FOR all their proximity to the headquarters of the Dera Sacha Sauda in Sirsa, the villages of Nejia Khera and Shahpur Begu, located within a four-km radius of the dera premises, have no followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the sect head. The lack of dera devotees in the two villages, the residents say, stemmed from the bitterness that was the result of them being “forced” to sell their land to the sect as it expanded over the years. As per revenue records with the Sirsa administration, the dera bought up over 400 acres of agricultural land in the two villages between the 1990s and 2011.
Though they never filed an official complaint, the villagers, nearly all of them farmers, allege that they had little option but to sell their agricultural land as the dera used “various ways” to force them to give up their land. “They used to cut our tube-well supplies. What would the farmer do with his crop without any water? Besides the threat from the dera men, thousands of dera followers used to defecate in our fields and park their vehicles on our crop. The farmers here had no choice but to look for alternatives elsewhere,” says Vikram Singh, the sarpanch of Nejia Khera village. “Some were fortunate enough to have more land in the village, others took the money and bought land in other places, some as far as 14-15 kms way in Arniwal, Nirwan and Tejia Khera villages,” he adds.
Officials of the district administration admit they knew about the villagers’ plight, but also point to the lack of a formal complaint. “We too learnt about the villagers alleging that dera’s followers were made to defecate in their fields and that vehicles were being parked on standing crop, but we did not receive any formal complaint,” says Prabhjot Singh, Deputy Commissioner, Sirsa. In the 20-year period, Vikram says, 40-50 villagers in both villages sold their land, often way below market rates. “Their tactics made us accept whatever amount they gave us and look for alternate pieces of land to earn our living,” says Lahdu Ram, a resident of Nejia Khera, who says he sold 10 acres at Rs 60,000 per acre to the dera in 1993.
Bhura Singh, a resident of Shahpur Begu whose land was adjacent to the dera’s boundary wall, says he was forced to sell 12 acres at Rs 1 lakh per acre in 1995-96. “The market price of the land at that time was not less than Rs 2 lakh per acre. But I was extremely helpless and thus sold it,” he says. “There was no choice. The dera was growing stronger. It was a common belief that the dera chief was even more powerful than the state government. We even went to him and requested him to help us, but he turned a deaf ear towards us. All our requests made to the district administration also went in vain. We felt it was better to sell for whatever he was offering and and move out of the dera’s way,” says Chetan Singh of Nejia Khera, who sold 28 acres to the dera at Rs 95,000 per acre in 1996-97.
Lahdu Ram of Nejia Khera says the dera began eyeing their land when it went on an expansion spree from 1992 onwards. Villagers recall how the dera chief during one satsang (congregation) had announced that he would like the dera to be the biggest in the entire country. “That message changed our lives,” says Lahdu Ram, who sold 10 acres at Rs 60,000 per acre to the dera in 1993.
Revenue records in Sirsa bear out the villagers’ claims. When it was founded on April 29, 1948, by Mastana Balochistani, the Dera Sacha Sauda had barely 35 acres of land. By 1970, its landholding had risen to about 70 acres. For the next two decades, there was a marginal increase. It was only after incumbent Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, currently serving a 20-year sentence for rape and criminal intimidation, took over on September 23, 1990, that the expansion began. Apart from the 400 acres it owns at Shahpur Begu (population 8,000) and Nejia Khera (population 4,500), the dera’s total landholding now exceeds 953 acres.
Under Rahim, the dera raised 100-feet high walls around his personal residence — Tera Vaas — which enclosed schools, colleges, a hospital, a movie theatre, bungalows, movie studios and a resort among others. The sprawling structures, records show, were all raised without the dera getting any building plans sanctioned from the concerned authorities. “All this is now subject of inquiries that may follow after Punjab and Haryana High Court takes up this case on the next date of hearing. Since all these structures had come up in the rural area that is outside the urban municipal limits of Sirsa, no building plans were sanctioned,” says DC Prabhjot Singh.
Jai Singh, whose family sold 24 acres at Rs. 9.7 lakh per acre to the dera in 2005, recalls a time when villagers did visit the dera. “During the 1970s and 80s when Maharaj Mastanaji and Shah Satnam Singhji (Ram Rahim’s predecessors) were in the chair, we used to go to the dera occasionally . They were real saints. But ever since this man (Gurmeet Ram Rahim) took over, his intentions were very clear. We stopped going there,” Jai Singh says.
Anshul Chattarpati, the son of Ramchandra Chattarpati, who was allegedly murdered at the behest of Ram Rahim, says the farmers stood no chance against the dera. “A poor farmer does not have enough time to confront powerful people in the system. When politicians, senior police officers and revenue department officers were frequent visitors to the dera, how can a common farmer even think of lodging a complaint against the dera or its chief?” he asks.