There are no conclusive employment figures for the Dera, which is estimated to have as many as 60 million followers.
Now, like thousands of other “sewadars” who work as drivers, cooks, plumbers, and carpenters at the Dera’s estates, Singh doesn’t know how he is going to get by. “Baithe rahenge. Jo likha hai, woh bhugtenge (I will sit back and suffer what is fated for me),” he said as he boarded a bus for home.
Founded in 1946, Dera Sacha Sauda’s influence as a force for social reform and humanitarian services in Punjab and Haryana has been commonly cited by followers since Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted of raping two disciples 15 years ago.
What has escaped public attention is the economic dependence of the sect’s working-class followers on the Dera’s multi-billion empire spanning residential properties, farms, factories, shops and pharmacies.
As state police units and central armed police forces swoop down on Dera’s headquarters and regional units — “evacuating”, “sanitising” and “sealing” properties in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh — it’s the future of the sect’s poorest followers that’s most at stake.
Evacuated from the Dera’s 700-acre headquarters in Sirsa on August 30 along with 500 other “Dera premis”, Balmat Singh was leaving what was his home and workplace for 17 years. A “skilled” worker by Dera’s definition, Singh, who came to Sirsa from Jind, earned Rs 11,000 a month as a driver besides free housing and meals.
Now 56 years old, he does not know if he will find work elsewhere. Squeezing into an autorickshaw arranged by the police for people to leave the Dera headquarters, he said he was “shocked” by events surrounding the sect and would not return. Satish Kumar, deputy director at public relations department of Haryana Police, told HT that around 700 followers had left the property since August 29.
Other Dera-dependents such as Sajjan Insaan, 29, who only sells MSG products launched by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh at his grocery store, are jittery too.
Sajjan, a Dalit, hasn’t opened his shop in Haryana’s Bajeka village in a week fearing trouble. Half of Bajeka’s population is Dalit, but Sajjan is still wary. He is uncertain about the future of the MSG brand, which supplies a range of products — rice, wheat, honey, pickles, noodles — to more than 200 stores in Haryana, Punjab, Delhi NCR and Rajasthan.
“The future of so many Dalit youth depends on Dera, starting with village kids who go to its schools and colleges,” he said. “I hope the situation becomes normal soon.”