Business, As Usual
They are all on Dera land and share profits with it. Some are owned fully by the Dera, others have promoters
- A resort for international followers
- A hotel and restaurant
- 500 acres of agriculture farm
- A TV channel
- A daily newspaper
- A shopping complex
- Manufacturing units
- Retail outlets selling Dera’s products
- A wedding hall
- A petrol pump
- A cricket stadium
- Four schools (two international)
- Two colleges
- A multi-speciality hospital
- Car designing units
A hospital building in the shape of a heart, a resort with garish replicas of the Eiffel Tower on the rooftop, an odd facade that turns out to be a hotel, a profusion of pink everywhere. Kitsch it might be, but no one in this dusty Haryana town bordering Rajasthan seems to be complaining. After all, the flashy Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim and the evergrowing cult of his Dera Sacha Sauda is turning mofussil Sirsa, where it is headquartered, into yet another pilgrimage spot.
The Baba is one among the 1,008 shades of Indian godmen or spiritual leaders, social reformers or gurus thriving on the gullible. Whatever nostrums they offer or controversies they set off, they seem to be able to attract humungous following, accumulate fabulous fortunes and acquire tremendous social and political influence. The Baba fits that template snugly: over a decade ago, the Dera drew politicos around election time. However, as Haryana goes to the polls, recent conflicts and controversies have caused the Dera to keep a circumspect distance.
Of late, the DSS, as the Dera prefers to be known now, has taken to projecting itself purely as a socio-religious movement. Recent Jat versus non-Jat scraps in Punjab and Haryana are said to have in part influenced that circumspection. The more scandalous controversies have subsided somewhat. Last month, a special case threw out a 2007 case over the Baba dressing up as a Sikh guru. Also, curiously, the husband and father-in-law of a woman who had charged the Baba with sexual abuse made a public confession that they were instigated to defame him. Even so, the Dera is intent on keeping the new direction it has chosen for itself.
The old taints have largely been ignored by the Baba’s claimed 50 million followers worldwide. The Dera’s website speaks of blood donation drives in New Zealand, cleanliness drives in London, coastal clean-up programmes in San Francisco. In India, the Dera is apparently gaining a foothold in West Bengal, Karnataka and Kerala!
The Baba, who says he has studied up to Std X, is credited with almost everything in the sprawling campus. He’s said to have designed almost everything there—the hospital building, even a small car. He has written and set to music six albums of devotional songs with names like ‘Highway Love Charter’, in which he appears on the cover in his rockstar avatar. His latest project is a feature film. Needless to say, the Baba is the hero.
“The dera is said to be a haven for the lower castes. But it’s the upper castes who manage its wealth.”
Prof Surinder S. Jodhka, Sociologist, JNU
During a recent shoot, the Baba, dressed in a sleeveless red top and yellow pants, jumps across a divider and into his baby car. Two minutes of silence, and he emerges jubilant. Director Jeetu Aurora, who has worked on Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and other television serials, accepts the single-take shot. The Dera’s spokespersons say it would put Salman Khan to shame. “My movie will depict the truth in the most zabardast fashion. Youngsters will love it,” he’d told a 50,000-strong gathering of followers the previous day. Someone said he was all too attractive for a guru. The Baba blushed in acceptance and said he couldn’t take credit for it. A Jindal group honcho declared him the “greatest guru mankind had seen”.
The Dera claims the group’s chairman and former Kurukshetra MP Naveen Jindal is a follower. So, it is said, are Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Punjab chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley and Rajasthan CM Vasundhararaje. Not suprising, with the Baba’s followers comprising some 50 lakh voters of Haryana and 65 lakh of Punjab.
However, analysts say the Dera is no longer the political force it was a decade ago. After the Congress defeat in the 2007 and 2012 assembly elections in Punjab, the Dera has thought it best not to favour any party. This despite the Baba’s relative Harminder Singh Jassi being a former Congress MLA. “The Dera has ensured it remains neutral—even in the recent Lok Sabha elections,” says Prabhjot Singh, executive editor of PTC News in Chandigarh. A measure of the influence the Dera worked at wielding once, however, can be had from Pradeep Insan, president of its political affairs wing. “We have organised voters into a number of blocks so they can all vote for one candidate they deem apt,” he says. “In Punjab and Haryana, where we have the most followers, we are organised in 113 and 104 blocks respectively.”
Sikhism, despite its anti-caste foundations, failed to an extent in practising castelessness. Several gurudwaras were closed to lower-caste Sikhs. Over long decades, a discriminating, casteist society and widespread alcoholism and drug abuse led to the rising popularity of numerous deras in Punjab and Haryana. These added to the old orders and sects—the influential Nirankaris, the Namdharis, the Radha Saomis.
The Dera Sacha Sauda, which came into being in 1948, has acquired a significant pro-Dalit image. Caste divisions, however, are erased within it: Dera followers use the surname Insan, or human in Hindi and Urdu. They wear blue lockets shaped like the numerical 1, suggesting unity, one identity, one God. Devotion consists in followers coming together for community service or seva for the guru. “The Dera is a part of a new demonstrative religiosity, in which people find security and assurance not in spirituality but in coming together in huge groups, singing together etc at a time when community bonds are disintegrating,” says Prof Surinder Jodhka, a sociologist. Of its recent political caginess, he says, “With the wealth it has amassed, the land it controls, the controversies it is embroiled in, it cannot no longer afford to explicitly favour one party or get on the wrong side of any government.”
“The Dera is a different world. Its income is a mystery to us but does not matter. We are happy.”
Shashi Anand, Principal, Boys College, Sirsa
Indeed, the Dera’s pragmatism resembles that of a corporate body. It has wide-ranging business interests: aloe vera plantations, organic farms, four schools (two of them international, charging some Rs 1.25 lakh per year), two colleges, factories, a multi-speciality hospital, a hotel, retail stores, even a petrol pump. But Dera spokesperson Dr Aditya Insan, an AIIMS-trained ophthalmologist working at the Dera’s hospital, says, “The Dera doesn’t profit from these initiatives because of its elaborate social charter.”
But on the sprawling campus, there’s a lot of construction on. The most safeguarded of the Dera’s new ventures is a plush resort for international visitors, located metres from the enormous glass facade of the Dera’s cricket stadium.
The biggest source of income is apparently from the 350 acres of aloe vera farm: each acre yields profits of Rs 5 lakh from cosmetic products. Labour is from volunteers, whose food and stay during the work period is taken care of. There are a few who augment the sevadaars’ services and are paid small salaries. All ventures are undertaken on the Dera’s land, but there are investors who enter into profit-sharing agreements. Unquestioning belief ensures that all businesses have a huge base of captive customers.
This Dera is not unique in its pursuit of material interest. The Radha Soami, Nirankari and Namdhari deras too are rich in wealth and land. What singles out Dera Sacha Sauda, however, is the broad spectrum of Baba Ram Rahim’s interests. “He literally runs a mini state in Sirsa. He owns a local newspaper, a television network and there is talk that he is also trying to set up his own radio station. The manner in which the Dera is expanding its activities is significant,” says Prabhjot Singh.
The Dera’s activities—rehabilitation of prostitutes by getting them married to volunteers, relief work, free medicare, free seats in schools and colleges, blood, eye and organ donation camps—find detailed mention in a 200-page book published by the Dera. It declares followers “warriors of humanitarianism”. (There’s no mention of the Dera’s businesses.) That apart, doctors at the Dera’s four-month-old, swanky Shah Satnam Ji Speciality Hospital talk of regular medical miracles, the work of the Baba—curing HIV/AIDS, cancer, heart disease and so on. “After a surgery, if a patient says he could see Guruji operating him, we know the operation is a definite success,” says Dr Keerti Insan, who heads the blood bank at the hospital, matter-of-factly.
Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim—ever ready for action, whether for a perfect take, to clean up society or start a scandal—fancies himself in a different mould from other gurus. But as with most of them, the economy of the establishment around him remains intriguing.
By Pavithra S. Rangan in Sirsa