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How Ram Rahim took the ladder of Punjab politics to rise in religio-business

In 1994, Ram Rahim bought 50 acres of land at Salabatpura in Punjab’s Bathinda purportedly from the money collected by disciples. This centre now has more than 100 acres.

punjab Updated: Aug 29, 2017 08:23 IST
Ravinder Vasudeva
Ravinder Vasudeva
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Ram Rahim sentence,Rohtak news,Ram Rahim latest news
Gurmeet Ram Rahim gathered followers during a time when Punjab had barely come out of militancy, and several dominated classes and Dalits were searching for social space.(HT File)

Jailed for 20 years on Tuesday in a rape case, Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) head Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s fall is as dramatic as was his rise, particularly in Punjab, the hub of his sect’s activities. Up to 1994 — besides the Sirsa headquarters in Haryana — in Punjab the dera had only one naam charcha ghar (preaching centre) of five acres at Malout in Muktsar district in 1994. That too had been set up in the time of Shah Satnam — Gurmeet’s predecessor and the second dera chief after its founder Shah Mastana — who had died in 1990 soon after handing over the ‘gaddi’ (seat).

By 2007, the DSS empire had grown to 98 centres spread over 800 acres. That was also the year that Gurmeet Ram Rahim got into crosshairs with the Sikh community after he allegedly committed blasphemy by dressing up as the tenth Sikh master, Guru Gobind Singh, at the dera’s state headquarters at Salabatpura near Bathinda. That led to clashes, and the baba never came to Punjab for any activity since. The case has, though, been cancelled by the Punjab police during the previous regime of the SAD-BJP combine.

Gurmeet had shown his talents early on, as he started expansion plans within a couple of years of taking over at the age of 23. In 1994, he bought 50 acres of land at Salabatpura purportedly from the money collected by disciples. This centre now has more than 100 acres.

“Baba disliked Malout’s geographical location as it is close to the border with Rajasthan, part of the region on the tri-junction of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. He decided to shift the dera base to Salabatpura in Rampura Phul region of Bathinda as the area was more easily accessible to followers even from Moga, Barnala, Faridkot and Mansa districts,” said a political leader who was once close to the dera. This forms the Malwa region of Punjab, largest of the three cultural divisions of the state.

He gathered followers during a time when Punjab had barely come out of militancy, and several dominated classes and Dalits were searching for social space. Soon, naam charcha ghars came up in Mansa, Barnala and Sangrur. The number was up to 20 by 2002 in Malwa alone. He still had a large following Haryana.

Boom in the Noughties

The period between 2000 and 2007 is called “golden time” by followers, when the dera chief used the ladder of politics to establish himself as a parallel power centre.

Already, by 1996, the dera had a sizeable vote bank in Malwa, and the dera head had decided to “secretly” extend his support to SAD’s Sukhbir Singh Badal when he fought the Lok Sabha poll for Faridkot seat . Sukhbir defeated Congress candidate Jagmeet Singh Brar.

Political experts in Malwa opined that this was the time when even the effluent classes, seeing the increasing political clout, started getting attracted towards DSS.

“In 1997, the dera supported SAD-BJP in the assembly polls and the alliance formed the government. Then, in 2002 Capt Amarinder Singh-led Congress formed the government and also enjoyed full support of the dera, albeit secretly,” said a Bathinda-based veteran journalist. “This sent the message fast and loud among political classes in villages that joining the dera would provide them space as well as vote bank of the suppressed classes. Apart from politicians, even administrative and police officers start visiting the dera for good postings, and this period saw many landed Jat Sikhs and rich Bania community members in prime grain-market towns of Malwa got attracted too.”

And the dera ended up with as many as 98 prayer centres by 2007. That year, he again supported the Congress which swept the Malwa region but could not form the government because of losses in Doaba and Majha.

Then the row over reported imitation of Guru Gobind Singh made followers from the Sikh community alienating themselves. Gurmeet Ram Rahim, born a Sikh, was excommunicated and boycotted by the Akal Takht, the highest Sikh temporal institution, and banned from preaching in Punjab.

However, he continued to have a say in politics, switching support as per convenience. Until law caught up with him last week in a 15-year-old case.

First Published: Aug 28, 2017 22:09 IST