Deras or sects are not new either to Punjab or the Sikh religion. With eyes on the January 30 polls,leaders are making a beeline for the deras where a blessing from the Guru could mean a large number of committed votes.
So,while Sikh religion does not approve of these deras and especially worshiping a Guru in physical form for the tenth Sikh Guru Guru Gobind Singh had during his lifetime declared the Guru Granth Sahib,the Sikh Holy scripture,as the only living Guru yet deras and sects in Punjab are a reality with some as old as the Sikh religion itself. While there is no statistical figure on how many deras do exactly exist in Punjab,Sikh scholars and rough estimates put the count at a whooping 9,000.
Political scientist Professor Santokh Singh says,The rise of these deras to the seat of power is primarily due to the fact that Sikh religion in its modern form did not accept the Sikhs of lower castes. This,despite the fact that the Sikh Gurus spoke against untouchability and propagated equality when they said Ik noor te sb jag upjeya (the entire world is born out of one light). So,where the Sikh religion and its leaders failed,these deras rose to fill up the vacuum where all were invited with open arms.
Dr Darshan Singh,a well-known Sikh scholar,explains: Deras like Nirmalas,Ravidasiyas and even Taksals are as old as the Sikh religion. The Taksals came up during the time of the tenth Sikh Guru,Guru Gobind Singh. While at present,commercial deras like Dera Sacha Sauda are in the limelight,such deras 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,specially those belonging to Sikh castes and people living on the fringes.
According to Dr Balkar Singh,a well-known Sikh scholar and a close associate of longest-serving SGPC president late Gurcharan Singh Tohra,dera is a place that is run by one person and he calls himself a Guru. Such institutions are spread all over the state. I remember I used to joke with Tohra sahib telling him that would he permit,there would be a dera in his name as well. And this flourishing of the derawaad happened because the SGPC became a mere administrative body and so did Akal Takht. These two institutions,which were supposed to give spiritual guidance to the Sikhs,were highly politicised and the people of Punjab turned to deras for solace, he adds.
The main deras in Punjab include Dera Sacha Sauda,Namdhari sect,Dviya Jyoti Jagriti Santhan,Radha Sqoami Satsang and others.
Four main deras
DERA SACHA SAUDA: This Haryana-based dera claims to have some four crore followers spread across Punjab,Haryana,Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. In Punjab,it holds a sway in the Malwa region and specially among the Dalit Sikhs. The dera is headed by controversial Guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh,who is facing charges of rape and murder. He is also on the hit list of radical Sikhs and earned their ire for dressing up tenth Sikh Guru,Guru Gobind Singh,in May 2009 and holding a Amrit distribution ceremony as laid down in Sikhism. The dera is said to have helped the Congress win Malwa in 2007 elections. Senior Congress leader Harminder Singh Jassi is a close relative of the dera head and is said to be a major player in the 2007 tie-up with the Congress. However,when radical Sikhs and Sikhs bodies attacked dera followers and places of worship after the imitation of Guru Gobind Singh took place,Congress which was no longer in power is said to have stayed away from protecting the dera followers. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections,the dera that had by now made peace with the Akalis,is said to have ensured that the Badal Bahu Harsimrat Kaur won the Bathinda seat while Raninder Singh son of Captain Amarinder Singh tasted a heavy defeat.
RADHA SOAMI SATSANG (BEAS): Commonly known as Dera Beas,this dera holds a sway in Daoba and Majha areas. With its first Guru,Baba Jaimal Singh ji Maharaj,the dera came into existence in 1891. At present,it has a worldwide following. Its preachings are taken from various religions and while the dera claims that it has no political affiliation,the 2012 polls seem to have changed this claim to quiet an extent. While this dera too has a large following,it has been more or less silent,But not anymore. The dera,which was once considered to be a Congress bastion,has shifted its allegiance to the Akalis this time thanks to the marriage of Bikramjit Singh Majithia brother-in-law of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. Majithias wife Ganieve Grewal,now Majithia,belongs to the family of Charan Singh former dera head. Current dera head Baba Gurinder Singh Dhillon holds Charan Singhs family in high esteem.
Dhillon had studied at the Lawerence School,Sanwar,and then Government College of Men in Chandigarh. He has worked in the area of sale in Spain and tookover the reigns of the dera in 1990. A largely peaceful sect,the Radha Soamis own considerable land across the state and even in neighbouring states of Himachal Pradesh and Haryana. Their huge deras,where the local Radha Swamis gather each Sunday for prayer meetings,can be seen in all small and big cities.
DERA SACHKHAN BALLAN: A primarily lower caste dera situated in village Ballan in Jalandhar with a dedicated Scheduled Caste following,Dera Sachkhand is a sect devoted to the teachings of Guru Ravidas a 15th century saint associated with the Bhakti Movement,whose devotional poetry is included in the Guru Granth Sahib. This dera shot to limelight in 2009 after head Sant Niranjan Das was attacked by some Sikh hardliners in Vienna. While he survived,his deputy Sant Ramanand Dass died in the attack. Angered,the dera followers,returned the Sikh holy book Guru Grantha Sahib to the SGPC as a mark of protest. This death of the Guru had triggered riots in Punjab. The Ravidas Deras of Ballan and Chak Hakim near Pathankot shot to fame during the Adh Dharam. The Dera does not openly show any political preference,though after the violence of 2009,the dera was not too sympathetic towards the Akali Dal. In 2010,it broke away from Sikhism and began calling themselves Ravidasia Dharam.
BHAINIARWALA DERA: Based in Ropar district,dera head Baba Piara Singh Bhaniarwala has been on the hit list of radical Sikhs since 2001 after he was said to have asked his followers to stop praying from Guru Granth Sahib. He was arrested in 2001 for hurting religious sentiments after he published the Bhavsagar Granth. The controversy over the granth refuses to die down. Founded in the 1990s and headed by Bhaniarawala a Class IV employee of the Punjab horticulture department who claims to be spiritually enlightened baba. Bhaniarawala is acclaimed among his followers as a miracle healer. While post 2001,he did not favour of any leader,former home minister and Governor Bihar Buta Singh was once considered to be his followers. The followers of this dera are not likely to vote for the Akali candidates whom they consider as Panthic candidates.