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When an HT editor almost got baptised into Baba’s fold: A first-person account

Baba made an announcement that left me dumbfounded. “We have with us an ‘editor sahib’ from Chandigarh. He has asked me a few questions and I will answer them, one by one, in the presence of the entire ‘sangat (gathering)’,” he said pulling out my handwritten list of questions from his pocket

punjab Updated: Aug 29, 2017 15:27 IST
Ramesh Vinayak
Ramesh Vinayak
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Ram Rahim sentence,Rohtak news,Ram Rahim latest news
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh during one of his preaching sessions.(File Photo: Ravi S Sahani)

No other profession allows you to meet and see such a wide variety of people as journalism does. From the high and mighty to the hoi polloi, a reporter also gets a chance to meet up, close and personal all sorts of crooks, charlatans, including, of course, self-styled babas.

Now that Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is in the news, his nemesis at the altar of justice transports me back to an audience I had with the controversial and colourful self-styled godman inside his den (read dera) in Sirsa. Two things stand out in the memory chip: One, I narrowly escaped being baptised into his faith, and secondly, an interview with him on public address system!

It was April 2009. A month into the new role as editor of this newspaper, the reporter in me nudged me to follow a potential story in Sirsa. The Lok Sabha elections were round the corner. The dera, with its huge following, was seen as an X-factor in poll sweepstakes in Punjab. Casting an ominous shadow on the border state’s electoral landscape was a raging bloody conflict between the dera devouts and Sikh radicals after Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s controversial imitation of the 10th Sikh Master, Guru Gobind Singh, in 2007.

This law and order imperative had prompted the Election Commission to go in for a two-phase poll in Punjab. Despite facing three CBI cases for rape and murder and being ostracised by the Sikh clergy, the dera chief was the man of moment not just for election, but even for tenuous peace in Punjab.

SURREAL SCENE

Upon a midnight touchdown in the dera premises, I was hosted graciously by Aditya Insan, a young, smooth-talking eye surgeon who doubled as Baba’s Man Friday and spokesperson. Next morning, a view from the first-floor window revealed swarms of ‘premis’ (as the dera devout call themselves) walking into the dusty, sprawling complex for Sunday’s ‘naam charcha (spiritual discourse)’. My request for an on-the-record conversation with ‘Pita ji’ – as Ram Rahim is reverentially addressed – was granted after a lot of back and forth messaging, with two riders: submit your questions beforehand and attend the religious congregation. Sensing that the interview will happen after the discourse, I quickly jotted down questions before being escorted through the crowds and ushered to the front row of a huge pandal (tent), neatly divided in the middle into enclosures for male and female faithfuls.

The scene was surreal and surcharged. It reverberated with high-decibel devotional songs set on filmy tunes, eulogising ‘Pita ji’ and his miracles. Many a follower danced deliriously, while others clapped in frenzied symphony. The music touched a crescendo at Baba’s dramatic entry on a golf cart. For the next 45 minutes, all eyes were on the eight-foot high canopied rostrum from where a gaudily-attired godman with the trademark peacock plume in his hand spoke in Hindustani to pindrop silence of what, a while ago, was a raucous assembly.

OPEN ENCOUNTER

The moment the sermon was over, Baba made an announcement that left me dumbfounded. “We have with us an ‘editor sahib’ from Chandigarh. He has asked me a few questions and I will answer them, one by one, in the presence of the entire ‘sangat (gathering)’,” he said pulling out my handwritten list of questions from his pocket. For the next 20 minutes, he held forth on each question, some of them tough and pointed. It was the first – and since last – interview I ever got through a public address system in front of thousands of people.

The surprise was not over yet. When the crowd began dispersing, I was gently escorted to a large room where a group of men and women waited for the ‘initiation ceremony’. “Pita ji will be here soon. Will you like to be baptised?” asked a middle-aged devout, who seemed to be the master of ceremony.

Finding me nonplussed, he patronisingly reeled off a whole sheaf of boons in the life and after-life that accrue for an initiated disciple. I dodged and ducked his sugar-coated spiritual pitch with a worldly mumbo-jumbo before the Baba, gleam in his eyes, walked in to baptise and bless the new disciples. By then, Baba too had sensed my demurral. So, we briefly exchanged pleasantries before I made a hasty exit. Even for a hard-nosed hack, the encounter with the Baba of Bling was baptism by fire.

@vinayak_ramesh

First Published: Aug 28, 2017 23:52 IST