The Reel Wonder?
- Dera claims MSG was shot in 67 days
- 1.3 million people, total cast of MSG
- 75,000 candles were lit in a sequence; the number would have been higher but “more candles were not available”.
- The Dera claims to have constructed the sets in Sirsa in three days, the same which the ‘art team from Mumbai’ said would take a month-and-a-half to make
- Film proceeds to be used for research on thalassemia, helping HIV+ patients
- Shooting about to start on a sequel
He was already a grandfather, had been one for several years when I saw him first in 2008. Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim ‘Insan’ was 41 years old at the time. But the Dera Sacha Sauda congregation hailed him as “pitaji” or “pujya pitaji (revered father)”. Dressed in pristine white, offset by a flowing black beard, he looked bored as he addressed the devotees from a rostrum. Video cameras placed strategically recorded the sermon which, I was told, was being streamed live on the internet for the benefit of his followers abroad. Before visiting the ashram, I had already seen the sermon being televised live on a cable network in Sirsa town.
The sermon had little to excite anybody. Family values, the crises faced by today’s youth, the evil effects of drug addiction and alcoholism, the sad plight of women driven to the flesh trade...it went on and on. A few men, the nearest to me being fairly old, stood up and started swaying as if in a trance. One of them closed his eyes and moved round and round, his arms uplifted for benediction. Once the sermon got over, the congregation was fed cold chapatis and sabji. It was unappetising fare but the men and women—there weren’t many children around, I noticed—ate it with little complaint.
Later, around 50 of us were herded into an enclosure and made to sit cross-legged on the floor for a special darshan. There was an elaborate throne-like chair facing us for the godman while, somewhat curiously, a mini car, the size of a golf cart but resembling somewhat a Volkswagen Beetle and painted a bright yellow, was placed on one side. Once the godman took his seat, his aides started calling out names and devotees stood up to be blessed. The man kept sitting and listened while someone or the other in the audience told their sorry tale on whatever problems were plaguing them. I didn’t take notes on his exact replies but do remember distinctly a family of 6-7 men, women and children standing up and informing him that they were migrating to Canada and needed his blessings. I cannot forget the reply: “Ashirwad hai, legally jaana (You have my blessings but go legally).” The baba said it with a straight face, clearly aware of the flourishing racket in Punjab of smuggling illegal immigrants into Canada and other countries in the West.
I was watching the abject looks on the faces of devotees, and almost missed the baba zooming off in his toy car.
The special session lasted barely 20 minutes, and as he stood up, everyone followed with folded hands. I was watching the others, marvelling at their abject looks, and almost missed the godman driving out in the toy car in front of my disbelieving eyes! I was later told the godman had a fascination for designing automobiles, that he dismantled the cars gifted to him and fashioned them to his liking. “He drives them for a few years before they are auctioned off to the devotees,” confided a follower. While moving out of the area, I was briefly shown an orphanage for girls. To my surprise, there were functional air-conditioners in both the living area and the play section.
I had earlier seen a shop stocked with products made by the Dera. The godman was credited with the 300-acre farm’s success as well. “He’s hands on, drives the tractor, tills the land and soils his hands; he even decides on which fertiliser to use, when and in what quantity,” gushed a devotee escorting me. He pulled open the door of a shed in a corner of the farm and the intoxicating smell of roses filled the air. There were large vats in which rose water was stored. The product was apparently in great demand because of the reasonable price and purity. Labour costs at the farm were negligible, explained farm hands, as most of the workers were devotees who volunteered. Thousands of them would turn up at short notice and work on the farm in lieu of food and a place to sleep. The “cooperative farming” helped the Dera keep costs down and earn a tidy profit that financed its other activities.
Fifty years ago, the land was barren and parched, volunteered the Dera’s official spokesman, an ophthalmologist who had graduated from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi. “Nobody gives us credit for turning around this barren land into a productive farm,” he said with some acerbity, showing photographs on his laptop, “but everybody is curious to learn about our funding.”
I was led to the skating rink where girls were practising playing hockey. India’s ‘roller hockey skating team’ for girls comprised entirely of the players before me, they claimed (later an internet search proved this to be correct). Still, it was difficult to swallow the girls’ claim that it was Guruji who had trained and coached them. Indeed, it seemed as if he wasn’t just coaching the youth in roller-skate hockey but also archery and volleyball. And I couldn’t even take the question further for in this backwater of Haryana was not just a skating rink but also a cricket stadium, swimming pool, even a bowling machine (wheeled out for my benefit).
In view of the rape charges, I expressed surprise to see so many women at the Dera. They smiled, but weren’t amused.
The principal of the Intermediate section of the college turned out to be a pleasant lady from Ambala. She introduced me to her colleagues, most of them women who remained polite but unamused at my indiscreet exclamation that in view of the rape charges against the godman, it was a pleasant surprise to see so many of them in the Dera. They smiled resolutely and swore that the Dera and Guruji were the best things that had happened to them. They rattled off his prowess and skill in various fields and pointed to the hostel building, claiming that the godman had designed it.
The Dera’s strength obviously lay in loyalty and organisation. More than one devotee confided that followers fall back on each other in hours of need. A house to build or a daughter to get married? The word goes round for resources and manpower. There is a separate ‘volunteer force’ with a uniform of their own and is organised with military precision in formations. A group of 10-20 volunteers have one of them heading it while each member has contact details of five more members. A call to the group head therefore could mobilise 100 volunteers in double quick time. This kind of organisational strength is used to provide help in times of natural disasters, they explained.
Not all initiatives of the Dera, however, meet with success. The godman’s call to his devotees to marry and rehabilitate women in the flesh trade met with limited success, admit his followers. “Some of these women told us that they could no longer be sexually satisfied with just one partner,” explained one while another devotee offered a more plausible explanation and said that the women found it difficult to lose their economic independence.
Following murder, molestation and rape, the godman has now been accused of forced castration of men at the Dera with the Punjab & Haryana High Court ordering a CBI inquiry. It’s difficult to believe he would have risked it in view of the controversies and cases already swirling around him. The Dera itself would no doubt claim, as they did in 2008, that the allegations were meant to divert attention from its crusade against the rampant drug abuse in the state. Drug traffickers enjoyed political patronage and were conspiring to embarrass the Dera, they alleged.
Considering the widespread addiction to drugs in Punjab, was the Dera fighting a losing battle? Could it be just paying lip service to the cause? Dera followers had bristled at the suggestion and claimed that it was certainly no mean achievement to keep its flock of five million away from drugs and alcohol. Perhaps they were right or maybe there is yet another narrative.