The failure of the Manohar Lal Khattar government to contain the violence that rocked Haryana on August 25, in the aftermath of a court pronouncing Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh guilty of rape, once again tells us of what happens when the modern state withers away. There are three layers that are noteworthy.
The most visible layer is represented by the stone-pelting rioters, unwitting pawns moved around by social forces larger than them. Arriving at Panchkula in the thousands, with family and friends, their logistics taken care of by middle-rung leaders of the Baba’s dera, they were part of a design of whose objective they were unaware. A few loose-talking devotees, of course, indulged in some bombastic talk about tearing India asunder were their revered spiritual leader to be sent to jail on charges of rape.
In the second layer, complicit with the rioters, are the so-called leaders of society — like Haryana Education Minister Ram Bilas Sharma, who explained on the record, that “Section 144 cannot be imposed on faith”. Please do not misunderstand. The minister was not privileging the stone-pelter’s emotional connect with the Baba. For, about that he cares little. Rather, Sharma was implicitly signalling to that man in the corner, holding a bottle of petrol, that no harm will come for burning a few cars or worse. Could the minister have been colluding with the bottle-holder? That is for you to decide.
A much deeper layer is made up of the spiritual content offered by the dera. It is a matter of fact that dera followers find attractive the whacky spiritualism peddled by Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim. Millions went to watch the film, MSG (Messenger of God), featuring his antics as a super human. They unquestioningly accept his claims of extraordinary capabilities. But, this spirituality is just a front for something very real and very positive that the dera offers to its followers. Dignity, social support, medical help, and food security. These are precisely the things that the modern Indian state — at least in its Haryana/Punjab version — refuses to offer to the people.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s dera is just one of the ten more visible deras in north-west India. There are over 3,000 deras here, each providing the same services to the people — health guidance, de-addiction support, with a lot of dignity and all of it laced with a quirky spiritualism. Studies done by Paramjit S. Judge, Ronki Ram, me and our students have documented this aspect of dera culture in Punjab. People feel emotionally attached to the guru for providing them solace. But then a search for meaning and solace takes people to strange places and persons. Some sit by the river at Varanasi for solace and some join the shakha of a cultural organisation. There is no reason for anyone to sneer at any of the personalised solace-seeking strategies.
The simple fact is, the strands connecting the believers with the Baba are multifarious, visible, and tenacious. They are stronger than the strands that connect the people to the uncaring, distant, and seemingly unjust, Indian state. The deras here seem to go beyond providing people with mental succour and start providing those services that should have been given by the state.
The Indian state is one of a kind. Oppressive as it is on occasion, it is unique in its persistent refusal to assert its authority in a routine manner, in a lawful and humane way against rule-breakers and those planning to challenge its authority. The most visible manifestation of this is in the reluctance of governments in India, cutting across political parties, to exercise the authority of the state except when it is politically convenient for those currently in power. State authority is seldom exercised as a matter of routine.
The situation is so serious today that many senior bureaucrats even express astonishment when asked of why they are not working towards creating effective, easy to implement, people-friendly regulatory mechanisms for issues that concern the people like education, health, food quality, housing, real estate.
There is a certain simple-mindedness visible here. Chief Minister Khattar, and Minister Sharma, for example, pointed out that, everything notwithstanding, the followers of the Baba have done good work on a variety of government campaigns and had even promised peace and quiet. A similar promise of peace and quiet had been made by another chief minister in December 1992 just before the mob assembled to demolish the Babri Masjid and push India into a grave spiral of violence.
That dera followers were assembling in the thousands, with rations and equipment, to witness their revered one being humiliated did not seem to alert the authorities of the state to the possibility of large-scale mischief. Rather, they gave categorical assurances to an alarmed High Court that everything was okay.
But that, too, is at one with the general condition of the state in India. Since the state hardly works normally, it is impossible to make it function on special occasions, like when a 15-year-old rape case is finally reaching a verdict. Fifteen years? It took that long to decide upon a rape charge? This itself is an indicator of a dysfunctional state system marked by a dysfunctional system of justice.
The Law Ministry (2016) tells us that this is to be expected given that there are only 18 judges per million population, while the Law Commission (1987) had recommended a minimum of 50 judges per million. No wonder a hard-pressed people reach out to deras and babas and panchayats to provide them a semblance of justice since the state refuses to improve its systems of delivery.
To make matters worse, the foot soldiers of justice, the police, over-worked, understaffed, and politically compromised, simply do not have the capabilities to ensure that the authority of the state is asserted routinely, regularly, justly and without rancour.
To expect this police force to suddenly exercise the authority of the state against those resorting to violence because their emotions are hurt does amount to asking it to do something beyond its proven abilities.