A few years ago, a young Sikh preacher impressed the Malwa region with his rendition of the Gurbani. Word of his skills reached foreign shores and Punjabi diaspora invited him for diwans (religious congregations). Within a decade, Ranjit Singh, later Sant Dhadrianwale, won a large following and graduated from spiritual leader to aspiring reformer, a voice against the establishment.
During his congregations over the years, he has been speaking against drug addiction and alcoholism in Punjab. And he has often held political leaders and bureaucracy responsible for widespread drug addiction.
On May 17, Dhadrianwale escaped an attack on his car in Ludhiana, Another preacher of his dera, Bhupinder Singh Dhakkiwale, was shot dead. The murder trail, including the vehicles used and the suspects arrested, has led police to Damdami Taksal, the seminary in Mehta Chowk once headed by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and now by Harnam Singh Dhumma, said to be close to the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal.
Of the 14 arrested so far, at least 11 are associated with Damdami Taksal, police said. Dhumma’s personal assistant Satnam Singh is among those arrested. Two vehicles including a Scorpio have been recovered by the police; at least one of them is registered in the name of “Baba Harnam Singh of Mehta”.
Among the first politicians to reach Dhadrianwale’s dera after the attack was Sukhbir Singh Badal, deputy CM and Home Minister. Dhadrianwale accepted his promise of a fair investigation but rejected an offer of security, saying he preferred his own. He wants arms licences for his guards.
Other politicians from SAD, as well as from BJP and Congress too have visited, including Punjab PCC chief Amarinder Singh’s wife Preneet Kaur, and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose AAP is aiming to form the next government in Punjab.
“Spiritualism and politics go hand in hand in the state. Deras are known to swing votes,” said Bir Devinder Singh, veteran political leader who is based in Patiala.
The confrontation between Damdami Taksal’s Dhumma and Dhadrianwale apparently began with a comment on the way the younger preacher tied his turban. “As per the scriptures, a Sikh spiritual leader is allowed to wear only blue, white and yellow turbans. Taksal does not approve of flashy clothing,” an aide of Dhumma said about Dhadrianwale’s choice of pink and green. “He is not the product of any gurmat school. Hence he cannot be called a preacher,” said an Akali leader considered close to Dhumma.
Dhadrianwale hit back calling Dhumma a “sarkari sant” and accusing him of bypassing issues confronting the government.
Apart from flashy clothing, Dhadrianwale has caught attention also with what the following he has made. An intelligence officer told The Indian Express his congregations are attended by 50,000-60,000 people. When he goes abroad, people shower him with money.
During the protests against the Bargari Kalan sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib last October, he sought the arrests of the perpetrators. He ruffled more feathers when he led a protest march of Sikh preachers to Chandigarh against the police firing at Behbal Kalan during a sit-in against the desecration incidents.
It is not just the government and Dhumma that Dhadrianwale has confronted. He has hit out at Punjabi singer Babbu Mann and others such as Gurdas Mann for “damaging Punjab’s social fabric and values”.