Even as the conviction of Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in a rape case led to violence in Panchkula that killed 36, at the Khopoli branch of the Dera Sacha Sauda, the situation remains under control, albeit under police patrol.
Along the scenic old Mumbai-Pune Highway, a police van waits outside the Dera Sacha Sauda Khopoli branch, with the door fastened from the inside. The entry to the building has been closed. “No one is allowed inside. So far, things have been peaceful here and we do not want anyone to get in and disrupt the peace. We have been requesting followers of the Dera not to get into the premises for these few days. Once things are peaceful, they can get in. So far, they have been cooperative and there has been no problem,” a senior police officer said.
As per the local Khalapur police, there are not more than 15-20 people inside the centre currently. “Our men have been talking to the Dera office-bearers here and everything is under control,” the officer said. Khalapur police station in-charge J A Shaikh said, “We have nearly 25 constables and two officers who are standing guard to ensure that things are under control.”
The Dera branch – surrounded by greenery, mountains and slight fog during the monsoons – is a 32- acre property that comprises a gurudwara, a bungalow and eight rooms. Along the highway, the Dera is accompanied by a life-size cutout of godman Nirankari Baba, one hand aloft blessing the motorists.
The Dera has two branches in Maharashtra, one at Khopoli and the other at Phaltan in Satara. At the branch off the old Mumbai-Pune Highway, apart from structures, the enclosure surrounded by a 10-foot wall has land on which Dera followers carry out farming and rear cattle.
“Farming and milking the cows form part of the seva that the followers are expected to do, apart from singing the bhajans. The yield is then sold in the market and the money earned is used to prepare meals,” a local said.
Another local added, “Things have, however, changed over the past few years. Earlier, there were around 200 cows, but now there are hardly a few left. Since the last few years, majority of the resources to this branch are sent from the head office in Haryana.”
As per an employee at Malvani Mejwani, a small restaurant adjacent to the Dera, there are three full-time office-bearers who are present all the time. “Apart from that, every few weeks, there is a bus full of people, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, who come to the Dera for seva. They will be here anywhere for a week to a month or a few months. Visitors keep coming and going,” the waiter said.
The waiter has a way to get an estimate of the number of people present at any given time. “On most days, they give us the extra milk that is not used or sold out. However, when there is a large crowd of people at the Dera, they keep it for themselves,” the employee said. Over the last few days, he said, they have not been providing the extra milk.
As per local police, the Dera chief normally visits the centre once a year and had last come to the Khopoli centre in 2016 for a day. “When he comes, there is a band of at least 250 followers who accompany him. Since he had Z-plus security, four men from the local police station would accompany him whenever he came,” an officer said.
Banta Singh, the office-bearer who heads the Khopoli branch, had switched off both his mobile numbers on Sunday. A local said, “We hear he has gone to his village.”