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Cults will remain as long as there’s political patronage, superstitious Indians

For as long as large sections of Indians remain superstitious and have blind faith in fraudulent dispensers of divine blessings, they will continue to grow, especially if political patronage remains forthcoming

opinion Updated: Aug 31, 2017 09:19 IST
godman,Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh,cult
There was never a dearth of sadhus in India that attracted cult following with which came vast donations and an army of followers ready to obey their every command(Manoj Dhaka/HT)

An abiding news picture of the 1980s was that of the then Lok Sabha speaker Balram Jakhar getting literally kicked on his head by a sparsely-clothed emaciated man sitting on a machan. The look of pure bliss on the face of the recipient of the kick was difficult to miss for this apparently symbolised the blessings of the machan-man.

The giver of this unusual method of blessing was an obscure godman, Deoraha baba, whose kick on a devotee’s head supposedly led to fame and fortune. The baba who suddenly shot into fame around that time was said to never descend to the ground, having vowed to live forever on a tree! While the godman’s eccentricity could be overlooked, what was astonishing was the list of his visitors — a veritable Who’s Who — men not only educated but powerful, holding important positions in government and even academia.

Perhaps the vulnerability of politicians and their unsatiated greed for power and position make them easy targets of godmen, but such babas in turn thrive on the endorsement from the high and mighty. There was never a dearth of sadhus in India that attracted cult following with which came vast donations and an army of followers ready to obey their every command.

It is however remarkable that in recent years the cult of such godmen has not only grown, but their followers have become increasingly violent, ready to confront the State and shed blood. The irony is that such cults have expanded even as India has risen to become an IT giant, sent sophisticated rockets into space and established an enviable record in science and technical education. The further irony is that persons with top qualifications from Indian and foreign universities often join such cults and use their talents to serve the nefarious designs of megalomaniacal gurus.

The tragic happenings in Panchkula and elsewhere last Friday after one such megalomaniac with a criminal mindset was convicted of rape are the latest example of the nexus between politics and fraudulent babadom. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh ran a well-oiled empire from his citadel or Dera in Sirsa where thousands of devotees believed him to be an incarnation of god. With a huge following among lower caste Hindus and Sikhs, he had politicians at his beck and call for they knew one signal from him could ensure tens of thousands of votes for their party. He had no particular ideological predilection, having played footsie with most parties in Punjab and Haryana where his support base was significant.

Not Singh alone, but various babas have been convinced of their own invincibility. This in turn often caused them to over-reach and invite their own doom. Singh, a barely literate villager, started dispensing spirituality although he led a life of ostentatious indolence and aspired to rock star status. Two films produced by him may have bombed at the box office but this failure had no impact on his cult following.

In this he was somewhat different from other cult leaders such as the one who led hundreds of his devotees to death near Mathura last year after setting up a commune of sorts from where he thought he could wage war against the State in the name of Subhas Chandra Bose.

Such cults are not to be found in India alone. Many would recall the mass suicide by devotees of a Christian cult in the United States about two decades ago. But unlike other countries from which similar instances can be cited, political patronage for cult leaders is probably unique to India.

As Indian elections become fiercely competitive and identity the major determinant of electoral choice, these cults have the capacity to barter support in exchange for official favours. Leaders of organised religious groups too are not averse to strike such deals. Political chieftains routinely make a beeline for sadhus, maulanas and padres to seek their blessings for electoral gain. In exchange, such groups are promised land allotments and protection from possible police harassment.

Smaller religious sects being more organised and disciplined are more adept at cutting such bargains. For example, a sect called the Matua, comprising mainly lower caste adherents in West Bengal and led by two rival godmothers, shoots into the news before every election. Several Muslim pirs too find political leaders knocking at their doors in the hope that they would influence followers’ voting preference.

Usually, this is how it starts. And before long ambitious babas, pirs and evangelist preachers acquire larger than life status. Some of them establish a state within a state, as in the case of Dera Sacha Sauda. By the time politicians realise and start to repent, matters go out of hand.

But will the Dera tragedy put a stop to this? Most unlikely, for as long as large sections of Indians remain superstitious and have blind faith in fraudulent dispensers of divine blessings, they will continue to grow, especially if political patronage remains forthcoming.

Chandan Mitra is editor of The Pioneer and has been two-time Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 30, 2017 15:21 IST