Why Dera Sacha Sauda draws followers

The backward classes and poor were left out of the prosperity ushered in by the Green Revolution.
The need for a support system and to be part of a larger community was felt.
It is this vacuum that deras like Sacha Sauda filled.
They made the poor feel secure, cared for, loved, provided a support system and gave them dignity, says Sanjeev Nayyar

The violence and deaths that followed Gurmeet Ram Rahim's arrest were unfortunate. My heart goes out to the poor who lost their near and dear ones and those who were injured in the violence.

The question one has heard asked over the weekend is how and why a convicted rapist like Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a Jat Sikh, has amassed such a huge following.


The honest answer, however, must start with British rule.


The British were grateful to the Sikh princes for assistance received during the 1857 mutiny, and seeing the bravery of the Sikh armies realised they could be an effective buffer between Afghanistan and India.


They replaced Bengali soldiers with loyal Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims, but insisted that only those Sikhs who sported the five Ks, or symbols of Sikhism, could join the army.


Since it was mainly Jat Sikhs who sported the five Ks then, they were the biggest beneficiaries.


The British enforced rigid occupational boundaries by creating 'traditional agriculturists', 'martial races' and 'trading castes'.


The Jats were classified as traditional agriculturists and came to dominate the ownership of land as well.


The other dominant community, Khatris or Kshatriyas, took to education and business. They had also been landholders till the Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900 forbade them to do so as they were declared a 'non-agricultural' tribe.


Many families got around this artificially imposed caste barrier by raising one or more son as a Sikh, chiefly by having them adopt the name Singh and grow hair/beard to match.


British policy supported forces that divided Punjab into Hindu and Sikh (external link)


Their objective was met with the passage of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee Act in 1925, which resulted in the Akalis having control over gurdwaras in Punjab, and heralded the irrevocable tradition of mixing religion and politics in Punjab.


It also made Jat Sikhs a powerful community.


Backward classes were declared a non-agricultural caste. Thus, they could not own land and had to work as farm labour.


Punjab and Haryana became states in 1966.


Power invariably alternated between the Akalis and Congress in Punjab. However, irrespective of the party, Jats ruled Punjab.


In spite of backward classes believed to constitute over 30 per cent of the state's population, Jats were the dominant political class.


The Green Revolution of the late 1960s benefited Jats the most as they were the dominant agricultural caste.


In the prosperity that followed, the backward classes and poor were left out.


To add to their woes was the insecurities caused by the extremely violent Khalistan movement of the 1980s.


Deras existed earlier too, but the external environment increased the insecurity. The need for a support system and to be part of a larger community was felt.


It is this vacuum that deras like Sacha Sauda filled.


They made the poor feel secure, cared for, loved, provided a support system and gave them dignity.


Put yourself in the shoes of a poor devotee.


It is natural for the poor to seek the blessings of the guru who helps them.


Remember, it is in the DNA of Indians to consciously surrender to a person who they call their guru.


Why does Dera Sacha Sauda have such a huge following?


According to an August 24, 2017 report in Chandigarh's Tribune newspaper, the reasons are four-fold (external link).


One, identities of caste and religion cease to exist in the dera.


Two, the humble ranking of dera management. A state is divided into zones, with each zone headed by a man called Bhangi Das.


Three, subsidised food and free rations.


Four, many districts close to Sirsa in Haryana are plagued by knee problems and cancer due to bad quality of water. The dera provided free treatment.


Remember, Indian religions are not organised and rigid, but amorphous. So people across the country have always flocked to sants in their region.


Within a common spiritual framework, the guru's organisations provided spiritual and emotional support to its followers.


According to a scholar and long-time resident of Jalandhar, "Deras have done outstanding work in social, educational, medical and spiritual fields. The quantum of work done in the last 20 years far exceeds that of religious organisations."


Also, members of a dera become part of a larger community network. It helps them in business dealings, social engagements and even in finding life partners.


Conservative Sikhs oppose deras for many reasons. A person going to a dera invariably does not visit a gurdwara.


Two, there is a financial angle. The money and food-grain that would be donated to a langar at gurdwaras now goes to the dera.


While the orthodox believe in the Guru Granth Sahib as the guru, the deras focus on a personal guru without denying, in any way, the importance of scriptures.


Tension between conservative Sikhs and backward class deras resulted in the murder of Guru Sant Rama Nand in Vienna in 2009.


He belonged to the Dera Sach Khand, inspired by the 15th century spiritual leader Ravidas whose followers belong to the backward classes.


Thousands of followers went on a rampage (external link) in Punjab after the murder.


Sacha Sauda is not the only dera opposed by conservative Sikhs. Radhasoamis are also opposed because they too believe in a personal guru, and ask disciples to do simran of panj nam (five names) which they keep a secret.


They rely on the bani (word) of the Guru Granth Sahib (as also that of Saar Bachan) in satsang, but do not follow the way of devotion observed in gurdwaras.


However, whatever may be the history, violence by the followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.


But, for a lasting solution, we must understand why devotees are willing to lay down their lives for their guru, rather than seeing the violence through the urban English-speaking prism.

It is debatable if the police would have fired on protestors if they were residents of south Mumbai/Delhi, sectors 2 to 11 of Chandigarh, or students of JNU.


Remember, when a rally to protest the violence against Myanmar's Rohingyas at Mumbai's Azad Maidan turned violent on August 11, 2012, in which vehicles and broadcast vans were torched, policewomen were molested, and weapons were snatched from the police, the state government of the day did not allow the police to open fire on the violent rioters.


This is what former Mumbai police commissioner Julio Ribeiro had to say about the incident (external link).


Now let us look at the political aspects of the dera.


As India liberalised and with the advent of the cell phone, the new generation of backward classes felt confident enough to break free from the Jat-dominated politics of Punjab and Haryana.


With awareness dawned the realisation of the power of their votes.


Jat politicians too sensed the change.


So around 2007, the Haryana and Punjab chief ministers, namely Om Parkash Chautala and Parkash Singh Badal, visited the Sacha Sauda's Sirsa headquarters.


Five years later, Captain Amarinder Singh again sought the baba's 'blessings'.


The Bharatiya Janata Party, a late comer in Haryana's political game, too adopted the same strategy.


So every political party has wooed the Jat Sikh Baba.


The mixture of religion with politics, which started with the passing of the SGPC Act in 1925, continues to this day.


In fact, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was provided Z-plus security by the United Progressive Alliance government.


Note that it was competitive vote-bank politics between the Akalis and the Congress that gave rise to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and a major reason for the terrorism that engulfed Punjab in the 1980s.


Having realised the power of their votes, the poor wanted to break the Jat hegemony over politics.


They tasted blood in Haryana when the BJP appointed M L Khattar -- a non-Jat -- as chief minister.


Unable to deal with loss of power, some hit back through the violent Jat agitation in Haryana.


The Congress in Punjab and the SGPC dislike the Dera Sacha Sauda for various reasons.


One, the Dera supported the BJP-Akali combine in the last assembly election.


Two, in a caste-ridden Punjabi society, 'dera life provides an equal status to all castes'.


Three, the dera unites Hindus and Sikhs, something that conservative Sikhs are against.


Prem Insaan, a resident of Bathinda, said, "Different communities and castes have their own temples and gurdwaras in Punjab and Haryana, but at our dera all are equal."


"The dera advocates humanity. We may be Hindu, Sikh or anything else, but we have failed to end caste divisions in society."


During the recent violence Captain Amarinder Singh has presented himself as an able administrator in comparison to Haryana's Khattar.


Breaking the back of this dera would please the SGPC and conservative Sikhs no end.


Recent events have to be viewed against this backdrop.


The Congress is working to a plan. It desperately wants to win back Haryana, a state where land is highly valued.


After the BJP outsourced Punjab to the Akalis, its supporters had no option but to vote for the Congress.


Unless the BJP becomes active in Punjab and has a chief minister in Haryana who understands that religion and power are intertwined in Punjab and Haryana and finds a way to counter the Jats, the Congress will return to power in 2019.


The affluent classes and political parties must bring the backward classes into the mainstream.


Sanjeev Nayar is an independent columnist, founder, www.esamskriti.com and author of How the British sowed the seeds for the Khalistani Movement before the Indians took over. 


First published http://www.rediff.com/news/special/why-dera-sacha-sauda-draws-followers/20170828.htm

To  hear Sanjeev Nayyar in conversation with Rajiv Malhotra on 'The Importance of Deras in Punjab & Haryana' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vcVnuM95EI

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