ON MAY 30TH, 2002, Ramchandra Chhatrapati published an article in his Sirsa-based Hindi daily Poora Sach, a front-page story headlined ‘Dharm ke naam par kiye jaa rahe hain saadhviyon ke jeevan barbaad’ (In the name of religion, the lives of women ascetics are being ruined). It was an exposé on the rape of two female members of Dera Sacha Sauda by its chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, who, 15 years later, would be convicted by a court and awarded 20 years in prison for these crimes. The lawyer-turned-editor of the local daily continued to publish more such scathing reports, armed with documents and letters leaked by members of the ashram of the sect that put the spotlight on sleaze, sex and murders within its ‘pious’ confines.
He even carried a story on October 23rd that year, a day before two men—Nirmal and Kuldip—turned up outside his home in the Gobind Nagar area of Sirsa, the town in Haryana where the Dera is based, and fired five bullets into him just after 7:35 pm as he emerged on hearing his name being called out. One of the assailants was caught on the spot. After a preliminary treatment at a local clinic, Chhatrapati was first rushed to Pandit Bhagwat Dayal Sharma Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences (PGIMS) in Rohtak for further medical care and later shifted to Delhi’s Apollo Hospital, where he died on November 21st, aged 53.
Lekhraj Dhot, Chhatrapati’s friend and lawyer now fighting his murder case, claims one of the doctors at the Delhi hospital had told him that some strange men had barged into his cabin to say they wanted the journalist dead. While Dhot can’t cite the full name of the doctor—it was one Dr Jain, he says—the case has now reached a stage where final arguments are due to start on September 16th at the CBI court in Panchkula, Haryana, along with other murder cases against the jailed Dera godman. From Nirmal and Kuldip, the police had recovered fire-arms and a walkie-talkie. A police officer in Sirsa says a revolver used in the attack was registered in the name of one Krishan, a Dera staffer, and the walkie-talkie, too, was traced to the ashram.
Anshul, the eldest son among Chhatrapati’s four children, was 20 when his father died, and he couldn’t complete his studies since he didn’t want to shut down the newspaper his father had founded with his savings as a lawyer. “Now I am relieved after the court found [Ram Rahim] guilty of rapes. We may resume publication of the newspaper which I had to shut down in 2014 due to a financial crunch. But my first priority is to finish my BA in political science,” says the young Chhatrapati, who with his family shifted some seven years ago from the place where his father was attacked to a new home where Open is greeted by two policemen. One of them is armed with a carbine, which is ironically a ‘surplus store’ confiscated by the police from the Dera premises, now sealed off by security forces.
In Sirsa town, the long road to the new and old ashrams is patrolled by paramilitary forces and the state police after the Army took control of the place following an outbreak of violence once the CBI court found the gaudily dressed godman guilty on August 25th. Over 100,000 of Ram Rahim’s followers—who number in the millions—were estimated to have gathered in Panchkula for the verdict, and mobs went on a rampage after it was announced, attacking security personnel and setting vehicles on fire.
Speaking over the phone from his Sector 4 home in this Haryana suburb of Chandigarh, Ramandeep Singh, a businessman, tells Open that people had begun congregating there as early as the night of August 22nd. “People started pouring in, and the police managed to drive them out from sectors 1 and 2. They were led by some leaders who had organised tents for them and they were all squatting on the roads,” he says, adding that “they were also given food by volunteers. Some of them were from rural areas while others were from towns.” Singh, an eyewitness to the eruption, narrates the chronology of events on August 25th. “Around 2:40 pm, these people began to clap, perhaps assuming that their leader had been set free. And then by 3:15 pm, angry slogans began to mount and I could see some miscreants among the crowds charging at media personnel, their vehicles and at the police… When the police returned with more forces, especially the paramilitary, most of these people started attacking them, trying to break the barricades they had erected.”
Singh continues, “Shooting started not because these crowds were destroying property, but because they were extremely violent with the forces, hurling stones and attacking them with sticks. They had to fire to save themselves… I saw six bodies being dragged away in front of my eyes. The violence they unleashed couldn’t have been controlled without the use of tear gas shells and then firing.”
In Sirsa, though, the forces have taken full control, and most of the paramilitary personnel that Open spoke to have been transferred here from Kashmir. One of them says, “We came here a week ago and a search of the premises is on for arms and ammunition and various other things.”
A video that has gone viral since the search of Ram Rahim’s palatial new ashram begins with a view of embellished rooms full of furniture reminiscent of the grandiose palaces of the Romanovs of Russia or the overly ornate living room of the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. As charged, it was in his lavish gufa (cave) that Ram Rahim raped the two women who stood firm in their 15-year legal battle despite threats from powerful people. Rajesh Kumar, a Sirsa resident who has been inside the ashram, says he had begun hearing of the ‘exploits’ and lavish lifestyle of the ‘baba’ from many of his acquaintances who worked there for years.
Rajneesh, who works for an MNC in Sirsa, says that the man has done nothing for the town except make money by selling his own products. “We have gained nothing from his presence in this place. He did everything for himself, that’s all,” he says, seated in the shop of a friend next to the Shah Satnam Singh Chowk built by the Dera and named after Ram Rahim’s predecessor who had initiated him into the sect. Shah Satnam Singh was preceded by Mastana Balochistani, who founded the Dera Sacha Sauda in 1948. Shah Satnam Singh was the sect’s supreme leader after Balochistani’s death in 1960. It was in 1991 that Ram Rahim, then 24, took over.
Gurmeet Singh, who shares his name with the convicted Dera chief, is an elderly gentleman who runs a bookshop called Dingra, opposite Hotel Savera in Sirsa. “Students who come here from colleges and schools often tell me of the gundagardi of Dera Sacha Sauda [followers]. It was very bad here. Now, after his arrest, there is a sense of peace here. I was born here and I can vouch for the fact that more than 80 per cent of those inside the ashram are not locals, but armed to the teeth; they terrorised people.” He avers that “after Panchkula, the whole world knows how violent these people can get”.
Whatever the urban perception, the third-generation leader of the Dera owes his power to those felt marginalised in the spheres of politics and religion by upper castes, especially Jat Sikhs. Professor Shiv Visvanathan, the noted sociologist, feels that violence is par for the course among such groups that are treated as mere vote banks. “Unlike the upper caste-backed gurus who roam the corridors of power, these people, who are mostly Dalit, derive their power from the streets,” he says.
Dera Sacha Sauda, although headquartered in Sirsa, has significant influence in Punjab, especially in the Malwa region, besides Fatehabad in Haryana and parts of Rajasthan—the Sriganganagar and Hanumangarh districts. In general, the Dera has sway not exactly in places where Dalits form a sizeable population, but where there is Jat domination over Dalits. Even if there are pockets of exception here and there, one can spot its zones of appeal on a map by that single factor. Ironically, Ram Rahim is a Jat Sikh by birth.
Disaffection among Dalits runs deep in large belts of north India. Observes Professor Robin Bannerman Jeffrey, who has studied conflicts in Punjab for decades and is the author of What’s Happening to India?: Punjab, Ethnic Conflict, Mrs Gandhi’s Death and the Test for Federalism: “Nearly a third of the population in Punjab is Scheduled Caste. The state has had remarkable Green Revolution success a generation ago and that has gone sour, and Punjab has its vast overseas/NRI connections. Coupled with a not-very-effective primary education system, there seem to be a lot of ingredients for disaffection, perceptions of injustice and the hunger for someone or something that offers solace and meaning.”
The conviction of Ram Rahim comes after a prolonged churn of stratified relations in the region, by virtue of which new sects have acquired social power and political influence. Often led by persons belonging to privileged castes, several deras have been started by ‘religious entrepreneurs’ who have found space in Punjab’s polarised caste equations. Unlike other parts of India where caste conflict often takes a violent form over a fight for resources, in Punjab the battle is for a share in the control of religious and other institutions. Two factors distinguish this from what happens, say, in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. For one, as compared to other states, the rate of poverty and destitution in Punjab is much lower. Two, Punjab also has a higher proportion of Dalits than any other state in India.
These factors, however, have not made life any easier for Dalits. Large numbers of them identify themselves as Sikh, followers of a faith that in theory abjures any caste hierarchy, but in reality they have found it hard to acquire a ‘managerial’ stake in religious institutions despite their numbers. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex organisation that manages Sikh temples, is dominated by Jat Sikhs, a group of people who have traditionally been the landlords on whose fields Dalits have toiled for generations as landless labourers.
Much of this tension has simmered for decades now. From 1947 till 1966, when Haryana was carved out of what was once a large state of Punjab, Jats were on the ascendant in terms of socio- economic heft and politics. This trend has only strengthened since. After 1966, there has been no Dalit Chief Minister of Punjab. There are a few political leaders who are Dalits, but their representation is far weaker than their numerical strength would suggest.
These divergences widened in the first decade of this century. There was a flashpoint in Talhan village of Jalandhar district in 2003. On many counts, Dalits here are better off than their counterparts in southern Punjab, and they demanded participation in the running of a shrine dedicated to a Sufi saint in the village. This led to a confrontation with Jats, violence ensued, and in the end matters came to a tenuous rest. Since then, separate gurdwaras for Dalits have been coming up with increased frequency in the state. The situation in southern Punjab—or Malwa as the region is called—is even more unfavourable to Dalits.
Unlike middle Punjab districts like Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur, where Dalits are relatively better off, in Malwa it is Jats who clearly call the shots. Since 2003, there have been sporadic incidents of violence between Jats and Dalits every year, often taking a gory turn in districts such as Moga and Faridkot. In this region, Dalits have been making an ‘exit’ from the Sikh faith. Separate gurdwaras couldn’t be set up in these parts except in isolated spots of Dalit assertion. Large numbers of these Dalits have flocked to preachers like Ram Rahim. In the past 25 years, similar sects have mushroomed across Punjab on the promise of an equitable order.
THE PROFUSION OF cults has been a pan-Indian trend. Sanjay Srivastava, a professor of Sociology at Delhi’s Institute of Economic Growth who has tracked the phenomenon for many years, feels that cults seem to catch media attention more in the case of Punjab because the gurus there tend to be wealthier. “Followers of a sect expect gurus to be materially successful, since worldly success and spiritual enlightenment are seen to be linked. So, a rich guru is seen as a better guru,” he says, “the idea that spiritual enlightenment means an ascetic way of life disappeared a long time ago. Many gurus also provide justification for being wealthy as well as spiritual (whether this is Jaggi Vasudev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Ram Rahim). In fact, most gurus provide justifications for economic inequality as they argue that one need not worry about the world, but only worry about oneself.”
Srivastava says that this trend can be observed in some sects in North America as well, particularly among sect leaders who have their own campuses, religious theme parks, TV channels and chat shows. This is true of cults created by the likes of David Koresh of the Branch Davidians cult, Jim Jones of the People’s Temple and various others in the US, and Shoko Asahara of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan who has been jailed for masterminding the 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
A scholar who is reviewing the impact of cults in India and who doesn’t want to be named (in the interest of safeguarding his ongoing research) says that godmen or cult leaders naturally tend to attract those who feel that their voices have been muzzled or their life chances thwarted. “So, for example, it is no coincidence that Baba Ramdev was so easily able to align himself temporarily with the anti-corruption movement [of Anna Hazare], because many of his followers already felt themselves to be losers with respect to corruption and securing prosperity in relation to the state and India’s recent strong growth,” he elaborates, “Similarly, it is worth noting that many of these followers are from caste and class backgrounds for whom acquiring English has been at best only partially successful. Ram Rahim and Ramdev have both managed to also create impressive physical proof of their success in the self- contained mini-towns that they have created for their followers to visit and in some cases live in [Ramdev is based in Hardwar]. As for their popularity in the Hindi belt and associated regions, my sense is that this is because it is in these areas that successive national governments—Congress, BJP, others included—have had the least success in delivering equal growth and prosperity to all.” He adds that their hardsell of the traditional over the modern is also a potent lure. “These patterns are somewhat specific to Indian godmen. But if you look carefully, you will also see that they mirror considerably the ways in which some American televangelists have marketed pseudo-scientific remedies for cancer and other illnesses. What is obviously unique is the Indian market’s predisposition to Ayurveda, which does not exist elsewhere in the same form.”
Some scholars who have watched Indian godmen wield power over politics and policy-making—the likes of Dhirendra Brahmachari and Chandraswami, among others—argue that cults and sects, unlike in India’s ancient past, pose no specific challenge to the established belief system or religious status quo. Says the researcher studying cult phenomena: “I would say that they are less a threat and more like in a symbiotic relationship with organised religion. These figures are very reliant on the general discourse of Sanatan Dharma, which has grown strong in the past 20 or 30 years. It is a generally accepted academic argument that Hinduism has historically lacked a strong central structure of authority, and I think the rise of the Sanatan Dharma phenomenon has been a response by Hindu groups to this perceived lack. This is reflective of a much larger trend towards the semiticisation of Hinduism, which has been going on since at least the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj movements—that is to say, an attempt to give them an irrefutable core of doctrine.”
Professor Srivastava agrees. He argues that these Hindu sects are supported by Hindu religious leaders. “The sects form a system of support for major religious traditions. This is why Dera Sacha Sauda was wooed by the BJP as a support base,” he says, “Sects are just another item on the food menu served up by mainstream religions. Though their followers might feel that they are able to escape some of the shortcomings of their religion [such as caste], sect leaders continue to promote more or less the same social and religious conservatism that might characterise the major religions. The former do not challenge ideas of caste, for example, as might have been done by older traditions, such as the Kabir Panthis [a community of believers with Hindu or Muslim ancestries who consider Kabir their prophet].”
Dera Sacha Sauda and other such sects have the patronage of various political parties in search of electoral gains. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s alleged soft-handling of the situation in Panchkula (at first), which has attracted the Centre’s disapproval, is seen by his critics as evidence of his being beholden to Ram Rahim for support during the last state polls. These sects also conduct a range of humanitarian programmes for education and healthcare. Many deras have set up rehab camps for drug addicts. In a state like Punjab known for high drug abuse, such acts of charity win them much popular admiration. A Chandigarh- based follower says she knows only too well how such ashrams work. She has been a follower of other sects in the region as well that have business interests in various fields, including healthcare. “Women from backward areas and underprivileged sections are much better off within the confines of their ashrams than outside in the harsh reality of the caste-obsessed countryside. But then constant harassment from within can turn people against those who claim to be their protectors. These sects, I believe, were started with a divine purpose, but later they became decadent. Power anywhere, not just in politics, corrupts. When you are an unquestioned leader, it gets much worse. This is what seems to have happened,” she says. Now she keeps a safe distance from spiritual centres. “It is not spiritual power that you see in these places, unlike in ashrams set up by the great men of yore, but only power,” says this former MNC executive. To her mind, there is a ‘Gaddafi syndrome’ at play, with godmen turning into autocrats. The dictator of Libya loved a life of wine, women and wealth before he was toppled. The chief of the Dera at Sirsa has been put away before he could get that far, but he too appears to have been no less drunk on his own omnipotence.
With inputs by Siddharth Singh. First published in Open magazine