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How Deras and politicians fed off each other

The story of the deras is what historians term as ‘history told from below.’ What distinguishes the narrative from traditional working class history is the reliance on experiences and perspectives arising out of exclusion from Sikhism’s established institutions.

opinion Updated: Sep 01, 2017 15:01 IST
Vinod Sharma
The Dera Sacha Sauda headquarters in Sirsa
The Dera Sacha Sauda headquarters in Sirsa (PTI)

Babas grow like weeds in our country; the manure being illiteracy, societal prejudice, regimentation of religions and the State’s failure to serve its needy citizenry.

The manipulators are an amorphous mix: politicos, civil servants and businessmen in cahoots with charlatans masquerading as God’s men and women. Some self-styled yogis, bapus and sants get away pretending to be bhagwans.

Theirs is an interdependent, mutually beneficial ecosystem. The politician feeds on the baba’s captive constituency; the latter flaunts his disciple’s clout to build a network of influence in business and bureaucracy.

That sets up a platform for society’s flotsam and jetsam to get their space under the sun. In social justice terms, godmen play for them the role abandoned by the State. The deras are veritable governments, running hospitals, schools, colleges and in some cases even cinema theatres, to which devotees have easy access without much cost.

The dynamics are a variant of the right to association and collective bargaining – with scope for aggression as was evident in Haryana. The egalitarian halo the dera seeks has two objectives: expand the mass of committed followers besides securing a respectable veneer for the helmsman’s caprice. That includes mind-gaming devotees into debauchery--- like Gurmeet Singh’s coercive dalliances packaged as “pitaji ki maafi” at his Sirsa hub. Or the manner in which Rampal Maharaj, a Kabir panthi in conflict with the Arya Samaj, used his devotees as human shields against the Haryana police.

This is not to suggest that all deras are bad. There are honourable exceptions such as the largely apolitical Radha Soami Satsang at Beas. Founded way back in the 19th century, the congregation has stayed the course of spiritual development, desisting political temptations unlike the excessively vagrant Sachcha Sauda.

Baba Gurmeet has flirted in recent years with political parties ranging from the Akali Dal to the Congress, BJP and OP Chautala’s INLD in Punjab and Haryana. But his foremost political inamorato, so to speak, was Parkash Singh Badal.

There was an element of extreme irony about Badal’s overtures to Gurmeet. For the Sacha Sauda was created in 1948 in reaction to the Jat-Sikh domination of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee that the Akalis have forever treated as their beachhead in the domain of faith. Put in place in 1925, the SGPC has a ₹1000 crore budget.

The Sirsa dera impresario’s support base comprised subaltern groups alienated and angered by the combative Jats who constituted the core of INLD and the Akali Dal. He was the holder and deliverer of non-Jat votes for suitors from all parties, including the Congress and the BJP.

In that sense, deaths in street violence after Gurmeet’s conviction for rape are a blow in Haryana to the BJP regime led by ML Khattar who isn’t a Jat. On his watch, the non-Jat population also bore the brunt of violence last year when Jats went on the rampage demanding reservation.

Punjab and Haryana were one state till late after the country gained independence. The post-1947 rise of religious sects, or deras was a reaction, in fact, to exclusive religious hierarchies. The people among whom they found traction had been pushed to the fringes by social elites even as the Sikh clergy failed to strike a balance between the spiritual and the political.

In fact, the story of the deras is what historians term as ‘history told from below.’ What distinguishes the narrative from traditional working class history is the reliance on people’s experiences and perspectives arising out of exclusion from Sikhism’s established institutions.

Another manifestation of rebellion against the existing order is the Dalit-centric Dera Sachkhand Balan, near Jalandhar. Its followers, known as Ravidassias have their own places of worship in the name of Ravi Das, a 15th century mystic and social reformer who is revered in Sikh scriptures.

The Ravidassias are Punjab’s Jatavs. The scheduled castes, including the mazhbi (scavenger) Sikhs, constitute nearly one-third of the state’s population. They originally had renounced Hinduism to convert to Sikhism for its all-embracing appeal that’s now on the wane.

Their tactical distancing from the SGPC despite their belief in the Granth Sahib should worry the clergy. The antidote to such trends is reform in the administration of Sikhism — with the singular purpose of reverting it to its spiritual moorings in Guru Nanak’s message of social accord— and equality.

.vinodsharma@hindustantimes.com