The crowd of policemen outside the dera on the Patiala-Sangrur road gave away the fact that it was not as serene as it appeared to be. Mounted on a police van was a CCTV camera that recorded visitors as they trickled in to pay obeisance to the man alternately referred to as Sant or Baba ji.
Inside the 34-acre headquarters of Sant Dhadrianwale, 33, who survived an attack in which one of his followers was killed, the words of the Gurbani were being chanted.
“The crowds came in their thousands after the attack but now the number has gone down. They will be here in full strength on June 4 when the sant addresses his first major gathering after the attack,” said an intelligence wing official.
The centrepiece of the complex is a large gurdwara, which can be seen from the main road and obscures other buildings from view, owing to the funnel shape of the complex.
The dera is a stopover for hundreds of truckers who ply on the Bathinda-Patiala-Delhi road. Langar is served round the clock in a hall behind the gurdwara that can accommodate 10,000 people at one time. The administrative offices of the dera have CCTV monitors on which sewadars monitor the complex. Most rooms are air-conditioned.
Dhadrianwale meets visitors in a large carpeted hall. A chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Kuldeep Singh, a close aide, said this is where young students are taught the Guru Granth Sahib.
“He lives alone on the complex. His father and brother are farmers and have land in Dhadrian village near Longowal while the family lives in Sunam,” Kuldeep Singh said.
Dhadrianwale lives in a posh building on a sprawling compound on the complex. A temporary police picket had been set up outside the high, ornate gates and no one was let in without being frisked.
Construction is under way across the complex, through which runs a wide arterial road lined with palm trees. Kulwinder Singh, a sewadar, said a 100-bed charitable hospital is almost ready for inauguration and a building for a college on religious teachings is coming up, as is another massive building to house the crowds during sermons.
Now, this building houses vehicles that were damaged in the attack. A Scorpio in which some of his followers were travelling still has broken shards of glass inside.
A group of 20-25 youths accompanies Dhadrianwale wherever he goes. Some 10 of them reach the venue in advance while the rest follow with the preacher, Kuldeep Singh said. Dhadrianwale would travel in a convoy of three vehicles, himself in a Toyota Landcruiser between a Scorpio and a Toyota Fortuner. All three have been damaged.
Dhadrianwale said he was awaiting a replacement vehicle from his followers. “They love me a lot and volunteer to give me a comfortable vehicle for long distances. They live abroad and say these vehicles are common abroad, domestic staff use them,” he said.
Various politicians kept dropping in to express their solidarity, among them a local office-bearer of Jai Jawan Jai Kisan Party. Near the langar hall waited around 50 farmers, having already met him. Some of them were members of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Dakaunda). Their block president, Dara Singh Paharpur, said the group holds monthly meetings at the dera.
Most visitors are from Patiala, Sangrur and Bathinda and some from relatively distant Ludhiana. Nirmal Singh came from a village in Patiala and praised the sant’s work in moving people away from drugs and liquor. Bir Singh dared anyone to find even Rs 5 in the preacher’s account, saying he has built the dera from scratch — until a few years ago, it was a small gurdwara that served langar in the open. And Harjinder Singh said, “The Akalis will pay the price in the elections. People will take money from them but won’t vote for them.”