Faith transcends logic as people flock to deras of different hues, especially in the region of Haryana-Punjab. ‘To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible,’ says Vishal Kaushik (45). Kaushik, who works for a leading MNC in Gurgaon, has been a regular visitor to the Dera Sacha Sauda at Sirsa in Haryana for the past five years now.
The shenanigans of ‘Sant’ Rampal of the Satlok dera are fresh in public memory. Similar misdemeanours by babas, sants or gurus and their disciples, and the studied silence of the political class across party lines, have come to light recently. They point to the growing influence of the deras, which feel emboldened to defy the law of the land.
Deras or sects are new neither to Punjab and Haryana nor to the Sikh religion. Rather it is as old as the Sikh faith itself. The history of deras in Punjab is older than the Sikh Panth.
There is no statistical figure on how many deras exactly exist in Punjab. But according to rough estimates given by Sikh scholars, there are more than 9,000 Sikh as well as non Sikh deras in 12,000 villages of Punjab. However, there are about 300 major deras across Punjab and the neighbouring state of Haryana and they are popular in both states. Out of these almost a dozen have over one lakh devotees each.
Radha Soami (Beas), Dera Sacha Sauda (Sirsa), Nirankari, Namdhari, Diya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan (Nurmahal), Dera Sant Bhaniarwala (Ropar), Dera Sach Khand (Ballan) are some of the prominent Deras of Punjab.
Though all these deras have followers among every caste, yet most followers are Dalits and backward caste people, who are often economically weaker too. Punjab has been witness to the emergence of a large numbers of deras due to prevailing inequality in social and economic order and the marginal position of the Dalits in society.
“The rise of these deras to seat of power is primarily due to the fact that Sikh religion in its modern form didn’t accept the Sikhs of lower castes,” says Dr. Neeru Verma, who teaches at a government elementary school in Jalandhar. Verma has done extensive research on the issue of Dalits flocking to Deras.
“As the Sikh religion and their leaders failed to propagate equality, these Deras rose to fill the vacuum, where all were invited with open arms equally. Thus the ever increasing numbers of Deras all over Doaba, Majha, Malwa regions of Punjab is widely attributed to the denial of a respectable place to the Dalits and backward caste people in religious places and Sikh Panths. The major factor for the marginal position of the Dalits in the state is the monopoly of the land in the hand of Jat Sikhs. As the Jat Sikhs of Punjab are primarily an agriculture community and the Dalits in Punjab were deprived of land. In the absence of other job opportunities, they were forced to depend upon the land of Jat Sikhs for livelihood. So the confrontation between these communities can be described as a struggle of landless agriculture labour versus the landlords. This in turn, often led to caste clashes between these two communities, the Jats and the Dalits,” Verma adds.
Dalits constitute about 30 per cent of Punjab’s population and that happens to be the largest proportion in the country. However, they occupy the lowest share in land.
The Dalits and backward classes in Punjab also feel excluded from making the political and economic choices for the state. On the other hand, the Jat Sikh population not only own 60 per cent of land but also control the politics and economy of the state.
“Society has not given people from the lower caste any dignity. Some of them are economically better off. They are not dependent on the rural economy. They have no structural dependence on upper castes and yet they have been denied basic human dignity. They find empowerment in deras so line up there,” says sociologist Manjit Singh.
“Deras give these people financial assistance. Even though it is not huge, for people that comes as a big relief. So they become loyal to the dera gurus and believe in him,” Singh adds.
On the question of deras promoting superstition, Singh asks who is not superstitious. “Is Narendra Modi not superstitious and what about Dina Nath Batra? They are all in the boat. Poor people are more vulnerable to such accusation of being superstitious,” he says. But Singh also raises the demand for a Dera Regulation Act and regular auditing of Deras on the lines of corporate houses to keep a tab on the finances of the Deras. “There is tremendous criticism of deras from all corners. While in some cases it is justified there are certain deras doing extremely good work for the people. What we need is better monitoring and a transparent framework,” Singh suggests.
Ashutosh Kumar, professor, department of political science, Panjab University says, “In politics, however, the rise of the deras may be attributed to the fact that in Punjab and Haryana, the social basis of political power has not changed over the years, favouring higher castes and communities. The political participation of the numerically significant Dalits and other backward castes has remained confined to mere presence in party forums or legislative bodies. The inability of these groups to emerge as a powerful electoral category, to assert their claim as stakeholders in the power structure and to have a credible political party or even state-level leader from within the fold has made them vulnerable to the influence of deras.”
“Parties are unwilling to share political power, yet compelled to seek support of numerically strong and economically mobile lower-caste voters in a region that has seen not only rising electoral participation but also high electoral volatility. So political leaders have resorted to cultivating deras, which can deliver these votes en masse to them. That is why dera chiefs such as Rampal consider themselves above law and have established virtually a state within a state, besides collecting vast, unaccounted-for property,” he adds.
Dr Pramod Kumar, director Institute of Development and Communication, Chandigarh echoes Majit Singh’s views, “Religion gets institutionalised and there are certain people who are always left marginalized in the process. In search of inclusive and harmonious environment they flock to the deras. For poor and needy dears are a one-stop-solution to all miseries from stomach aches to business ideas. Those who cannot afford alternatives this is an opportunity to be lapped.
Dr Pawan Insan, spokesperson of Dera Sacha Sauda, however, says it is wrong to say people from marginalised sections of society come to deras. “Everyone including doctors from AIIMS visit us. It is a media myth that only poor come to us. We are open to all sorts of scrutiny since there is no black money involved in running deras. We have no problems with audits. We welcome everyone.”