The conviction of the Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the controversial leader of Dera Sacha Sauda, on rape charges left a tsunami of destructive violence in its wake, initiated by his incensed followers, spanning Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and other parts of north India. The events snatch a renewed focus on the immense following that deras command, especially in Punjab and Haryana.
Deras or sects are as old as the Sikh faith itself. While their followers come from every caste, they are mainly dominated by Dalits and other backward classes. Modern Sikhism, which promised to get rid of untouchability, failed to provide that social equality in practice. The hold of casteist prejudice and hegemony sustained in spite of Sikh Gurus’ preachings against untouchability and their propagation of equality when they said ‘Ik noor te sab jag upjeya’ (the entire world is born out of one light) as few concerted efforts in that direction made it to the 20th century. Punjab has the distinction of being home to the largest proportion of scheduled castes population (29 per cent, according to 2001 census, as opposed to national average of 16 per cent) who have a negligible share in the ownership of land. Not only have the landless Dalit Sikhs been dependent on big landowning Jat farmers for farming employment, they were also treated unequally in the Jat Gurdwaras. The resulting vacuum was occupied by more traditional offshoots and by anti-Sikh deras, who provided support to these marginalised communities.
As history scholar Babusha Maingi puts it in Emergence Of The “Deras” In Punjab: its continuity and change, “By and large these deras challenged fundamentalists [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] who claim as the protagonists of Sikhism and restricted the membership of the heterogeneous Sikh groups (particularly the non-jats) in the Sikh institutions and organisations”. They were able to offer to their followers dignity, equality and belongingness which the dominant, mainstream religion couldn’t. Radha Soamis, Sacha Sauda, Nirankaris, Namdharis, Handalis, Divya Jyoti Jagaran Sansthan, Bhaniarawala and Ravidasias are among the most popular deras or sects. Some of these like evoke far stronger rejections from orthodox Sikhs than others, such as Sacha Sauda, the Nirankaris and Bhaniarawala.
“Deras like Sacha Sauda … came into the limelight in the late 60s and early 70s when Sikh institutions like the SGPC failed to address the issues being faced by the people, especially those belonging to Sikh castes and people living on the fringes,” renowned scholar Dr Darshan Singh told The Indian Express. The powerful ones, some with offices in every Punjab district and even elsewhere in India and overseas, not only challenged the monopoly of orthodox Sikhism, but also acquired political and economic interests in post-partition Punjab.
When regular people looks for support in difficult times and traditional preachers fail to communicate satisfactorily with them, the alternatives become attractive. As M Rajshekhar reports in Scroll (“Why is Punjab increasingly turning to new gurus for comfort?”), there has been a gradual increase in religiosity in Punjab hinterlands and in the number of dera followers owing to changing economic and socio-political situations, where a traditionally agricultural-based society has been running thin on old and new means of income ever since the adverse effects of Green Revolution began unfolding. According to a 2009 study conducted by Desh Sewak, a Chandigarh-based Punjabi language regional daily, there were more than 9,000 Sikh as well as non-Sikh deras in 12,000 villages of Punjab. Worship of a deified living guru, many of whom have their own holy books and their own accounts of how the world came into being, is not anathema in the non-Sikh deras.
At a time when traditional means of redressal are perceived as corrupt or out of reach, the role of the worshipped Baba goes beyond spiritual guidance to practical support (in the form of subsidised ration and medical care, for instance) for his followers. Alongside, there has been an increase in the number of sants like Sacha Sauda’s Ram Rahim and (till he was declared clinically dead) Baba Ashutosh Maharaj of Divya Jyoti Jagarant Sansthan at Nurmahal. Here is a look at a few deras, besides Sacha Sauda:
Dera Sachkhand Ballan: The Ravidasi deras are said to number around 60 (in 2009) and they wield immense influence among lower castes who turned to Sikhism. Prominent among them are Dera Sachkhand Ballan (near Jallandhar) and Dera Chak Hakim (near Pathankot), which shot to fame during the Adh Dharam period of rising Dalit consciousness. They follow the teachings of 14th century poet and Guru Ravidas who belonged to a lower caste. The Ravidasi practice of calling their Chiefs “Guru” is a sore point with the Sikhs who not only traditionally stop at 10 Gurus, Gobind Singh being the last, but also do not accept bowing before a living Guru.
A near-fatal attack on Sant Niranjan Das, the Chief of Dera Sachkhand and the death of Sant Ramanand, the deputy chief, at the hands of the Sikh assailants in Vienna, Austria on May 24, 2009 set off violence in Punjab and Haryana, which claimed two lives and destroyed assets worth thousands of crores. While Sachkhand did not openly show any political preference, after these attacks, they were not too sympathetic towards the Akali Dal. In 2010, the sect broke away from Sikhism and began calling itself Ravidasia dharam. While Ravidasias are sometimes listed as Scheduled Caste Hindus, they follow a number of Sikh practices and call their worship places gurdwara.
Sant Nirankari Mission: Looked upon by many mainstream Sikhs as a heretic cult, the Nirankari mission was founded by Baba Buta Singh, a member of the Nirankari movement (two not to be confused as one), as an independent spiritual movement. The Nirankaris claim to be a secular, spiritual sect, unaffiliated with any religion, and deny that Sikhs have any authority over them. In support they claim that only a small number of their followers were originally Sikh and that the remaining Nirankaris come from other religions. The mission, headquartered in Delhi, has a large network of institutions in Punjab, Maharashtra and elsewhere, and also followers in foreign countries. Baba Hardev Singh, the present leader of this dera, died last year in a car accident in Toronto.
There had been violent clashes between the radical Sikhs and Nirankaris in the seventies. Upon a push from Sikh radicals, the Akal Takht, the highest Sikh religious body, released an edict or hukamnama in 1978, directing the Khalsa Panth (fraternity of Sikhs) to sever all worldly relations with those Sikhs who were a part of the Nirankari organisation, which it considered referred to as ‘enemy of dharma and Sikhism’. This excommunication created several complications for the governments in Punjab and Delhi around that sensitive time of insurgency.
Baba Ashutosh Maharaj: Founder of Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan (DJJS), a non-profit spiritual organisation, Ashutosh Maharaj was born as Mahesh Kumar Jha in 1946 in Madhubani district of Bihar. Amid controversy over its preachings, the dera’s programmes were banned for some time in the 1990s by then CM Amarinder Singh. On January 29, 2014, Ashutosh Maharaj suffered a heart attack and was declared clinically dead by a team of doctors. His followers however believe him to be “spiritually alive” or in a state of deep meditation and have preserved his body in a freezer, which they refer to as his samadhi. DJJS has 36 centres in Punjab and 109 centres elsewhere, including a few abroad.
Baba Piara Singh Bhaniara: Founder of the Bhaniarawala dera — a breakaway sect — based in Ropar district in 1990, Bhaniara had been a low level employee in a sericulture farm of the Punjab Horticultural department when he claimed to be a spiritually enlightened Guru and gathered a large following, numbering from anywhere between 20,000 to 6,00,000. He made it to the hit list of radical Sikhs since 2001 after he was said to have asked his followers to stop praying from the Guru Granth Sahib. Known for his social work, his followers, majority of them Dalits, believe him to be a ‘miracle healer’. Senior Congress Party leader Buta Singh visited Bhaniarawala several times between 1985 and 1995 seeking improvement in the health of his ailing wife, though he later distanced himself from the Baba. Bhaniara was arrested by the government in October 2001 for hurting religious sentiments after he published his book, Bhavsagar Granth, describing his miracles among other things.
“One of the lasting ironies of most successful religions,” notes IAS officer Meeta Rajivlochan in her 2007 paper Caste and Religion in Punjab, “is that they address themselves to universal values and goodness. Yet, there is a strong element of exclusionism within them that separates one religion from the other.” This is especially practiced by those adherents of the religion who may go against its universal tenets in the name of upholding its core values. The problem of deras and sects is one in which those excluded also claim to be as true as the dominant religion itself.