The Dera Sacha Sauda
Haryana (Photos: Manoj Dhaka)
ON SEPTEMBER 25th, Abhay Singh Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal tweeted about a two-year-old incident. On August 25th in 2017, the followers of Dera Sacha Sauda, a religious group with footprints in both Punjab and Haryana, went on a rampage that killed more than 40 people. Over 300 were injured. The violence was in response to the conviction of their leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh on charges of rape. Chautala, in his tweet, chose to label these protests, which involved violence and burning of public property, ‘democratic’. ‘Lakhs of people should have been spoken to and sent back,’ he tweeted in Hindi. The tweet, seemingly out of nowhere, did have a context. On September 21st, the Election Commission had announced the date for the upcoming Haryana Assembly election (October 21st) and with Chautala’s tweet it was clear that the warhorn had been sounded, particularly when it came to wooing Dera followers.
In 2014, the BJP had swept to power in Haryana, a first for the party since the formation of the state. And part of its victory, at least in certain constituencies, was attributed to Dera Sacha Sauda’s open support for the party. With over a reported million devotees, all seemingly in thrall to their charismatic leader, Ram Rahim, who also doubled as a movie star and singer, the Dera’s perceived political heft, at least in 2014, was considerable. But five years later, Chautala’s tweet notwithstanding, the story has changed dramatically.
“There was a time when nearly every household in the village had a member or two who were followers of some baba or the other. If not Ram Rahim, then Rampal; if not these two, then some other dera. But three big scandals, back-to-back, have led to disillusionment and embarrassment by association. So now the numbers have dropped drastically,” says Sunil Jaglan, a former sarpanch of Bibipur village in Jind district. The scandals he is referring to are the downfall of Rampal, another self-styled godman from Hisar, who was convicted in 2018 for murder; Ram Rahim’s arrest; as well as that of another baba Amarpuri in 2018, on charges of rape. “I used to go [to the dera] but I have stopped now,” says Raghubir Singh Mistri of Bibipur. The same sentiment is echoed by Suresh Painchal as well as by Sumitra Devi, all from the same village. Only Devi, after a bit of cajoling, admits to still going for the sangats but “not with the same regularity as earlier”. Mistri says he wasn’t aware of the call of the dera to vote for the BJP in 2014 but Panchal is more forthcoming. “We were told to vote for [BJP] because they will work in our hit [favour]. For us, just the endorsement of Maharaj [Ram Rahim] was enough.” Whom does he plan to vote for now? Panchal laughs away the question, refusing to answer.
With over a reported million devotees, all seemingly in thrall to their charismatic leader, Ram Rahim, who also doubled as a movie star and singer, the Dera’s perceived political heft, at least in 2014, was considerable. But five years later, the story has changed dramatically
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Godmen and godwomen of all hues have flourished in India since time immemorial but the past few decades have seen a mushrooming of both, particularly in Punjab and Haryana. And while the concept of deras also goes back centuries, the popularity enjoyed by a few is a new development. According to various estimates, there are around 3,000 deras in north India. Ram Rahim was one of the most powerful gurus while Rampal, though not in the same league, also commanded a considerable following. Ostensibly centres of spiritual guidance, deras over the past few decades have evolved as a sort of refuge, an alternative religion for society’s most disenfranchised. Both Ram Rahim and Rampal drew the bulk of their followers from the Dalit community. This was a phenomenon that intensified after the Green Revolution as ‘the combination of mechanisation of agriculture and influx of migrant workers… [led to] a significant amount of out-migration (especially from Punjab),’ wrote economist Jayati Ghosh in Frontline, in 2017.
The mobility and remittances made Dalit groups more assertive and this in turn led to more backlash from upper castes. Dalits are almost 20 per cent of Haryana’s population and the state has consistently ranked high on the list of caste atrocities. Deras provided a safe ground, free of hierarchies. Coupled with social ventures, such as de-addiction and mass marriages of the economically underprivileged, deras attracted droves of followers. “The insecurities of citizens, whether financial or societal, get reflected in different ways. For many followers of godmen in Haryana, deras stepped in where the state receded. If people are free from want or fear, then deras won’t flourish,” says Rajeev Godara of Swaraj India, a political party founded three years ago.
Since the time of Indira Gandhi, political parties and leaders have sought out godmen and dera leaders. “From votes to ensuring people for protests, godmen can serve various purposes for political parties,” says Jagmati Sangwan, a Rohtak-based political scientist. No politician has come out to condemn either Ram Rahim or Rampal in the aftermath of their convictions. In fact, Ram Rahim’s attempts to secure bail just before the General Election earlier this year, too, were met with complete silence from leaders. “For both political parties as well as godmen, it is a game of wait and watch. In the current situation, no party will openly condemn a [dera] leader, worried that it may upset voters, while deras will want to extend support to whoever eventually wins because it may help the leader secure some form of release later,” says Professor Ronki Ram from the Department of Political Science, Panjab University. Political patronage also means access to land and the ability to broker favours, which in turn attracts even more followers, especially among the wealthy who seek influence.
Ram Rahim was one of the most powerful gurus and commanded a large following. Ostensibly centres of spiritual guidance, deras over the past few decades have evolved as an alternative religion for society’s most disenfranchised. Ram Rahim drew the bulk of his followers from the Dalit community
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When contacted, a member of Dera Sacha Sauda’s political wing said they were still gathering news. “Elections are some time away. When the time is right, we will tell our followers which party to support,” he said on condition of anonymity. Rampal’s dera, which has all but been disbanded following the arrest of the godman, is also holding out the promise of declared support for a party but only in the coming days. Both are insistent that their followers will vote for the party they name but politicians aren’t really worried.
Political parties are not just banking on deras for votes. Haryana has a rich history of mutts, which may have started out as politically neutral but over the years have become actively involved. For instance, Baba Balak Nath, the eighth chief of the Nath sect, is currently the BJP’s MP from Alwar. “We get visitors from all walks of life and all political parties. But it is not up to us to tell who to vote for or declare any sort of support,” says Baba Kapil Puri of Dera Gaukaran Dham in Rohtak. It is a seat that claims to go back at least a few hundred years and the Hooda family is said to frequent the dham. Puri does seem inclined to praise the ruling government but says that his sermons are more about spirituality than politics, even as a female devotee seeks his blessings by kissing his feet. “It is all about optics when it comes to religious leaders and politics. I won’t do anything as obvious as asking the baba to seek votes on my behalf. This is a game of allusions and suggestions,” says Praveen Saini of the BJP. Saini was seeking the Rohtak ticket for himself and his Facebook page throws up his photographs with several religious leaders. “I went to Baba Kalidas of Sampla, I went to Kapil Puri also. When you are seen with these people, even if there is not open endorsement, the message goes out that you have their favour, or their blessings. But it didn’t really help in my case,” he says. In going against the sitting BJP MLA, Munish Grover, Saini’s candidature was a long shot in any case.
Dera Gaukaran Dham in Rohtak is a seat that claims to go back at least a few hundred years and the Hooda family is said to frequent the dham. Baba Kapil Puri does seem inclined to praise the ruling government but says that his sermons are more about spirituality than politics
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“When a politician comes to you seeking aashirwad [blessings], it is a key word for seeking patronage. Whether that comes in the form of an open call for votes on your behalf or tacit support is entirely up to the individual,” says a baba associated with the Bhagwat Bhakti Ashram in Jind, requesting anonymity. He dismisses godmen like Ram Rahim and Rampal as “swayambhu sant” (self-declared saints) but admits that in the last election, the former did play an important role. “There is no denying that in certain constituencies [Ram Rahim] holds a lot of sway but he had also declared support for the Congress in the 2007 Assembly polls in Punjab and they did not win that election; so it’s also about the mood on the ground.” In the current run-up, however, he does not anticipate any influence. “The situation is tense, the people are disillusioned, especially with their guru. So even a call to vote for a particular party is not going to be heeded across the board.”
There are even deras like Radha Soami Satsang that stay as politically neutral as possible, in spite of patronage from film stars, industrialists and politicians. “Elections are fought over issues like development, education, water, electricity. This time round, there is no chatter about Ram Rahim or people like him, who are basically conmen,” says Anand Singh Dangi, the Congress Member of Legislative Assembly from Meham. According to him, there is a sense of disillusionment among the people following the sordid revelations about the personal lives of these godmen after the arrests. Dangi is an old-school politician who frowns at open cultivation of favour between godmen and politicians, saying that no one ever goes because of faith. Interestingly, Ashok Tanwar, who recently resigned as the Haryana Congress chief, had gone to Dera Sacha Sauda in May, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. Tanwar was contesting from Sirsa, a Dera stronghold, and had denied that his visit had anything to do with seeking votes. He lost the election.
The Haryana election results will be declared on October 24th. In the absence of a strong opposition and the Modi wave still strong, the BJP seems comfortably poised for a second term. And this time, the godman, with his reputation in tatters and his flock dispersed, can only pray for a favourable turn of fortune for himself.