Deras in Punjab, Haryana: Heady mix of politics and religion

That the Deras or sects in Punjab and Haryana enjoy almost unflinching mandate of a sizable population is something largely irrefutable.

It is this surge and pouring of unwavering faith that sources all the power that the sects have assumed today. But the dilemma is not with the existence or the rise of the culture of sects, but of sects assuming increased political relevance.

The recent showdown in Haryana’s Hisar over the arrest of controversial self-styled godman Rampal, or many other such incidents in the past surrounding sects in the two states, reflect a more worrying homegrown crisis.

There is growing disenchantment over the failure of two states to  effectively respond to the concerns of the people on basic problems which is why even on issues like drug de-addition, a large number people prefer Deras over state run Alcoholics Anonymous outfits. And unlike the propagation of the politics of conversions, Deras thrive on convergence of multi-faith, something that assigns a uniform identity to many who crave for one.

The growing influence of sects pose a challenge to mainstream cults and religions, like Sikhism, which disapproves the culture of Deras. Nevertheless, many Deras have been instruments to offer a robust identity to Dalits and other social classes that have felt alienated by mainstream religions and cults. Inherent in this process of devolution of identity is the rise of political consciousness of these estranged classes that are at odds with the mainstream majority.

But an alarming drift is evidently visible. Deras have turned into alternative power centres. The unfolding of the mystery behind the sect propagated by Rampal bears testimony to the rot that has crept in. The self-styled godman lived a king-sized life, had a personal swimming pool, an air-conditioned bathroom that would shame any drawing room in an average apartment and chauffer-driven luxury sedans no less than a Mercedes.

The godman used to bathe in gallons of milk. The drained milk would then be collected and used to make ‘prasad’ for devotees and was considered a cure for ills and ailments. Loads of ammunition, petrol bombs and acid drums were confiscated by the police from this ashram that now stands deserted. 

Both states of Punjab and Haryana have a history of bloody clashes involving prominent sects and communities. Many Deras and politicians thrive on each other. An estimated 9,000 big and small Deras exist in Haryana and Punjab. The prominent ones with enormous followings would limit be less than a couple of dozens, like the Dera Sacha Sauda in Haryana’s Sirsa, which has, over the years, worked as catalyst for change for good espousing an egalitarian ideology through its philanthropic deeds.

Deras assume the role as carriers and redistributors of goodness and beyond. The many disenchanted with state mechanisms look towards sects as a medium for conflict resolution, be it a disputes between spouses or within communities. Much of the arbitration of power and the dispensation of justice are done by sects. But unlike politics and politicians who may be accountable to the system, Deras exist as a system within itself.  

The story of the Rampal sect is over for now, but then there’s another one, albeit  an altogether different nature, brewing in Punjab’s Nurmehal where disciples have been holding the ‘dead body’ of its godman Ashutosh for close to a year in a deep freezer. The sect followers believe their guru, the head of Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan (DJHS), is in deep meditation and would rise one day to bless them all.

Samadhi ideology
The matter is before the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which had directed that the last rites of Ashutosh Maharaj be conducted. A showdown could be a possibility, but then the Punjab government isn’t willing to take risk with matters of faith. The sect has launched a campaign on the social media and also supports a toll-free number that pledges faith in the samadhi ideology of the ‘Frozen Godman’. Several lakhs of people have called this number to support the samadhi. 

The prominence and popularity of sects among the masses has worked well for politicians who have been ever willing to cash in on this secured, polarised vote bank. Whether it was the 2014 Lok Sabha elections or the recently concluded assembly elections in Haryana, politicians were at the doorsteps of many Deras seeking blessings and beyond.

It is this ‘mutual admiration’ that has made political will increasingly conquerable, or even irrelevant. It was evident in the manner in which the BJP government in Haryana soft-paddled in handling the case of Rampal. The government wasn’t willing to push beyond a point. Precious lives were lost at the end of the controversial episode.

Dera Sacha Sauda chief spokesperson and Director of the second largest eye bank in the country, Dr Aditya Insan talking to Deccan Herald  said, “From a humanitarian perspective, no saint or king or social worker has undertaken the campaigns that Dera Sacha Sauda has undertaken.

From men marrying rescued sex workers and adopting their children, to women marrying handicapped youth, from Guinness World records in blood donation and tree plantations to carrying out several gender specific programmes to running India’s largest eye donation programmes by a single agency, the number of our humanitarian activities is a whopping 104, and growing”. 

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