Every day, never-ending media disclosures on Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh reveal new facts about his murky deeds and luxurious and explosive possessions. Crime, fantasy, sex, and lust construct his image as a villainous, dubious baba in the Dera of Sacha Sauda.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court has recently directed search operations in the sprawling Dera premises. This recent court intervention comes in the wake of the legal and judicial language convicting and sentencing Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of rape. The sanitisation of the dera will, to some extent, unravel the forbidden and buried histories of violence and exploitation.
Amid such revelations, it might be relevant to understand the complex strands of the narrative that shape the phenomenon of Singh and his Sacha Sauda in Sirsa. It’s not a small matter that the dera of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh enjoys an enormous appeal in Haryana and beyond, and constitutes an alternative form of religiosity and community. And, it is crucial to address the historical and contemporary appeal of such gurus in rural and urban India.
There is something alluring about such gurus and deras. They exert tremendous influence in civil society, drawing followers from the aspirational middle classes and subordinate caste groups.
The Dera of Sacha Sauda is located in Sirsa, a sleepy locality in predominantly rural Haryana. The dera eludes our secular, rational and Western modes of analysis and interpretation.
The Dera premises itself on notions of loyalty, faith, devotion, and morals. When thousands of devotees throng the portals of the dera, they repose implicit faith in the baba. What is interesting is that the baba is not just acting in the realm of religion and spirituality alone, but has entered the secular sphere of activity, ensuring jobs, food, and shelter to the followers. While the politicians, bureaucrats, land mafia and corporates have their calculated stakes in the Dera, common people have deeper urges to seek refuge in the baba. In addition, the baba titillates the popular imagination with his theatrics and winsome and flashy gestures. His performance becomes a spectacle.
Located in Haryana, Sirsa is a bordering district of Rajasthan and Punjab. Historically, the area was renowned as a Sufi centre, and an important point of caravan trade between Delhi and Multan. The landscape was dotted with heterodox, non-Brahmanical, anti-caste heroes and sants and their cults and sects, invoking both reformist and popular trends of Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam, like the Bairagis, Gosains, Faqirs, Udasi and Charandasi Sadhs. Many of them were given revenue-free grants for supporting the British during 1857, pointing to their continuing nexus with the state.
The sacred status of such sects and forms of community cannot be denied. The mystical, healing and wish-fulfilling aspects are crucial requirements of human existence. Secular thought has, at its own peril, neglected the human need for such solace. Yet, there has been an ugly rupture in the sacred phenomenon which, because it is reflective of the times that we live in, needs careful consideration.
The baba has abused his power. He has become a monster. How has he become a monster? This is a serious question, which will require sustained and objective probe. One can, at best, hazard some guesses without believing that they are definitive.
The vote-bank politics has created a matrix of networks wherein the babas continue to play a predominant role in garnering votes, ensuring political loyalties and clientele. Singh represents the pathology of the contemporary political scenario, which thrives on money, power, and patronage.
There is another reason. The baba’s entry into the secular realm in a big way is indicative of the State’s failure over the last few decades. The modern State has failed to provide employment, decent education, medical facilities, and food and shelter to the poor. The vacuum created by the State is filled by the babas. Not surprisingly, babas are today fulfilling the basic needs and aspirations of the common people. They have emerged as much more than religious figureheads, blurring the distinction between the religious and secular. The State has virtually abdicated its welfare functions, which the Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhs have been quick to hijack. And let’s be clear, it is the political dispensation, irrespective of party affiliations, which has to answer for this mess.
It is worth noting that the allure of the baba is irresistible. He is the modern guru assuming the role of a superstar. Singh’s Robinhood image is particularly enchanting for the marginalised caste groups. Women are charmed by his charisma and personality. He is a sakshat bhagavan (the living god) for them. But this modern Robinhood has demonic powers to seduce, exploit, oppress, destroy, and wreck. Not surprisingly, he does not arouse his followers’ disgust. Why must we assume that the devotees will believe in the criminality of their benefactor and saviour?
In a way, the monstrosity of the likes of Singh is created by the deepening crisis of governance. The prevalence of mass poverty and deprivation together with new economic dislocations have heightened the common people’s anxieties. The baba’s alternative vision of egalitarianism and fantasy, embodied in the dera, darshan, satsang, and langar, serves a whole range of urges, expectations and wants of the followers.