It is time for the Naam Charcha, or the prayer session. In the middle of the satsang pandal ground at the Dera Sacha Sauda headquarters here, a gathering of few hundred devotees listens attentively to their guru and Dera head, Gurmeet Ram Rahim. The Dera chief talks about spirituality, mankind and god, culling quotes from Quran, Bible, Guru Granth sahib and other holy books.
Three months after Gurmeet Ram Rahim was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for raping two of his women followers, the dera head, who is lodged in Rohtak jail, is back at his headquarters, through pre-recorded lectures, now being shown on LCD screen.
The Indian Express Monday visited the Dera headquarters and found that while the Dera is no longer the hive of activity that it used to be before the conviction of its head, the devotees have slowly started returning again. Every day people arrive from nearby cities and towns and participate in the prayers.
“I came from Bhatinda today. Whatever has happened with Pitaji (dera head) has not changed my faith in him. I heard him on television and I felt as if he was in front of me,” says Jabir Singh, who says he belongs to Punjab and his family is associated with Dera since 1970s. “He (Gurmeet Ram) will come back soon and things will be normal again.”
Singh says this is his first visit after August, when Ram Rahim was convicted. “Some villagers visited on Sunday and they said everything is normal here. I decided to come,” he said.
Starting last month, devotees are gathering daily in the main ground at 3 pm to hold the Naam Charcha prayers. Besides, every Sunday’s Naam Charcha is held from 12 to 2 p.m. Last Sunday, people at the Dera said there were more devotees than they had seen in the last three months.
Before the recorded lecture is played on the LCD, a man stands up near the mike installed near the stage, and chants “Dhan-Dhan Satguru-Tera Hi Asra” and continues the verses and hold prayers.
When the man ends the prayers, all eyes shift to the LCD screen. The Dera head appears on it and his lecture starts. Ram Rahim’s pre-recorded video lectures span a vast range of earthly and spiritual matters.
At different corners inside the pandal ground, which accommodates lakhs of people at one sitting, many followers are deployed standing at attention positions. By 4.pm, the Naam charcha ends, and people slowly disperse. Followers explain what is again bringing them here.
“We gather every day to listen our Pitaji. By this way, we want to show that we still believe in him,” says another follower from Sirsa. “I am telling you today, the day he will come out, you will see find sea of people in this ground. No one can end our faith because we know our Pitaji more than anyone else”
These days though the entry to Dera is open for public, but security staff checks every follower, with a hand-held metal detector. No mobile is allowed inside the Dera. Devotees who come from faraway places stay inside the Ashram and take food in the Langer, which is operational.
There are multiple gates for entry to Dera. With improvement in station, a separate entry gate for women has reopened. “Kuch din pehley he Behnu wala gate khul gaya hai. Ahista Ahista sab theek horaha hai,” says a dera member.
But all eyes are now on the annual congregation in January, held to celebrate the birth anniversary of Shah Satnam Ji Maharaj, the founder of the religious cult. Every year, lakhs of devotees come from faraway places to attend the event.
With just over a month to go, devotees at the Dera say the January congregation will be the test of how much support dera chief Gurmeet Rahim still commands among his followers. The dera management has already revived some activities for the public. From 13th to 15th December, 2017, the Dera has announced a free Eye Screening Camp.
“Everyone is waiting for January. Today, devotees are coming in less number and if the management decided to organize the congregation, it will obviously indicate many things about the future of Pitaji,”says Amrik Singh, a dera follower. “It is an annual event and the followers never skip this event. This year, no one knows what will happen.”
Last year, lakhs of devotees had gathered inside the dera to celebrate. This year, said Dera spokesperson Sandeep Mishra, the management has not yet decided anything about the January event.
“The decision has to be taken by Guru Ji. We will wait for his direction and then a meeting will be called to decide if the event will be held next month,” he said.
District officials told The Indian Express that if the administration receives any kind of request from the dera management, it will be jointly discussed with different agencies before a call is taken. “We haven’t received any request from them. One month is still left for the congregation and if they plan it, we may receive the request by early next month,” said a senior administration official.
Inside the Dera, the maximum activity at present is around a small market with a handful of shops.
Dera followers run the shops and products sold are mainly from Dera’s own production.
Those running the markets believe “things are improving”. “Followers are coming now. The rush is not much, but slowly the number is increasing. Compared to last month, there more premis here today,” he told The Indian Express.
In the administration block several offices continue to remain sealed by the district administration.
“Daily someone comes from the dera management comes here to see the things. We don’t know much about who is running the entire thing now,” says a man on security duty.
The dera has not announced a successor to Ram Rahim.
What does worry followers is that the police continue to visit the dera regularly. “When I came here 10 days ago. I had to hide my locket because everyone was scared then. Today, situation is much better…alteast I am not scared to wear my locket,” says Vicky, a premi, referring to the numeral 1 that all dera followers wear around their neck.
“No one says anything now. But, police come regularly here, so we have to be more careful. They come inside sometimes and question the people. That has created a fear among followers”
Outside the vast Dera, its market outside is also back in business.
“Shops here were closed for a few days because of the restrictions here. Then when the shops opened again, they would close by 3 pm. Now, the situation is much better and they remain open till 6.pm,” says a shopkeeper.
A senior official from the Sirsa district administration told The Indian Express that they have not received any report from the intelligence agencies about any provocative speeches inside the Dera. “We are not restricting anyone to go inside because there are no such orders from anyone. Reports from the intelligence say everything is normal inside. We are keeping a watch,” he said.