To get a feel of just how influential the Dera is, around Sirsa, just drive through it. You will see Sachi Daadhi, Sach Nursery, Sach Petrol Pump, Sach engineering repair works, Sach Beauty Parlour... the truth, perhaps, is out there.
Security was very tight. At the entrance to the Dera Sacha Sauda, I was subjected to a security check more stringent than I've seen anywhere else, including at airports or the Secretariat or ministers' offices. Three times, groups of women stopped me, ran their hands over me, including my ankles, the small of my back, and my neck, lifting my hair to look under it. Each object in my purse was taken out, opened, pressed, snapped shut, put back. The mobile phone was switched off, and on.
At most of the other deras I visited, there were similar security measures, but none as diligent as this. And nowhere else were the women so firmly, politely, unyielding while conducting the security checks. Even long-term followers were subjected to the same.
Outside the building, rows of frightening photographs and posters of oral and throat cancer. Not delicate, no.
And inside, one of the followers tells me, "We go everywhere. To Gujarat, during the earthquake. To Tamil Nadu, after the Tsunami. Floods in Bihar. Our guruji even went to Kotra, to meet the tribals. You should have seen them. They were violent people. Mahua drinkers. Unclean, Naked. They threw stones at us, but we kept talking to them. We gave them food.... and love, of course. Such violent people, they even shot arrows at birds! We taught them to give up bad habits, take to farming and weaving."
I took notes to avoid having to look at him while he talked. Tribals... who could aim at a bird in flight... given food. Later, attended the satsang. There must have been ten thousand people there. A woman sevak told me that this guru performs miracles. He can cure cancer with kharboozaa (melons). "If you write all his miracles down, you could make a granth of it".
And I shuddered a little. The last time somebody wrote his own miracles down and made a granth of it, he went to jail, survived a stabbing and a bombing, and continues to ride in a jeep with a machine gun mounted on top.
The satsang is also called a 'majlis'. And at this majlis, thousands press into each other on one side, a high chair awaits, on the other. Sevaks fan the rest with large, hand-held pankhaas. A hush, the security men arrive, a green screen with tinsels rolls down, behind the high chair, and Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh occupies it. A clutch of musicians break into song.
A qawwali by Baal Mukesh Insaan.
The announcer insists that the qawwali is a bhajan.
The waiting crowds erupt into 'balle balle'.
The singer sings - "Tera andaaz zamaane se judaa dikhtaa hai... Dekhne walo.n ne yahaan dekha hai... sir farishto.n ka yahaan jhukaa miltaa hai... dhoondne walo.n ko is dar pe khudaa miltaa hai."
The living Guru.
The women do not get up to dance. Their men do. Their children do. The women say they are longing to dance, oh, they can barely restrain themselves... but they will not. They have their 'maryaada'.
'Satguru ke darshan paao ji, dil ki pyaas bujhaao ji'.... sung to the tune of the popular song 'ye desh hai veer jawano.n ka'
And right through his sermon, Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh refers to intoxication and 'nashaa' and how terrible it is, and isn't that why you're here? To quit? Every fifth sentence is about addiction and 'nashaa'.
Little roars of approval and acquiescence from the crowd.
And just before the jaam-e-insaan program, an announcement - the media must leave. All journalists, all cameras. Please leave.
And went on to visit other deras.
Overheard, on the road. Anonymous comments about the Dera Sacha Sauda:
- This man is only capitalizing on the Dalit need for dignity
- 'Jaam', talk and de-addiction.... I can bet that on the inside, he's offering all the nashaa himself. These people need to be raided. Chhape padne chahiye.
- Ye Sikhi ko tod raha hai.
- Premi... why not? Still a Sikh. Still Akali.
- This man has no social relevance. Just a self-serving quest for power and money.
- Don't we know we are all human? Why this need for 'insaan'?
- What's in Sirsa? Why do you want to go there? It is not worth your time.
- Abstinence. That's what they call 'good moral support'.
- Did you see all the high-tech? Live recordings were happening and on the internet, these sevaks will show it to people online, through yahoo messenger. I saw it myself.
Basic things one should know about Dera Sacha Sauda (since it looks like the controversy won't die an easy death) and deras in general (though I must warn you that most of this is based on hearsay, i.e., what various people have told me. Some are academics, some journalists, some followers, some policemen.)
- Deras were different, fifty years ago. They were small mazaars or ashrams or huts or any place where a holy man or preacher has decided to live, and where his followers sought him out. It literally meant 'a place to stay/halt'.
- A 'dera' can be headed by a 'baba' or 'sadhu' or 'fakir' of any religion denomination, though there are very few Muslim peers left in Punjab. Some Sufi deras remain, and remain fairly popular. There are many sects in Sikhism, and almost all have some form of representative dera. In fact, gurudwaras are a fairly recent phenomenon in Punjab, and especially in the Doaba belt of Punjab. For instance, many villages have a dera called 'Lakha.n da daata'. This may have a statue of 'Bhairav' (or 'Pairao.n', as they say, in Punjab) outside it. The Lakh Data was supposed to be Sheikh Makhdoom Ali Hazbiri, or so I am told, and there is a significant mazaar to him in Lahore, Daataganj Baksh.
- According to a Punjabi newspaper, Desh Sewak, there are 9000 Deras, spread across 12000 villages. At least.
- Originally, few deras had 'branches'. When a follower was ready to become a guru himself, he usually wandered off, and set up his own thing. This has changed. According to official sources, Sacha Sauda has 25 branches in Punjab, Divya Jyti Jagran (headed by Baba Ashutosh) has 13, Radhasoami Satsang has 23, Namdharis have 13. They may call themselves 'ashram' or 'satsang ghar' or 'gurdwara' or whatever, but the common man refers to them all as 'deras'.
- Sacha Sauda is headquartered in Sirsa district, Haryana. Sirsa is also where the other major dera, the Radhasoami satsang, is headquartered.
- There are two buildings for Sacha Sauda dera. The newer one is where the current chief, Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh lives and usually preaches, twice a day.
- It was set up (around 1948) by Mastana Baba Baloochistani who was a disciple of Beparwah Shah. According to legend, Shah sent Mastana to take care of the spiritual health of the 'bangdi' people, who lived along the Haryana-Punjab-Rajasthan borders.
- Mastana Baba lived in a cave and refused to take money or donations. It is said that he (and some of his supporters) used to dig for a living - I assume, at construction sites - and he would actually give money to the desperately poor. The current guru's residence is still called a 'gufa', or cave, though it can't be anything like one, by the looks of it. (Wasn't allowed to see it up close).
- The role of chief/head of a dera is referred to as a 'gaddi'. Chair or throne. The head is called the 'gaddi-nasheen'.
- The passing on of spiritual power was traditionally called 'ilaahi baksheesh'.
- Dera Sacha Sauda claims that there are no fixed rules or rituals. No covering of head - though most women I saw did cover their heads. No taking off of slippers or taking of ritual baths.
- The bulk of the income of the dera, so the spokesperson says, comes from land. Initially, a small plot was created as a kitchen garden. The followers would colect dung from the roadside and sell it, or use it. Over the years, about 700 acres or more have been acquired. The spokesperson says that it was uneven, barren land. Some of it was dug up and the soil used for brick-making. Later, the land was evened out, and the soil tested by local agricultural scientists. By switching to organic farming, input cost was brought down to the minimum. Returns went up three times. Orchards were inter-cropped with aloe vera. Etc etc.
Since agriculture is not taxed.... they've got plenty of money.
The Dera spokesperson said (I'm only quoting) "We have stopped asking for money in the name of God. That is the highest form of corruption. This hypothetical entity does not depend on us for monetary support."
- The jaam-e-insaan ceremony comprises of large vats of rooh-afza mixed with milk. Followers drink that, swear to follow the 47 rules set down by the guru, drop their surnames and add 'Insaan' as a suffix.
- The spokespeople insist that no conversion takes place. However, the ceremony seems to be shaped along the lines of a conversion ritual. Nobody is asked to renounce their own religion. But people are asked to swear by a new code of living, adopt a new name, and drink a sip of the 'jaam', which is similar to rituals involving holy water, amrit, etcetera.
- There are 47 rules (including one forbidding abortion) but three main rules: an oath to give up all intoxicants, including alcohol; turning turn vegetarian and (I quote) 'good character'.
- Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh belongs to Pilibanga, district Sriganganagar. He was originally Gurmeet Singh. It is said that he started visiting this dera since he was about five years old. He was given the gaddi on 23 September, 1990. His followers call him guru-ji, maharaj, or 'pita-ji'.
- There are 40-45 ashrams, spread across several states, that are affiliated to this dera. The chief baba alone can hold a 'satsang' but there are bhajan-kirtans at all and the 'sevaadars' or 'sevaks' can read out his sermons.
- To be part of the jaam-e-insaan ceremony, you have to fill a form in advance, with a biodata and a photo. So, I was told. But there were masses of people waiting in long queues, to receive the jaam, when I'd visited; most were uneducated, and had probably never heard of 'bio-data'.
- In Jagmalwali village, tehsil Dabwali, also in Sirsa, there is another branch of the Dera Sacha Sauda. It was set up by Gurbakht Singh, now dead, when he was not chosen to take over the gaddi.
- There are people who allege that they have been loved from their lands by force. There was a small protest between 1993 and 1995, old-timers recall.
- The Dera chief has also been accused of having a hand in the murder of journalist Ram Chandra Chatrapati, who headed a paper called... believe it or not... Poora Sach.