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Deras Of Dignity, Not Always Of Depravity

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By Sidharth Mishra

Let me start with a disclaimer that this article doesn’t purport to be in the defence of such acts indulged into by cult leaders which demands judicial and social reprimand. With Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of DeraSachaSauda sentenced to 20 years in jail, the narrative on the television in the 48 hours shifted to the to more ‘juicy’ tales of who would succeed Baba and inherit the financial and spiritual legacy. The incident in Panckula last Friday, which left several dead in police action stood as an evidence of the faith people had in their ‘Baba’, which raised queries in the urban drawing rooms, what made people get drawn to him in the first place.The hesitation and inhibition which ManoharLalKhattar government showed in using the iron hand against, whom some called marauders must not have been without merit and not just the simple concern for a vote bank.

The ‘marauders’ were cult followers, whose helmsman, like it or not was Ram Rahim Singh, who now is behind bars. The silver lining in the whole episode and the one two years earlier involving Rampal of SatlokDera, is that the court’s intervention has ensured no Bluestar like operation is required.
Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale is still believed to be a Sant (saint) for many and the procrastination by then Union Home Minister GianiZail Singh ensured not just physical but spiritual fortification of the followers, which included a former General Officer of the Indian Army, with their cult leader Bhindrawale. Bluestar left behind an unfortunate legacy, a bloody chapter in our history, deep wounds which tore social fabric and not to forget a large number of people dead leaving behind widows and orphaned children.
The 30-odd marauders, who fell to police bullets in Panchkula, were mostly people from the rustic background, short on education and definitely not senitised to rule of law. They too would have left behind a legacy of widowhoods and orphaned children. Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh has rightly said that the next of the kin of those dead in the police firing would not be compensated.
Punjab CM’s order behooves a man from military background but not to forget that the Captain holds a grouse against Ram Rahim Singh for not having supported him in 2007 assembly polls, which saw the return of the Akali Dal to power. DeraSachaSauda was for long wooed by the Congress leaders, as their social background of their followers, made them natural adversary of the Akali Dal, which trumpeted the needs of Jaat Sikh farming community.
Putting politics to rest for the time being, let’s come back to the business or cults and their followers. A colleague Vandana Singh in her article in Millennium Post, soon after 2014 SatlokDera episode had written that faith transcends logic as people flock to Deras of different hues, especially in the region of Haryana-Punjab.The question which that article raised was about the growing influence of the Deras, which feel emboldened to defy the law of the land.
Deras or sects are new neither to Punjab and Haryana nor to the Sikh religion. Rather it is as old as the Sikh faith itself. The history of Deras in Punjab is older than the Sikh Panth.
There is no statistical figure on how many Deras exactly exist in Punjab. But according to rough estimates given by Sikh scholars, there are more than 9,000 Sikh as well as non-Sikh Deras in 12,000 villages of Punjab. Of these, there are about 300 major Deras across Punjab and the neighbouring Haryana. Out of these almost a dozen have over one lakh devotees each. RadhaSoami (Beas), DeraSachaSauda (Sirsa), Nirankari, Namdhari, DiyaJyotiJagranSansthan (Nurmahal), DeraSantBhaniarwala (Ropar), DeraSachKhand (Ballan) are some of the prominent Deras of Punjab.
Though all these Deras have followers among every caste, yet most followers are Dalits and backward caste people, who are often economically weaker too. Punjab has been witness to the emergence of a large numbers of Deras due to prevailing inequality in social and economic order and the marginal position of the Dalits in society. This has been largely due to the fact that the Sikh religion in its modern form did not accept the people from the backward and Dalit communities. This verily explains the disharmony between the Akali Dal and DeraSachaSauda.
The denial of a respectable place to the Dalits and backward caste people in religious places and Sikh Panthcan be said to be the reason for the ever increasing numbers of Deras all over Doaba, Majha andMalwa regions of Punjab. This should also explain that these are the areas where DeraSachaSauda crossed path of influential politicians like Amrinder Singh.
Dalits constitute about 30 per cent of Punjab’s population and that happens to be the largest proportion in the country. But their political intervention till date in the politics of Punjab and Haryana is marginal. This is largely attributable to the land holding pattern in the two states. Jaat Sikh in Punjab control 60 percent of the landholdings and the Dalit and people from the backward class communities forced to work on these landholdings. Thus the agrarian society of Punjab and Haryana has never been without the undercurrent of tension between the landless agriculture labourand the landlords.
Deras over the ages have organized people from these deprived communities. Those from these communities managed to break the stranglehold and found means of livelihood elsewhere returned to fund these Deras. These wealthy cult followers, with no dependence anymore on agriculture economy, returned looking for a dignified place in agrarian society. Unfortunately it was denied to them.
In the empowerment of the Deras they found that social acceptance for which they have been yearning for. This had a cascading effect, with Dera creating micro finance structures to create traction with those who still struggled to make the two ends meet. This economic module came with its own social and spiritual makeup, which at times acquired monstrous shape in form of Rampal and Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.  
(Sidharth Mishra is Editor, Capital Khabar)

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