On the Dera Sacha Sauda Episode

Inderjit Singh

“I salute this land of deras” – this is how Narendra Modi started his address to an election rally in Sirsa in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. And his opening sentence in another election rally in Jind during the campaign was: “I salute this land of Khaps!” There remains no doubt about the complicity of the BJP government in Haryana after the orgy of arson and violence following the August 25 conviction, by a Panchkula-based special CBI court, of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet alias Ram Rahim for rape of his two followers. The dera chief had already been charge-sheeted by the court for rape and murder when the prime minister was saluting the “land of deras”!

38 lost their lives in the August 25 violence. Most of them were poor ordinary people who must have believed that their guru was an eternal god and how could he commit such a crime. The Punjab and Haryana High Court had in 2002 ordered a CBI probe on an anonymous letter by a ‘sadhvi’ (female follower), who resided in a hostel located on the sprawling premises of Dera Sacha Sauda in Sirsa. She had addressed her letter to the then prime minister, and sent a copy to the High Court chief justice, complaining against her sexual exploitation by the dera chief. Jagmati Sangwan, who was the Haryana state president of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti (AIDWA) at that time also received a copy of this letter. Describing the heinous atrocity perpetrated on her, the woman wrote: “I asked the baba if this was a deed of the khuda?”

Following the publication of this letter in a local newspaper, its editor Ramchandra Chhatrapati, a courageous young journalist and progressive writer, was shot dead. The two accused, who shot at Chhatrapati on October 24, 2002, confessed before the police that the dera manager had given them firearms and sent them to kill Chhatrapati. Chhatrapati died on November 21, 2002. People associated with the dera also vandalised photostat shops in Rori, Ratia and Fatehabad towns and beat up the shopkeepers saying they had circulated among the people copies of the letter by ‘sadhvis’.

Even though the ‘sadhvis’, who wrote the letter, had left the dera, they kept getting threats to their lives and the brother of one of these two women, was killed on July 10, 2002. The two murder cases are pending in the special CBI court.

Just a few days before the conviction, Haryana education minister Rambilas Sharma went to Sirsa, procrastinated before the dera chief and gave him a government grant of Rs 51 lakh. Earlier to this, health minister Anil Vij went there and gave Rs 50 lakh to the dera from the public exchequer.

No one needs to be surprised at the statements by Rambilas Sharma that “Section 144 has not been imposed for the dera followers”. Anil Jain, the Haryana in-charge of the BJP, asked the media if it was a small achievement that the ‘baba’ (‘saint’) appeared in the court due to efforts of the BJP government!

 

COMPLICITY OF THE GOVERNMENT

Some people say that it has been a failure of the Khattar government in stopping violence. In reality, it was not a failure but an act of complicity of the government. The Punjab and Haryana High Court has put forth this fact quite well by describing it as collusion between the state government and the rioters. The reality is all that happened, including the violence, was exactly the way the BJP and its government wanted. Half-a-dozen cabinet ministers have unhesitatingly said that the anger of the dera followers was natural! This is, in fact, the Hindutva model of the BJP, all the features of which have been exposed once again. Mixing politics with religion, the political exploitation of blind faith, taking the shield of mobocracy, silencing voices including that of the media with violence and murder etc, were exhibited in the present instance exactly the way these were seen in demolition of the Babri Masjid. Khattar has no right to continue as chief minister in view of the remarks by the High Court and the misdeeds of his government.

The so-called ‘baba’ has now been convicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail -- 10 years each for rape of two women that will run consecutively, thanks to many factors including the martyrdom of Chhatrapati, the unprecedented bravery demonstrated by the ‘sadhvis’ over a period of 15 years until now and efforts by the Janwadi Mahila Samiti and other mass organisations. After this, the conviction of the ‘baba’ seems certain in the ongoing cases of murders of Chhatrapati and the woman’s brother. For many of his followers, now the image of him being a miraculous man and a superman must have been dented, an image that he lately cultivated of himself by making a few films.

The BJP government of Haryana cannot escape its responsibility for the way it has assaulted the interests of the people of the state for its narrow political interests in the Rampal episode in 2014, during the Jat reservation agitation last year and now in the Ram Rahim episode. However, there is a deeper question before all of us as well. The question is after all what are the circumstances that make way for flourishing of such ‘babas’ and ‘saints’ and for establishment of the parallel political authority despite their repeated exposures? The foremost factor is the public itself who comes under their influence in millions.

After all, who are the millions of men and women with blind devotion and superstition in the deras and ‘babas’, often described in the media merely as followers or devotees? Which social communities they belong to? What are the economic, social and cultural factors that consigned these people to the shelter of deras, ‘babas’, ‘saints’, etc? In the present times, these very people can be seen elsewhere as getting mobilised into narrow identities of caste, religion and regionalism. It is an essential task for the forces of change and the democratic movement that they update analysis of all those social events and processes that deeply affect the lives of those classes and strata the organising of whom on class and social basis is a basic aim itself. Since the structure of the society encompasses complex factors of class, caste, gender, etc, hence an analysis needs be made of the nature of dynamics of these factors and the concrete forms of contradiction arising therefrom under the changing circumstances and conditions.

In the above context, let us take the case of Dera Sacha Sauda. Although this dera is said to have approximately 2,000 branches in 13 or 14 states, the dominant presence of its followers is in Sri Ganganagar and Hanumangarh districts of Rajasthan, apart from the main presence in the states of Haryana and Punjab. Gurmeet Singh succeeded Shah Satnamji as dera chief in 1990 who, in turn, had succeeded Mastana who had come from the Balochistan in 1948. Perhaps it is not a mere coincidence that the phase of neo-liberalism also started from 1990 itself.

This dera has relatively more influence in the northwestern part of Haryana. Ambala, Panchkula, Kurukshetra, Kaithal, Fatehabad, Sirsa etc are the districts that come in this category, while there is some influence in all the districts of Haryana. These districts are part of that region of the state where the Green Revolution was tried in the mid-1960s. As a result, on the one side a section amongst the peasantry emerged as neo-rich class due to surplus production in agriculture, at the same time the economic and social disparity increased between this neo-rich section and the landless people. According to an estimate made a few years ago, about 70 per cent of the followers of this Sirsa-based dera were dalits. Even though people belonging to all caste, communities are involved in it; a vast majority comes from the Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes. There are 30 per cent dalits in Punjab’s population. There are on an average 20 per cent dalits in Haryana but there is more than average dalit population and larger number of agricultural labourers in the very districts where there is higher density of the dera followers. The number of women is quite large amongst the people associated with the dera-satsangs (sect-congregations).

The economic disparity and the gross neglect of the poor strata engendered during the past three decades of neo-liberalism have further marginalised these sections economically. The social and caste oppression has increased and social justice has been almost absent. Furthermore, a widespread anxiety, which exists in other parts of the country as well, has increased in these strata that have been the victims of the agrarian crisis and unemployment. A feeling of self-awakening regarding their own life and existence has been aroused among these sections and an aspiration for alternative social affiliation has arisen out of their need for education, health, for economic relief and for self-respect and dignity. Scorned by the traditional religion and the state, these sections feel empowered vis-à-vis the domination of the privileged sections by getting mobilised, at the local level as well, with the branches of “naam charcha ghar” or ‘satsang’. Despite this feeling being howsoever imaginary, these people find a sort of security in it.

Due to the weak state of the democratic movement, while only a small part of these deprived sections certainly came in Agricultural Workers Union or other occupation-based organisations, but a large chunk of these sections got attracted towards dera-‘satsangs’ (sect-congregations) due to their economic, social and spiritual compulsions. The ordinary ‘babas’ ready with a certain base of followers started being fostered by the political parties and leaders who needed votes of their faithful devotees. As much the politics of the parties of the ruling classes kept on becoming bereft of people’s concerns, that much more this politics got dependent on religion, caste-communities and ‘babas’. Instead of the problems of livelihood and other problems getting solved by the power bestowed by the voter who considered it as one’s own supreme duty to vote at the instruction of the ‘baba’, this power made the ‘babas’ all the more powerful. This is how the religion has been commercialised, politicised and criminalised.

In the recent context, the vast empire of the Sirsa-based dera and its chief can be seen as the best illustration of the above-described process. However, it will be a big mistake and all the analysis will remain incomplete and misleading if we underestimate the one important factor mentioned in the above discussion. This is a positive factor and it is the existence of an assertion amongst the deprived sections that can be seen getting manifested repeatedly. The Talhan incident of Punjab and the Mirchpur incident of Haryana are also the illustrations of resistance against caste-repression. Most of the deras bestow “name” on their follower. These people who assume “name” are the ones whose names have so far been kept buried under their caste and gender identities. Their getting a name gives them a feel of a sort of personal identity. Moreover, one main cultural activity of the dera-‘satsangs’ is the active participation of their followers in songs and music. In their routine lives, they are deprived of this as well.

The disregard and pain of the deprived sections has increased as much as the growth of the extent of fundamentalism within the different established religions. This is a situation that they are no longer tolerating silently. The urge, determination and capacity of women and girls to make decisions concerning issues of their existence and the future and raise struggle for their rights need to be seen as a welcome factor. This assertion contains infinite energy to organise these sections in the democratic direction.

We see that instead of organising against the basic factors that are responsible for the agrarian crisis, the rich farmers try to circumvent their economic burden and instead seek to transfer this burden onto the agricultural labourers who are already in a much worse condition. The expression of such class-contradictions gets manifested in economic life as well as in social and cultural fields. The violence that erupted in Punjab in 2007 between the followers of the Gurudwara and those of the dera was apparently on the issue of Gurmeet Singh dressing up as Guru Govind Singh but there were also the class factors in it.

It is noteworthy that in Punjab and in the parts of Haryana bordering Punjab, there is a horrible existence of the social issues of caste-polarisation, criminalisation, drug-addiction, oppression of women, etc. While on the one hand, the Dera Sacha Sauda gains social legitimacy by creating an image of a social reformer through raising the issues of organising marriages of poor girls, de-addiction, medical treatment, blood donation, cleanliness drives, non-observance of caste behaviour etc., on the other hand, it stops the poor and exploited and oppressed public from organising itself from getting organised to fight for its rights by exploiting their religious and spiritual feelings and mobilises them behind the parties of the ruling classes.

Under these circumstances, we find that many a family that are associated with the democratic mass organisations are associated with deras etc as well in their social lives. Even though they are with the red flag for their economic issues, their social and spiritual affiliation remains with different types of ‘babas’ and satsangs. In this respect, from among the faults that have been identified in the tactics and narrative of our organisations, the main one is that we concentrate on economic issues alone to the neglect of social issues. It has to be kept in mind that there is a vacuum for which there is no alternative than filling that up with the renaissance and the social-cultural movement. In these very regions, there was a glorious influence of the democratic cultural movement in Punjab but during the era of extremism, the cultural movement in Punjab suffered a setback from which it has been unable to recover until now.

There are immediate and long-run tasks before the democratic movement now. In the immediate run, there ought to be efforts to bring out these millions of men and women out of the situation of confusion and blind faith. Transparency of the deras is to be ensured, land ceiling be applied to their lands, and complete security be provided to the girls and all others who had testified against the culprits. People should be mobilised against the shameful role of the BJP government. There should be action against the main culprits responsible for the violence. It is to be ensured that the culprits do not escape punishment and the innocent are not falsely implicated.

In the long-run, the social movement must be strengthened so that the movements to create awareness against superstition, illiteracy, blind faith, conservatism, casteism, communalism, etc. and for values of rationalism, reason and harmony are made an essential part of the class struggle itself.

 

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