Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, prisoner number 1997 in Rohtak’s Sunaria jail and spiritual head of the religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda, has been busy since his release from the prison in Haryana on a 40-day parole on October 15. Behind the imposing 10-foot-high wall of the Shah Satnam Ji Ashram at Barnawa village in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district, the self-proclaimed godman has been meeting a string of politicians, holding satsangs (spiritual discourses) for ardent devotees and naam charchas (religious congregations) to formally induct new followers into the sect.
Politicians have been making a beeline for seeking Ram Rahim’s blessings as he was released just a fortnight ahead of two crucial elections in Haryana — the by-election to the Adampur Assembly constituency on November 3 and panchayat elections in over 6,000 villages on November 2. The parole also coincides with the Himachal Pradesh Assembly election, which is slated for November 12.
Over the last few weeks, Haryana Deputy Speaker Ranbir Singh Gangwa, Himachal Pradesh Transport Minister Bikram Thakur, Karnal Mayor and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Renu Bala, and Aam Aadmi Party leader and Punjab Horticulture Minister Fauja Singh have attended Ram Rahim’s satsangs. This is not the first time the 55-year-old Dera chief, who is serving a 20-year jail term for raping two sadhvis (women disciples), has come out of prison before a key election. He was granted a 21-day furlough on February 7, barely two weeks before the Punjab Assembly poll on February 20. He was released on a month-long parole in June, ahead of elections to 46 civic bodies in Haryana.
The spiritual leader has been behind bars since 2017 when a special CBI court in Panchkula convicted him in the rape case. Last October, a special CBI court sentenced the Dera chief and four others to life imprisonment for hatching a conspiracy to kill Ranjit Singh, a Dera manager, in 2002. He was also convicted in 2019 of the murder of a journalist 20 years ago.
Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh addressing followers at the sect’s headquarters in Sirsa.
| Photo Credit: PTI
Leaders of political parties of all hues flock to Ram Rahim as he commands the loyalty of about six crore followers and his massive support base across the social spectrum in north India, especially in Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, has the ability to change electoral fortunes. As the Dera enjoys complete and unquestioned authority over the premis (as the followers are known), it not only dictates their life decisions but also electoral choices. It is a symbiotic relationship as politicians secure the support of a large vote base while the Dera receives political patronage and a say in policymaking.
Though Ram Rahim has always maintained that he is apolitical, the Dera has a political affairs wing, which was set up in 2007 to capitalise on the sect’s growing clout. The wing seeks the opinion of its members on which candidate or political party to vote for and support in the Assembly and general elections. In polls that are decided by small margins, such religious sects and their leaders, who hold sway over a large number of voters, play a decisive role in the final outcome.
Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh with Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari, Union minister V.K. Singh and Anurag Thakur during the launch of Clean Delhi campaign at India Gate in New Delhi in 2017.
| Photo Credit: MOORTHY RV
The Dera openly supported the BJP in the 2014 Haryana Assembly poll, helping the party come to power, confirmed Mr. Gangwa, who was then a member of the Indian National Lok Dal. Last month, Mr. Gangwa courted controversy after speaking about his family’s long association with the Dera at a virtual satsang of Ram Rahim. “It is not Maharaj ji [Ram Rahim] who directs anyone to vote a particular way. The sangat [community] takes a collective decision,” he said. Mr. Gangwa, however, did not discount the fact that politicians have exploited the Dera’s clout to make electoral gains. “When you are in politics, it is natural that during the poll season you visit temples, mosques and churches. The Dera comes in the same order and its doors are open to all.”
In the 2007 Punjab Assembly poll, the Dera extended its support to Capt. Amarinder Singh of the Congress. Though the party lost the election, it performed well in the Malwa region, which has a heavy concentration of Dera followers and accounts for 69 of the State’s 117 Assembly seats. However, the Dera’s “blessings” do not always guarantee success. The BJP did not win the Delhi Assembly poll in 2015 despite the sect pledging its support for the party. In the 2017 Punjab Assembly poll, the Dera supported the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance, but it lost to the Congress.
The sect was established on April 29, 1948, by Shah Mastana who arrived from Balochistan to Sirsa, Haryana.
| Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA
‘Humanity over religion’
The Dera is integral to the politics of Punjab as 70% of its followers are Dalits, who account for 31.94% of the population of the State, the highest percentage in the country. The Dera has considerable appeal among marginalised groups as it is a class-based order where oppressed groups can come together regardless of their economic background, caste or religion.
However, Surinder Singh, assistant professor at Panjab University’s Rural Centre, who has done extensive research on deras, says, “Deras were born out of cleavages in society. Unfortunately, they theoretically and ideologically talk about finishing social divisions and establishing a more egalitarian society, but this is rarely put into practice. There is evidence that caste and class divisions continue to exist in the Dera. For example, work as part of ‘sewa (service)’ and roles in the administration are assigned based on the caste or economic background of the follower.”
Honeypreet Insan with Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in 2016.
| Photo Credit: PTI
The sect was established on April 29, 1948, by Shah Mastana who arrived from Balochistan to Sirsa, Haryana, that year. He built the sect around the message of ‘ ruhaniyat’ (humanity over religion). In 1963, the reins of the Dera were handed over to Shah Satnam. On September 23, 1990, Shah Satnam, in a public announcement, appointed 23-year-old Gurmeet Singh as his successor and gave him the name ‘Huzoor Maharaj Gurmeet Ram Rahim’. Ram Rahim, who was born into a Sikh family in Sri Gurusar Modia village in Rajasthan’s Sri Ganganagar district on August 15, 1967, is the sect’s longest serving chief.
However, the long absence of the incarcerated chief has sparked speculation about a successor. Several Hindi dailies have been reporting about it citing unnamed sources. The established norm is for the sitting Dera chief to pick a successor. Honeypreet Insan, Ram Rahim’s favourite disciple and “adopted daughter”, who has been running the Dera in his absence, is considered the front runner. The speculation had gained traction after Ram Rahim suggested in a sermon this week that Honeypreet should now be called “Ruhani Didi”, after the basic tenet of the sect. TV news channels took this as a hint of her imminent coronation. “Who are these unnamed sources? I have never met them,” Ram Rahim thundered in anger on learning about the reports. “ Hum the, hum hain aur hum rahenge (I was, I am and I will remain),” he said, putting a lid on all speculation.
Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh waves to his followers after securing bail from the special CBI court, at Ambala on October 4, 2007.
| Photo Credit: AKHILESH KUMAR
New followers join the fold
At the Shah Satnam Ji Ashram in U.P., guards have been posted along the boundary wall and there are security checkpoints every 100 metres. There are no signs of life within, barring a small group of followers waiting patiently with their bags and queuing up to deposit their phones at the entry gate. When The Hindu reached the Dera, we were instructed to leave our cell phones, cameras, notepads and pens behind. We were then ushered into a pink and cream tent for a naam charcha, where women and men sat in separate enclosures to maintain ‘ maryada (decorum)’. A close ring of women disciples, who have taken the vow of celibacy, was dressed in baby pink and seated ahead in a separate enclosure.
The new members who were being inducted into the sect were sitting behind a screen at the front. At the appointed time, Ram Rahim briskly walked in, hopped on to a small platform and sat cross-legged on a throne upholstered in pink. He then took a sip from a fluorescent green cup, cleared his throat and spoke into the camera as he began his discourse, which was livestreamed. He says he has three demands or “ guru dakshina” — abjure drugs and alcohol, meat and eggs, and premarital and extramarital sex. Taking into account his diverse audience, he switched languages from Hindi and Punjabi to Urdu and a smattering of English during his sermon. He quoted verses from the holy texts of Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity, which the listeners lapped up. He then went on to share his “guru mantra”.
The headquarters of the Dera Sacha Sauda in Sirsa, Haryana.
| Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA
On cue, a staff member threw a white sheet on him as the perplexed crowd watched transfixed. Seconds later, he shed the sheet, indicating that he was ready to impart the secret. He warned the gathering against revealing it to a stranger or a fellow devotee, or writing it down or recording it on any device. He specified the time, duration and the way in which to recite the mantra. He assured the listeners that if done right, it would lead them on to the path to God. How will the uninitiated know that if they are doing it right? He replies: “You will see a little star ahead of you. Focus on that star and God will reveal the wonders to you.” This part of the sermon was not livestreamed.
The congregation was then given a break and the stage was rearranged. For the next satsang, Ram Rahim was seated on an elevated gazebo. “ Sacha Sauda ka maksat kya hain? Sacha, Om Hari, Allah, Waheguru, God hain. Woh sach hain, sach tha aur sach rahega. Ab Sauda… business, vyapar… kya hain? Aap apni burai le aao, apne paap le aao aur badle main — Om Hari, Allah, Waheguru, God ka naam le jao (What is Sacha Sauda’s objective? Hari Om, Allah, Waheguru, God… is the ultimate truth. What is the business? Bring your ills and take back goodness).” The sermon was peppered with his own brand of humour and rhetorical statements on patriotism, extolling the virtues of Indian culture. Dera followers from Punjab and Delhi then virtually joined the satsang and could be seen on a giant screen dancing to the songs of Ram Rahim. The devotees then shared their achievements and miraculous recovery from illnesses. Many followers were overwhelmed and wept into the microphone.
Dera followers at a press conference held ahead of the release of a movie of Gurmeet Ram Rahim in 2015.
| Photo Credit: MANOJ KUMAR
Navjinder Chaudhary, 27, is six months pregnant, but she has left behind her husband in Patiala to be with the Dera chief since his release on parole. As part of ‘ sewa’, she has been deployed as a guard at the main gate. Her family has been associated with the Dera since Shah Satnam’s reign and Ms. Chaudhary says her faith remains unshaken despite evidence of Ram Rahim’s crimes.
Asked if she feels safe in a congregation led by a convicted rapist, she scoffs at the question and says, “I do not feel safe anywhere else. Ram Rahim is a parent, a teacher, a friend and a therapist who does not deal with the usual predicament of life and death, but offers practical advice.”
Followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh gather in his support ahead of a court’s verdict in a rape case. The self-styled religious leader has been convicted of raping two of his women disciples.
| Photo Credit: AFP
Vikas Deep, 35, who is a member of the Dera’s media team, extols the 143 humanitarian services of the sect. “All these charges are false. The drug mafia conspired against Guru ji to stymie his campaign against drugs. Which social reformer has not faced similar retribution?” he says.
Usha Insan, another follower, is grateful for being a part of the sect. “Everything we have today is because of Guru ji. My children studied at Dera schools, they don’t consume alcohol or drugs. They are all well-placed in life and none of us has any major disease. What else can one ask for?”
Manoj Bansal, who hails from Sri Ganganagar, Ram Rahim’s hometown, says the Dera chief has been framed by “vested interests”. “I feel at peace only when I see him and hear him talk. In my eyes, he is innocent. But I hope the Dera challenges his conviction and brings him back so that we can interact with him regularly,” he says.
(With inputs from Ashok Kumar in Gurugram)
Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh addressing followers.
| Photo Credit: AKHILESH KUMAR
April 29, 1948: Shah Mastana establishes Dera Sacha Sauda in Sirsa, Haryana, as an organisation that transcends caste and religious lines.
1963: the reins of the Dera are handed over to his disciple Shah Satnam.
September 23, 1990: Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan is appointed the new Dera chief at the age of 23.
The Dera describes itself as a “socio-spiritual organisation” involved in philanthropic activities and is registered as an NGO.
The sect bans alcoholism and drug use, promotes vegetarianism and prohibits adultery and illicit relations.
Dalits constitute 70% of the six crore followers of the sect.
The Dera has over 46 branches across the country and ‘ naam charcha ghars’ in several cities where followers often congregate.
Ram Rahim is credited with encouraging youth to join the Dera. He has acted and directed five feature films and released six music albums.