August 08, 2020
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The Dera Sultanates

Grandiose, customised and, at times, ­havens from mainstream religion

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The Dera Sultanates
Photograph by PTI
The Dera Sultanates

When social scientist M. Rajivlochan, who teac­hes history at Panjab University, visited the deras of Punjab to research this unique phenomenon, he was stunned to find the dera bosses mimicking the style of Mughal courts. Whilst it is common knowledge that Dera Sacha Sauda boss Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim fashioned himself to resemble the Sikh’s tenth guru Govind Singh, his cultivated likeness with the Mughal court is less noted.

For Rajivlochan the latter phenomenon, not just limited to Ram Rahim, has to do with the dera gurus asserting their “secular power” before followers. “Like dacoits imitate the ranks followed in the police and the military, the deras are organised under the sole authority of a kinglike figure and his coterie,” he says. “The king he apes is much like Shah Jehan—or as the Mughal might exist in the popular imagination.”

Most deras gained prominence in the past three decades, making them more of a modern phenomenon. And the maladies of the followers are modern as well.

This is not very different from what happened with the iconography of Sikh Gurus themselves. Guru Gobind Singh, now pictured as a tall, gleaming figure atop a horse, has also been pulled out of context. “He is pictured as no less than a Mughal emperor or wielding a bow and arrow like an imagined Shivaji or Rana Pratap,” says Harish Puri, former professor of political science at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, who has studied several deras including Sacha Sauda. Nanak’s depictions from the 17th and 18th centuries also bear almost no likeness to today’s popular versions. “He travelled vast distances on foot. One can imagine there would not be a ­perpetual glow on his face,” he says.

The baba’s court, thus, has to be seen from the eyes of his bhagats or faithful followers. They receive his projection of ‘secular’ power as well as his direct spiritual message through his claims of being godlike. “The way the babas speak, how they sit, their flashy thrones, their attire, the manner in which they interact with crowds, it is all as if they were handing favours from the Lal Qila,” says Rajivlochan.

There is a reason why the dera chiefs stridently assert this secular power. For, it is not only in the spiritual domain that the deras challenge established religious norms, as evidenced in their intermittent clashes of authority with the Sikhs over the holy book Guru Granth Sahib. Aping the Mughal court also sends the message of social and economic control—alm­ost a parallel order that makes people flock to them. It helps differentiate them from an inefficient State.

The paraphernalia of a kingly court also allows dera followers to pursue their own mode of worship—through the guru’s commandments—whilst the baba gets to stockpile on worshippers. A baba would adopt the style of a Sikh guru simply because that is the universe he occupies. This is not unlike the followers of Sai Baba who, it is believed, ‘converted’ him from a syncretic Muslim into a purely Hindu icon or the droves of urbane, educated citizens flocking to meditation centres that teach techniques ostensibly culled from Buddhist traditions.

For C. Raj Kumar, founding vice chancellor of OP Jindal Global University, the fact that the deras function within largely rural communities, in geographies that are also seeing the rapid rise of glistening mortar-and-steel universities dedicated to the sciences and the arts, marks a sort of contradiction. “Not far from our university’s massive campus, we would see lakhs of people flocking to hear Ram Rahim’s sermons. This made me believe that we Indians are living in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, all at the same time,” he says.

New religious ideas are mushrooming countrywide, but Punjab is a special case in point. Here, different ideas have had the chance to intermingle over centuries. Estimates vary vastly—the number of deras in Punjab is said to be between 3,000 and 10,000. Most gained prominence in the past three decades, making the dera more of a modern phenomenon. And the ­maladies that followers hope to transcend are equally modern.

Alt Spiritual

Dera Sachkhand Ballan of the Ravidassias in Punjab

It is modern Indian stresses—good schooling, proper housing, well-paid office jobs, reliable healthcare—that get reflected in the proliferation of Punjab’s deras. What appears to be an undifferentiated mass of followers and carbon-copy babas conceals many a social difference. “Do we have the right to question people’s faith in deras,” says Puri. “Surely, some followers revolted against Ram Rahim, but others would still not believe their guru did something wrong, while many would not be bothered by it.”

The point, Puri says, is that the followers of deras feel more comfortable in terms of what they get—dignity and fellowship—there than elsewhere. “These followers will not return to organised Sikhism or Hinduism,” he says. This is because in Punjab’s Doaba, Majha and Malwa, the deras are linked with social undercurrents. In the Doaba, the Ravidassias led by Sachkhand Ballan, the area’s most prominent dera, declared a separate religion, in 2010. This came about after a tumultuous series of events including the murder of the Ballan chief in Vienna in 2007.

Smilarly in Majha, separate gurudwaras for worshippers, delineated by caste have proliferated to compensate for the sense of alienation. “But in the Malwa, somehow, those from the lower castes were not able to construct their own separate gurudwaras. The alternate here was built around the Nirank­ari (sect) or the likes of Sacha Sauda,” says Puri.

Besides, though the sayings of Sacha Sauda’s ‘living god’ include stories from the Granth Sahib and Hindu mythology, the sermons remain fixed on what the followers require in life—dignity, jobs, relief in legal cases. This is true of other deras too, including Sachkhand Ballan, which has demonstrated its dominance very quickly after setting up. “Once you become a ‘premi’, as Ravidassias often call themselves, you are no longer a mazhabi, Labana, Valmiki or whatever else,” says Puri. Add to this the sense of liberation that follows from fellowships forged with lakhs of other followers. “Just as Osho built a community in Oregon, the people get a new fellowship in deras. There’s less of a sense of social alienation. This is a subtle change that people outside don’t see,” he says.

The change shows up in small ways, for instance, a matrimonial advertisement in Malwa newspapers seeking an ‘Ad Dharmi (Ravidassia) Radha Soami’ match. This can only mean that dera followers have transcended their caste category and want to carry this change on to any future relationships.

Another factor is the syncretism of the deras, which transcends the spiritual plane and heads into the political. Ronki Ram, who teaches political science at Panjab University, believes that deras do not challenge organised religion but are meant for those who find less comfort in mainstream religion. “Sikhism on the whole embraced all walks of life. However, on the social domain, not all get equal treatment. You find some exclusion too. Deras offer space to such people across ­religions. Different identities gather at deras to create a blurred kind of syncretism,” he says. “They are also syncretic with respect to political parties.”

The baba may impose vegetarianism or other taboos as they co-opt from various religions, but they are not as strict about symbols and scripture as organised religions. “Just like when they say they use scripture and get accused of using it improperly,” says Ronki Ram. “When they gain a large number of followers, politicians feel they can take advantage of them.”

The babas who offer male offspring, relief from court cases, good education and loans, end up offering voters as well.

By Pragya Singh with inputs from Bhavna Vij-Aurora

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