Ram Rahim Singh rape verdict exposes underbelly of Punjab’s 'dera culture'
At the root of it is the money: top deras roll in cash.
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Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, like many celebrities who walk into our office, had stepped in one fine afternoon. But he turned out to be a traffic-stopper. Not because he was dressed in bright yellow sequinned T-shirt and keds, but for the rifle-toting young men with long flowing hair who surrounded him, dressed all in black, including sun-glasses. If he smiled at everybody, they did not. Deadpan and inscrutable, everything about them screamed danger.
Two days after 36 people died and 269 were injured in violence following the conviction for rape of Dera Sacha Sauda chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, all eyes are on Punjab’s “dera culture” and the dangerous violence they are unleashing, within and outside their boundaries. A violence simmering just below the surface of life (just like what we saw on August 25) waiting for the next spark.
Deras have long been a quiet presence in Punjab, an off-shoot of mainstream Sikhism and largely identified with backward castes and communities. There were at least 9,000 such deras in Punjab in 2007, according to a study by political scientist and professor of Punjab University, Ronki Ram.
In the last 10 years, the number of deras and babas have grown exponentially, according to some observers. It’ll be hard to find a village which is not linked to a dera, they say.
The four main deras of significance in Punjab are the Dera Sacha Sauda based out of Sirsa in Haryana; the Radha Soami Satsang (Beas); Dera Sachkhand Ballan in Jalandhar, Bhaniarwala Dera in Ropar district and Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan in Jalandhar. Not all deras are bad: the Nath dera, Giris and Puris have never been controversial, just as the Radhe Soamis have never encouraged politicians.
Dera Sacha Sauda is one of the most prominent. Ram Rahim claims to have more than six crore followers (and, perhaps, he is not joking.)
The idea of the dera works on a feudal system of mutual obligations, in the name of god: the baba will “protect” his followers in exchange for their service. The private protection can range from promise of monetary help to day-to-day support in one’s hour of need to providing a listening ear.
They help poor people to fix their homes, tend to the elderly or the sick, give free food, education and healthcare, counsel against addiction, give one a sense of community through voluntary work.
Every election, political parties seek the support of the babas and the followers, promising political patronage in return.
In a way, the deras work as a mini welfare state for the poor, the disadvantaged, the dispossessed. Deras do not discriminate by caste or creed. Everybody at Dera Sacha Sauda has “insaan” for last name.
In exchange, members, retainers and followers are locked together tightly by vows of unflagging devotion and loyalty: from working in the dera’s farms and factories for a pittance or nothing to voting for political parties chosen by the baba.
It’s often a scary world, rife with stories of corruption and vice, prostitution and addiction, odious sexual practices and hooliganism, sophisticated weaponry and trained private militia, tragedy and death. At the root of it is the money: top deras roll in cash. Most of them are fed through NRI channels.
They also collect money (allegedly, 10 per cent of every follower’s monthly income goes to the baba). They acquire property, open companies, do business. They also engage in money laundering, it is believed.
It’s a world where word-of-mouth quid pro quo governs. To begin with, political parties. Every election, political parties seek the support of the babas and the followers, promising political patronage in return.
Dera Sacha Sauda, which opened a political affairs wing (PAW) in 2007 to advice its followers on whom to vote, has been wooed by both the BJP and the Congress in the past, with leaders visiting Ram Rahim on and off. He steadily drifted towards the BJP from 2014, openly supporting the party during the recent Haryana Assembly elections.
Signs of change
Punjab witnessed unprecedented violence between the late 1970s to the early 1990s. It took thousands of lives and created massive human suffering. A second round of violence might be coming. The signs of change are everywhere: Punjab has the highest number of arms licence holders in the country. A large number of gangs have mushroomed all across, roping in more and more youth. Dreaded gangsters operate freely.
Crime against women is rising at a fast clip. The state has recorded the highest drug-related crimes in the country. It has the highest number of people booked under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.
At the centre of this new wave are the Dalits. Punjab has the highest proportion of Dalits (32 per cent) of any Indian state. Their literacy levels have doubled in the last decade. Their incomes are rising, they are buying properties, moving into upper-caste neighbourhoods. Dalit entrepreneurs are expanding. A large percentage have migrated abroad, their linkages profoundly changing living patterns of their home area.
The Sikh gurus may have denounced the caste system, but prejudices against Dalits continue even within Sikhism: they are often barred entry into the village gurdwaras or to work in the langar community meals. There have also been waves of Dalit hate crimes, boycotts and horrific violence, around the cow. In this unsettled social environment, the deras are stepping in, gathering converts from castes that are in search of new dignity and status.
Punjab will witness much more violence, if it doesn’t clean its own backyard.