He croons about love, he rocks, he acts, he displays ‘Guinness records’, he sees himself as a ‘social reformer’. this time, he has also backed the winning BJP. VARINDER BHATIA on the rise and spread of Dera Sacha Sauda’s Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh
He may have played a small part in the BJP’s record victory in Haryana in the recent Assembly elections, but Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has been preoccupied with a few other records lately. Thank U for that, Network Tere Love Ka, Chashma Yaar Ka, Insan, Lov Rabb Se and, the newest, Highway Love Charger, are the six music albums he has churned out recently. They include songs such as Lov, Drug-Nasha, Atom bomb, Charge me, Bhrashtachaar, Dhol mahiya, Seene se laga ke, Dil, Tu saans, Love charger, Cham cham, and Matthiyaan gulgule — all composed and sung by him.
The election-eve meeting he had with 40 BJP legislators, paraded to his office by party leader Kailash Vijayvargiya, was just an interlude. The head of the growing Dera Sacha Sauda sect, based in Sirsa, is currently shooting for a Bollywood film, his first, called MSG — The True Wonder Revolutionary. The 47-year-old is the lead of the film, has composed and sung all the nine songs in it, as well as performed each of his stunts “himself”. The poster of the film, due to be released in January, has the Baba on a Harley Davidson-lookalike motorcycle, in his trademark costume, driving through an indeterminate desert. The ‘MSG’ stands for ‘Messenger of God’.
In between, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who started holding rock shows in October 2011, has been busy with them too. The Dera claims more than a lakh people attend each of these shows, including the “102nd” one held in Delhi in April.
The Dera’s website describes him as “author”, “inventor”, “agriculturist”, “scientist”, “athlete”, “multi-lingual orator”, “scholar”, “director”, “musician”, and “de-addiction specialist”, among other things, referring to him reverentially as “Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan”.
Recently, Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim took one more step towards celebrityhood: he opened a Twitter account.
Even so, the sect that was initially confined to the Punjab-Haryana area — particularly Sirsa, Fatehabad, Hisar, Sonepat, Kaithal in Haryana, and Mansa, Muktasar and Bathinda in Punjab — now has 46 ashrams across the country.
Since 1990, when Gurmeet Ram Rahim took over, the Dera has spread to , among others, Baghpat (Uttar Pradesh); Kangra (Himachal Pradesh); Delhi; Sriganganagar, Hanumangarh, Kota, Bikaner, Udaipur and Jaipur (Rajasthan); Sihor (Madhya Pradesh); Korba (Chhattisgarh); Satara (Maharashtra); Bhuj (Gujarat); Mysore (Karnataka); and Puri (Orissa).
Recently, there was a controversy over allegations that the Dera had acquired land in Kerala. Gurmeet Ram Rahim says there were talks but no land had been acquired, and they only set up ashrams where “they are invited”.
The Shah Satnam Ji Sukhchain Pur Dham in Sihor, Madhya Pradesh, came up in September 1999, and is spread over 18 acres. The 40-acre Shah Satnam Ji Moksh Pur Dham in Baikunthpur, Chhattisgarh, came up a month later. Another ashram, Shah Satnam Ji Puran Sukh in Raigad, Maharashtra, came up in 2003, followed by Sukhad Pur Dham Ashram in Satara in 2008.
The Dera also has branches abroad, in the US, Canada, the UAE, Australia and the United Kingdom.
In all, the Dera claims a following of over 5 crore people, including 25 lakh in Haryana. Enough to sit up and take note when, merely three days before polling in the state, its political wing, the Saadh Sangat Rajnitik, declared support to the BJP. This was the first time the Dera had openly declared support to any political party.
The Dera claims its 15-member political wing had received feedback from 105 blocks and district units in the state, discussed the matter thoroughly and reached a decision to support the BJP this time. More importantly, senior BJP leaders including party president Amit Shah and Union minister Sushma Swaraj, who had stakes in the Haryana election, personally met Gurmeet Ram Rahim. Subsequently, the BJP’s election in-charge in Haryana, Kailash Vijayvargiya, led 40 BJP contestants to the Dera chief and sought his support.
In Haryana, the Dera’s support is believed to matter in 18 Assembly constituencies out of the total 90. Of these, the BJP won 11, including Uchana Kalan, Tohana, Ambala City, Hisar, Narnaund, Bawani Khera (SC), Bhiwani, Shahbad (SC), Thanesar, Ladwa and Mulana (SC). In Ratia, the BJP candidate lost by a bare 452 votes. Of these seats, the BJP had only won Bhiwani the last time.
While the BJP could not win any seat in Sirsa and Fatehabad districts, the Dera’s main stronghold, the party’s vote share here showed a rise.
The BJP’s election co-in-charge in Haryana, Anil Vij, says the decision to approach the Dera was taken at the top. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at an election rally in Haryana, praised the Dera’s cleanliness initiative. A few days later, Gurmeet Ram Rahim returned the compliment. Soon after, the Dera declared its support for the party.
“Definitely, the Dera’s support played a vital role in our victory in Haryana,” Vij says, adding that it had also won the party valuable support in Maharashtra, and would pay off in Punjab as well when elections are held there.
The parties to be hurt the most were the Congress and BSP. A large chunk of the Dera’s followers come from poor and backward classes, which traditionally support the two parties.
But Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s growing clout means politicians of all kinds flocking to him for support before elections is a common sight now. In fact, the Dera was long believed to lean towards the Congress during the party’s 10-year reign in the state.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls too, several senior Congress leaders had come to him. For the party, though, things had gone too far downhill for the Dera’s support to lift its prospects, and it had won just 1 seat out of 10 in the state.
In the recent Assembly polls again, several Congress politicians, including Randeep Surjewala and Kuldeep Sharma, came to Gurmeet Ram Rahim. Both incidentally won their seats, although the Congress itself received a drubbing.
“Since it is a socio-religious organisation and has a state-wide following, politicians visit the Dera seeking its support. But candidates visit in their individual capacity,” says Haryana PCC chief Ashok Tanwar.
Asked if the Congress had approached the Dera and failed to get support this time, he refused to comment, saying they would wait “till we introspect on the reasons for our defeat”.
INLD leader Abhay Chautala alleges a clear deal in the Dera extending support to the BJP. “While the BJP has already benefited because of the Dera’s support, the BJP will pay back by relaxing the ongoing cases against its chief.”
There are several in which Gurmeet Ram Rahim could be in trouble (see box).
Dera spokesperson Aditya Insaan insists there is no design to the sect’s growing spread. “People from all across the country interact with Guruji. Wherever a need is felt, that the number of followers is increasing, land is identified and converted into an ashram. Dera premises across the country are located on areas considered wasteland. Plots considered uncultivable are converted into ashrams,” says Aditya.
While the Dera’s ashrams are generally constructed in an area varying from 10 acres to 40 acres, the Sirsa headquarters is like a township. It has shops over a 2 km-long stretch, a housing complex, a hospital, and industrial and manufacturing units, run by followers.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim himself claims no political ambitions, saying all he wants is to be a “social reformer”. The Dera Sacha Sauda lists “104 activities of social welfare”, including cleanliness, blood-donation and tree-planting drives, even as it reaches out to transgenders, sex workers, orphans, and those hit by natural disasters.
The Dera proudly flaunts 16 ‘Guiness Book of World Records’ registered in its name, including for the units of blood donated at its camps, trees planted, people checked for blood pressure, even “coins thrown up in air” towards donating Re 1 daily for humanitarian causes (“12,013 on August 15, 2011”, for the record).
A clean-up campaign is planned in Mumbai on October 28, where the Dera estimates to draw around 2 lakh people. A blood donation camp was organised on October 24 at Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre, Abu Dhabi (UAE), while another cleanliness campaign is planned on October 26 in East London.
States are divided into “functional blocks” for such Dera activities. Each block constitutes about 30 villages with approximately 5,000-6,000 followers per village.
A special team called ‘Shah Satnam Ji Green Welfare Force Wing’, comprising over 70,000 followers, has been set up by the Dera for deployment to sites of natural calamities. The volunteer force helped out during the flash floods in Uttarakhand as well as the recent floods in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Dera’s rising profile is also reflected in its chief’s list of prominent followers. According to Aditya Insaan, “Those who have met the Dera chief and learnt meditation from him include Bollywood actor Manisha Koirala, cricketers Virat Kohli, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Yusuf Pathan, Shikhar Dhawan and Praveen Kumar.” Boxer Vijender is also learnt to have taken help after he was named in the drug-trafficking controversy.
Among his other followers are Prof Jagat Narula, a famous US-based cardiologist; Dr A Satya Narain Naidu, who is well-known for his research on bone and joint health; Partha Sengupta, associate professor, cardiology, at Mount Sinai Hospital; and Dr Brijesh Arora, a renowned bone-marrow transplant specialist working with Tata Memorial.
Aditya Insaan says they don’t charge any money for teaching meditation.
Dr Sanjukta, a Ph.D scientist and a policy expert on vaccines at AIIMS, is also among the Baba’s followers. Himani Toor, a Kathak practitioner and teacher who has been a devotee of Gurmeet Ram Rahim for 18 years, says her children believe in him too. “When Modi talks of a clean India campaign, the entire media highlights it. The fact is, the Dera Sacha Sauda has been implementing it across the country for seven years. Nobody highlights it.”
The Dera has also leased its land at various places to manufacturing and industrial units. Several voluntary and welfare organisations run schools, educational institutes and hospitals in association with it.
All the land and properties are owned and managed by the Dera Sacha Sauda Sirsa Trust, of which Gurmeet Ram Rahim is the chief patron. The trust’s balance sheet for the current year showed assets worth Rs 202 crore.
The Dera chief does not officially own anything except 200 acres of “ancestral land” in Sriganganagar district of Rajasthan. Born here to a landlord father, he took over as the Dera chief soon after turning 23.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim says he was interested in helping people “since childhood”. “Even when I was a teenager, my friends and I always helped others. We would get food cooked at home and serve the needy. One day, I came to the Dera and heard the previous Guruji, Shah Satnam Singh Ji Maharaaj, speak. He told me I should stay back and serve humanity. I agreed. Though there was initial resentment from my family, they later realised I belong here.”
Their titles may not suggest the same, but the main theme of Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s music albums and songs is encouraging youth to leave drugs and parents to stop killing the girl child. With his film too, he says, he is fighting alcoholism, prostitution and female foeticide.
The Dera chief especially underlines the stunts he has done for the film. “I want to teach the youth that if, by keeping away from alcoholism and drugs, a 47-year old man can do all this, imagine the power they have at their disposal.”