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'Godmen' and their frauds
Santosh K Singh
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Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. PTI File Photo
In the early 2000s, during field work at an agribusiness farm near Patiala, Punjab, I was struck by one common theme among landless agricultural workers, mostly Dalits, on the field: they all, or most, had lockets around their neck, with a picture of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. They were all followers of Dera Sacha Sauda and frequently participated in the congregations organised by the Dera. While the older women and men identified themselves as "Harijan”, the younger lot, in contrast, claimed to be "Dalits”. This serendipitous encounter highlighted the transformative trajectory of the Dalits in the region, and how religion has become critical to that transformation.

Syncretic legacy

That the Dera Sacha Sauda, headquartered at Sirsa, Haryana, ironically derives its name from one of the legends from Sikh history, reflects the syncretic genesis of the group, a common feature of the region of the north-west. It is said that the father of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh faith, gave young Nanak some money to do business with honesty and integrity. Guru Nanak bought food and clothes with the money, and distributed them among the poor and hungry people. When his father asked him what he had done with the money, young Nanak replied: "I did the business that is true business (Sacha Sauda)”.

The Dera traces its history back to 1948, when one Beparwah Shah Mastana from Baluchistan founded it as a social and spiritual organisation. After he died in 1960, Shah Satnam Singh took over as the spiritual leader of the organisation till 1990. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the Dera chief who was convicted of rape on August 25, 2017, took over from Shah Satnam in 1991, when the latter died. Since then, the Dera has expanded its base across Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and other neighbouring states.

Gurmeet Singh comes from a Jat Sikh family, an upper caste in Punjab. It is only later that he added Ram, Rahim and Insan to his name, making it Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, to create a halo of syncretism around his status as guru and to create a larger clientele of devotees in a region that has been a crucible of religious experiments and spiritual quests for centuries.

The mushrooming of Deras in the North-Western region, specifically in Punjab and Haryana, is a reminder of a complex and conflicted social history of the sacred in the region. By one estimate, there are more than 9,000 Deras, both Sikh and non-Sikh, in about 12,000 villages of Punjab alone. The fact that the Dalits constitute a major portion of the Dera’s base speaks of a larger narrative of the region where caste questions remained unanswered despite textual claims of egalitarianism and non-hierarchy by the mainstream religious traditions, including Sikhism. The erstwhile untouchables and lower castes, who joined various faiths to escape the oppressive caste order of Hinduism, after having waited for centuries, gradually realised that the wait was futile. Caste proved to be far more punctilious and adaptive an institution than expected. The spread of separate 'Dalit Gurudwaras’ in Punjab stands as tragic testimony to the collapse of the syncretic claims of the local social history.

By contrast, many of these Deras turned out to be far more inclusive and caste-neutral. More importantly they appeared and sounded far more practical, welcoming and mundane (and not esoteric). Ram Rahim Singh’s discourses, for example, largely focussed on old world wisdom, extolling the virtues of family brotherhood, respect for parents and neighbours and such. What I found striking attending one such discourse in Delhi years back was his clear distancing from anything philosophically suave and grand, unlike many other 'hi-end gurus’. It appears from his videos and other materials that he and his team clearly worked on their clientele profile - largely the ordinary, poor, illiterate or semi literate agri-gentry.

From Baba to MSG

It is no surprise that Ram Rahim’s popularity was more in the poor pockets, such as the Malwa region of Punjab. These pockets of poverty did not just fare dismally on the economic front and infrastructure, the region also saw the growing menace of drugs ruining families, especially the youth. It is understandable therefore as to why Dera’s social service wing stressed so much on drug de-addiction and organising awareness camps. A huge number of people gradually gravitated towards this Dera, not necessarily always looking for a religious solution but to access basic health facilities and other ordinary succour. It is germane to mention here that most Deras in the region have a tradition of running Ayurveda clinics, to cater to minor ailments of the visitors.

Then, the obvious happened. Growth in numbers led to the rise of Dera’s political status, and the visits of politicians of all hues, to hobnob with the chief, increased. Dera’s profile skyrocketed, despite repeated controversies dogging the Dera chief, including serious rape and murder charges.

The expansion of 'Ashrams’ followed across the region. Every election that the region witnessed saw Gurmeet Singh’s political clout soaring high. However, the heady cocktail of political clout and economic capital inundated Ram Rahim, the quintessential entrepreneur that he is, with all kinds of ideas of innovation, including making films, directing them, singing songs and even being the 'hero’. His films "Messenger of God” or MSG and "Love Charger” songs bear testimony to what happens when accumulated crass power goes into one’s head. Ram Rahim, in many senses, is a mascot, a product, a commodity of our market-mediated time - garish, loud, and yet lucrative.

The sad part is how these instances, and Ram Rahim’s conviction, reduce the sublime to the ridiculous, and the sacred meaning and message of Sacha Sauda is lost and the profundity of philosophy is replaced by the poverty of philosophy.

God-fearing vs Law-fearing

The recent violence in the aftermath of the conviction of Ram Rahim for rape by the CBI court highlights the unfinished task of our nation-building. We are a country of a large number of god-fearing people. A modern nation, especially one as diverse and heterogeneous as ours, however, needs more law-fearing people. The tenets of secularism that our founders so assiduously nurtured needs to be protected, if we have to prove the doomsayers to our nationalist aspirations wrong. It is in these times when these bubbles of mobocracy threaten our sense of a civilised nationhood that we must grow beyond our political and ideological silos and uphold the preamble of the Constitution, and pledge that we, the people, will let the law prevail. It is good for our gods as well, trust me.

(The writer is Associate Professor in Sociology at Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), and researches on the Deras of Punjab)

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