It was sometime in the winter of 2009, during field work at an agribusiness farm, near Patiala, Punjab that I was struck by one common theme among the landless agricultural workers — mostly Dalits — on the field: they all, or most, had metal lockets around their necks, with a picture of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. They were followers of Dera Sacha Sauda and frequently participated in the congregations organised by the dera, as I later learnt while having an interaction with them.
While the older women and men identified themselves as “Harijans”, the younger lot, in contrast, claimed to be “Dalits”. This serendipitous encounter highlighted the transformative trajectory of the Dalits in the region, and how religion became one of the critical milestones of that transformative journey.
Sacha Sauda and the syncretic legacy
That the Dera Sacha Sauda, headquartered at Sirsa, Haryana, ironically derives its name from one of the legends from Sikh history, reflects the syncretic genesis of the group, a common feature of the region of the northwest. It is said that the father of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh faith, gave young Nanak some money to do business with honesty and integrity.
Guru Nanak went and bought lots of foods and clothes, and distributed them among the poor and hungry people. Later when his father asked what he did with the money, young Nanak replied: I did the business which is true business (Sacha Sauda).
Crass power hits too close to home.
Dera traces its history to as far back as 1948, when one Beparwah Shah Mastana from Balochistan founded it as a social and spiritual organisation. After he died in 1960, Shah Satnam Singh took over and carried the spiritual leadership of the organisation till 1990. The current incumbent of the Gaddi at the dera, in the thick of controversy at the moment, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, took over from Shah Satnam in 1991, when the latter died. Since then, the dera has expanded its base across Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and other neighbouring states.
The convicted dera chief, Gurmeet Singh, comes from a Jat Sikh family, an upper caste of the region. It is only later that he added Ram, Rahim and Insan to his name, making it Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, to perhaps create a halo of syncretism around his status as guru; more importantly to create a larger clientele of devotees in a region which has been a crucible of religious experiments and spiritual quests for centuries.
Dera phenomenon and the Dalits
The mushrooming of Deras in the northwestern region, specifically in Punjab and Haryana, is a reminder of a complex and conflicted sacred social history of the region. By one estimate, there are more than 9,000 Deras, both Sikh and non-Sikh, in about 12,000 villages of Punjab alone. The fact that Dalits constitute the major portion of dera’s base in the region speaks of a larger narrative of the region where the caste questions remained unanswered despite textual claims of egalitarianism and non-hierarchy by the mainstream religious traditions, including Sikhism.
The erstwhile untouchables and lower castes, who joined various faiths to escape the oppressive caste order of Hinduism after having waited for centuries, gradually realised that the wait was futile. Caste proved to be far more punctilious and adaptive an institution than what was expected of them. The spread of the phenomena of separate Dalit Gurudwaras in Punjab stands as tragic testimony to the collapse of the syncretic claims of the local social history.
By contrast, many of these Deras turned out to be far more inclusive and caste-neutral. More importantly, they appeared and sounded far more practical, welcoming and mundane (and not esoteric). Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s discourses, for example, largely focussed on old world wisdom, extolling the virtues of family brotherhood, respect for parents and neighbours and such.
What I found striking while attending one of such discourses in Delhi some years back was his clear distancing from anything philosophically suave and grand, like many other high-end gurus are seen doing. It appears from his videos and other material that he and his team clearly worked on their clientele profile — largely the ordinary, poor, illiterate or semi literate agri-gentry. Gradually, the rich glitterati too joined. Another interesting feature of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s samagams or congregations was the huge participation of women in it, while thousands sat patiently and quietly listening to his discourses, others worked as sevadaars.
From Baba to MSG
It is no surprise that Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s popularity was more in the poor pockets, such as the Malwa region of Punjab, for instance. These pockets of poverty not just fared dismally on economic fronts and other infrastructure, the region also saw the growing menace of drugs ruin families, especially its youth. It is understandable, therefore, as to why the dera’s social service wing emphasised drug de-addiction and organising camps for awareness so much. A huge number of people from the region gradually gravitated towards this dera, not necessarily always looking for a religious solution, but to access basic health facilities and other ordinary succour.
It will be germane to mention here that most Deras in the region do have a tradition of running Ayurveda clinics, to essentially cater to minor ailments of the visitors from the nearby villages. Then the obvious happened. Growth in numbers led to the rise of dera’s political status, and the visits of politicians, of all hues, to hobnob with the chief increased.
The dera’s profile skyrocketed, despite repeated controversies dogging the dera chief, including serious rape and murder charges. On another occasion, he was accused of blasphemy by the Sikh groups, for impersonating the 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh.
The expansion of ashrams followed across the region. Every election that the region witnessed saw Gurmeet Singh’s political clout soar high. However, the heady cocktail of political clout and economic capital inundated Gurmeet Singh, the quintessential religious entrepreneur that he is, with all kinds of ideas of innovation, which included making films, directing them, singing songs and even acting.
His films Messenger of God or MSG and “Love charger” songs bear testimony to what happens when accumulated crass power hits one’s top. Gurmeet Singh, in many senses, is a mascot, a product, a commodity of our market-mediated time – garish, loud, and yet lucrative.
God-fearing versus law-fearing
The recent violence in the aftermath of the conviction of Gurmeet Singh in a rape case by the court highlights the unfinished task of our nation-building. We are a country of a large number of god-fearing people.
Modern nation, especially as diverse and heterogeneous as ours, however, needs more law-fearing people. The tenets of secularism that our founders so assiduously nurtured need to be possessively guarded, if we have to prove the doom Sayers to our nationalist aspirations wrong.
It is in these times when these bubbles of mobocracy threaten our sense of a civilised nationhood, that we must grow beyond our political/ideological silos and uphold the preamble of the Constitution, and pledge that we the people will let the law prevail. It is good for our Gods as well, trust me. The whole festivity around Ganpati Chaturthi, you see, has been marred by this lumpenism.
Sufi-Sant traditions in our part of the world have been about renunciation, deep philosophy and life affirming messages. Instances, such as this, reduce sublime to ridiculous, the sacred meaning and message of Sacha Sauda is lost and profundity of philosophy is replaced by poverty of philosophy, besmirching a great tradition, under the stupor of money, market and material pleasure.