Sirsa, Haryana: With the self-proclaimed godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan sentenced to jail for 20 years for raping two devotees, his vast Dera Sacha Sauda empire has begun to crumble.
The 69-year-old religious organisation, which was reported to have an annual income of more than Rs 60 crore and enjoyed an exemption from paying tax, strategically set up its headquarters in Sirsa district of Haryana, bordering Punjab and Rajasthan.
Ever since the sect was set up in 1948 under the leadership of Shah Mastana, it turned out to be an empathetic abode for those facing discrimination at the hands of upper caste Sikhs, who held authority at the gurudwaras.
The net worth of the Dera as well as its following shot up dramatically once Ram Rahim took over the reins from Shah Satnam in 1990.
Dera identifies as a spiritual organisation and propagates that devotees need not shun their religion to enroll in their order.
This convenience, coupled with an opportunity to experience equality among the sect’s followers, drew many of the region’s Sikhs to the fold.
The friction between the Dera and Sikh bodies in the region reached its zenith in 2007, when Ram Rahim appeared in the garb of the 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh during an event in Bathinda. This led to violent clashes between Dera followers and Sikhs and death threats to Ram Rahim, who went on to receive Z-plus security cover.
Driven by discrimination
Virender Bhatia, a Dera critic who had been warning people not to fall into the clutches of Ram Rahim, said the reason behind Sikhs joining the Dera was the discrimination they faced at the hands of the upper caste jat Sikhs.
“The gurudwaras in Punjab are dominated by upper caste Sikhs, while the Majhabi Sikhs, Rai Sikhs, Odh and Ramdasiya communities always felt humiliated. This led them towards the Dera, which promised respect and equality,” he explains.
Sukhwinder Singh Khalsa, head of Shree Guru Granth Sahib Satkar Sabha, a state-level organisation with its head office in Kurukshetra, said the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhs, started a ‘homecoming’ campaign to bring the disillusioned families back into the fold. The Satkar Sabha was formed in 2004 to include and educate the Sikhs who had been turning towards sects such as Dera.
Khalsa says hundreds of ‘premis’, as the followers of Ram Rahim are called, in the Malwa belt of Punjab have returned to mainstream Sikhism by accepting ‘Siropa’ at the Gurudwara under the ‘Ji Aya Nu’ (Welcome home) programme. “The families associated with the Dera are returning in droves as the truth is out now. We are accepting them with all the humility and respect since they want to correct their mistake at the gurudwara,” he says.
The ‘Namcharcha ghar’, where the premis used to congregate for prayers on Sundays, has remained closed since Ram Rahim’s arrest.
Rajinder Singh, a resident of Desujodha village in Sirsa, says his eight-member family regularly attended the Sunday congregation of the sect for nine years while his children studied in institutes run by the Dera.
“We had been hearing about allegations against Pitaji from our neighbours and in the media, but we were brainwashed into believing that Ram Rahim was a pious saint. This was a conspiracy,” he said.
Methods to madness
Singh said Dera representatives called him to Panchkula on 25 August—the day Ram Rahim was convicted of rape, after which his followers went bersersk—on the pretext of attending a gathering for a film, but was taken aback when violence erupted and he had to run for cover.
While Singh denied being paid to be present at Panchkula, the Haryana Police earlier said that Honeypreet Insaan, the adopted daughter of Ram Rahim, distributed Rs 1.25 crore through two Dera members to Ram Rahim's followers to spread violence in Panchkula.
“A month after the Panchkula violence, I returned to Sikhism and vowed to abide by its values,” he said.
Mamta Rani, a former Dera follower of four years from Dabwali in Sirsa, said despite protests from her husband and son, she joined the Dera because she was moved by what other women said about Ram Rahim.
“I believed what I was told. I revered Ram Rahim like god but his misdeeds have shamed die-hard followers like me,” she said, adding she returned to Sikhism and is a regular at the local gurudwara.
Gyan Chand, a resident of Rania in Sirsa district, who identifies as a Hindu from the OBC category, said he was inspired to join the sect 12 years ago by neighbours and relatives attending the Dera.
The sense of community and respect that he experienced at the Dera led him to returning to the Dera with his family, Chand said, adding that his family was devastated to know of Ram Rahim’s conviction for raping two disciples.
“We used to talk about morality when people criticised Dera. That was our way to silence them. But we haven’t been able to face society after law of the land found him guilty. All his sermons have lost relevance,” said Chand, who works as a security guard in the neighbouring village of Maujukhera.
“We can never ever call him Pitaji [anymore]. It never occurred to us that we would see such a day,” said Chand, adding that he has thrown in the Ghagghar river his MSG locket and a photo frame of Ram Rahim.
Employment, the driving force
Rahul Setia, 30, who used to work as a salesman in the sect’s MSG hotel, said the Dera runs a chain of hotels, restaurants, factories, educational and medical institutes where thousands from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have been employed.
The construction work at sect’s sprawling 700-acre campus and farm work on about 500 acres employ skilled and unskilled labourers around the year. He said those employed in the sect’s projects work around an unwritten agreement that binds them and their families to be followers of the Dera and publicise it.
Sunil Kumar, a resident of Uttar Pradesh, said he was employed in construction work along with 20 others from his state. “We used to earn Rs 15,000 per month for 18 hours of masonry work every day. It was compulsory for us to wear the MSG locket,” said Sunil, adding that he threw the locket away and left his job after Ram Rahim was jailed.
Baljeet Singh Daduwal, a member of the Satkar Sabha, said no one has been stopping Dera devotees from holding their meetings at the Naamcharcha ghar, but they are gradually starting to visit the Gurudwaras. “Employment and financial gain were the main attraction for many to follow the Dera. Since that system has crashed, people want to correct their ways and return to Sikhism,” he added.
Sat Singh and Vijay Jasuja are Haryana-based reporters. Both are members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
Updated Date: Nov 19, 2017 10:50 AM