The Dalits and the Shudra communities of Haryana and Punjab find themselves marginalised across society, politics and the economy.
Organisations like the Dera Sacha Sauda, or the Satlok Ashram of Rampal, provide solace and dignity to such groups.
The recent trial and conviction of Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has sparked violence by a section of his followers in some cities of Punjab and Haryana. Despite advance warning by various security agencies of the possibility of violence, the Haryana state government was found wanting and failed to prevent the huge gathering of DSS followers in Panchkula, where the trial was being held.
However, the case of sexual exploitation against Ram Rahim Singh, and his other criminal acts didn’t come as a shock to the people as they have been associated with religious sects and institutions for long now. What seems to have left people puzzled was that lakhs of his followers were ready to fight and die for him. And this is not the first time that we have seen such scenes. Recently, in Haryana, we saw pitched battles between police and the armed supporters of Baba Rampal, the founder of Satlok Ashram, a socio-religious movement rooted in the Kabir tradition. In fact, such deras and charismatic babas or sufi cults inspiring fanatic mass following have a long history in the north-western parts of the Indian-subcontinent. The real question then is what is so unique about the socio-political structures of the society in that region that makes the emergence of such power centres possible?
To answer this question, we need to look both into the historical trajectory of the region and also the present day socio-political structures. Haryana and Punjab are the regions that have suffered most the brunt of foreign invasions over millennia – be it of the Scythians tribes, Huns, Turks, Mughals or Afghans. These periodic devastations have caused unimaginable chaos. Life was short, brutish and unpredictable. The frequent invasions and change in the contour of the ruling class also meant that no socio-political formation could crystallise to provide stable structures of social order around which people could organise their lives.
The chaos deprived people of stable institutions, whether political or socio-religious authority. This, coupled with frequent devastation caused by the raiding armies, created a fertile ground for the emergence of charismatic spiritual gurus or sufi cults, which not only provided an anchor to the life of the people in an unpredictable setting but also acted as institutions of social security and support. The more settled, ritualistic form of religious formations with a well-established priestly class have historically been weak in this region. Instant solace and simple route to nirvana is what suited the population. This void is what was filled by the babas and pirs.
The second major reason for the emergence of such cults in that part of India is the presence of vast population of Dalits and other marginalised castes. They constitute a major chunk of the followers of such deras and sects. Both Punjab and the neighbouring areas of Haryana have disproportionately high Dalit populations, which in Punjab touches the 30 per cent mark, the highest in the country. But despite their high numbers, the Dalits are poorly represented in the power structures of the society. The main reason for this is the highly skewed land ownership structure in this agrarian region, where power flows from control over land. According to political scientist Ronki Ram, Dalits own merely 0.72 per cent of the cultivable land in Punjab even though they constitute around 33-35 per cent of the rural population. Most of them are agricultural labourers.
This situation is worse than most other states in India. While it is true that the disabilities imposed by the caste system deprived Dalits from land ownership and property holdings, the colonial rule also exacerbated the situation. The Alienation of Land Act of 1900 struck a pulverising blow to the Hindus, especially the Dalit communities. The act marked the agriculturist castes of the ‘martial races’, i.e. mostly Jat Sikhs and Muslims, as the sole beneficiaries of land allotment under the expansion of agriculture and the canal-colonies. It also gave preference to them in the sale of land while restricted the sale of land from the agricultural castes to others, including the urban upper-caste Hindus and rural Dalits.
This further pushed the Dalits and other weaker artisan castes to the margins of the society and away from the decision-making platforms. While most of them continue to remain within the Sikh fold – which once attracted them in droves due to its message of caste equality – the feeling of disenchantment was always present as those promises were never honoured in practice. And with Jat Sikhs gaining dominance within the Sikh institutions, displacing the other castes like Khatris, the conflict between the land owners and agricultural labourers began to seep into the religious domain as well. Dalits found themselves unwelcomed in the gurudwaras, where they hardly had any say anyway. This led them to look for an alternative, where they not only made up the crowd but also were represented in the management and decision-making structure – a place which was their own.
This lies at the heart of the growth of deras in the region which act as socio-religious centres where the marginalised not only find spiritual solace but also social support and a purpose in life. These deras, and there are thousands of them, are an alternative space for counter-culture assertion deeply rooted in the history of Bhakti traditions of the medieaval age. Their most powerful appeal comes from the promise of equality irrespective of caste. They not only provide free medicine, economic support, but also self-respect and human dignity to the people whose caste names are used as an abuse by the society. For example, the management of DSS is divided into several zones and units. The head of the local unit is called ‘Bhangi Das’. In a social milieu, where the term ‘Bhangi’ is liberally thrown around as an insult and abuse, this is an act of protest, of pride, an act of reclaiming the dignity of a set of broken people.
This then, unsurprisingly, inspires loyalty and faith in the dera – and the dera head claiming to be first among the equals – which is real and unshakable.
But this simple faith of a simple set of people makes them vulnerable to the machinations of the dera heads, who are quick to form an unholy nexus with politicians and mafia. And of late, politicians have been actively courting these deras. This is for two reasons. First, the Green Revolution and the collapse of old feudal order transformed the Dalits into wage labourers from being dependents of the landlords. The rise of urban-industrial centres not only provided them with an avenue to escape but the resultant prosperity rubbed onto the Dalits as well.
This severely loosened the direct control of the land-owning gentry over the Dalits, and alternative methods of influencing the Dalits and other artisan castes’ votes were needed. This process was coupled with the deepening of democracy from 1980s onwards, when the marginalised castes slowly started becoming important players on the political chessboard of India. This dynamic saw the politicians of all parties making a beeline to the deras to sway the votes of the masses in their favour. The compulsions of democracy, the provisions of reservations, and ‘one man, one vote’ meant that these castes couldn’t be neglected in the electoral process, and collapse of old feudal control meant that they couldn’t be dictated like in the good old days of Nehruvian India.
One way, of course, could have been to include them in the socio-political power structures by not just giving a token representation but a real stake and say. But since that has hardly ever been the intention of political parties dominated by the powerful castes of the region, they opted for an easy way out of liasoning with deras, especially the larger ones, like the DSS. This means extending political patronage and impunity to the dera heads and their cronies, who anyways act like lords within their respective deras.
The cases of Gurmeet Singh, a Jat Sikh, of Dera Sacha Sauda or Baba Rampal, a Dalit, of Satlok Ashram follow similar trajectories. They are products of a society suffering from chaos and devastation for centuries, preventing the rise of a more institutionalised social structure and thus leaving the field open to charismatic individuals who can deliver to the people what state the could not – healthcare, education, social-security and above all, equal treatment and spiritual solace.
The violence may come as a shock to others, but the loyalty of the people, who have been treated unfairly by society, can easily be misused by making them believe that they are finally fighting against another such victimisation. There is hardly any doubt that Gurmeet Singh is a hardened criminal and has finally got what he deserved, but incessant demonisation of all the followers of the dera by media, and the complete absence of their narrative or perspective is worrisome. The dera is far older than Gurmeet Singh and his corrupt ways. It is an important pillar of the lives of lakhs of people, who literally have nowhere else to go. They are not criminals, they are not thugs, they are not vandals but simply rural and urban lower-class people mainly from the Dalit and Shudra castes, who sought to build their own institutions and economic and social support structures.
The High Court order to seize all the properties of the dera and expel all those depended on it is, in my opinion, a travesty of justice. Far more property was destroyed during the recent Jat agitation, but did we see the judiciary ordering confiscation of Jat properties? Or at least of the organisers? Did we seize the properties of those involved in the Azad Maiden violence? Or any other case? Then what, it may be asked, is so special about this case, if not the unconscious manifestation of the existing fault-lines between those who man the state apparatus, including the judiciary, and those nameless and faceless people rallying around their dera? Conduct an investigation and punish the guilty, but as of now it looks more of a communal punishment for those about whom we often ask ‘who are these people?’ whenever we see them on TV or any mass gathering.
Media screaming ‘dozens dead in the large scale violence’ was muted while mentioning that all those killed are dera followers, shot dead by security forces. The lethal violence was entirely one sided, and yet it seems that several media houses and liberals are busy slamming the Bharatiya Janata Party government that they wouldn’t mind even if 10 times more people were shot dead, only if it gave them more talking points.
One hopes that better sense will prevail. The objective is to punish the criminals like Gurmeet Singh and those responsible for violence, and not the people. A right mix of state power and statesmanship is what is needed now to prevent chaos and long-term destabilising effects.