It was a ritual that Virender Bhagat religiously followed over the last five years. Breakfast at 7.30 am, lunch at noon and dinner at 6 pm. The punctuality in serving the food was sacrosanct, the adherence to rules unambiguous and obedience to “Pitaji” absolute.
“Preparing food for believers was the most blessed thing to do,” says Bhagat, one of the cooks working in the MSG factory canteen at Nejia Kheda in Sirsa, just a kilometre from the headquarters of Dera Sacha Sauda. (Dera translates into a religious cult, and the Sacha Sauda is one of such groups.) The MSG factory makes a host of products, including groceries, clothes and car batteries, all under the MSG brand — MSG, of course, being the label chosen after the chief ’s self-promotion in a film called Messenger of God.
Bhagat’s routine got abruptly disrupted last week when Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh — addressed as Pitaji by thousands of die-hard believers — was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a special CBI court in Rohtak. “Till a few days back, this place used to buzz with excitement, with thousands thronging to get blessings of Pitaji,” recalls Bhagat.
A week after the conviction, the canteen is deserted, a handful of workers can be spotted, and the once-bustling factory has turned into a ghost unit. The army of disciples — who run into thousands in the village itself — has been replaced by battalions of army and paramilitary forces. Travel beyond the Nejia Kheda check point is prohibited on orders of the district administration. “Not even dogs can enter,” says one of the security guards when this reporter requested access to Sirsa.
Big banners of MSG car batteries are hung across the gates of some of the buildings on the road leading to the Dera headquarters. Advertisements for ‘Sach Aloevera Juice’, one of the few non-MSG labels made in the factory are on display. The slogan of dhan dhan satguru tera hi asara screams from walls around the city, which is limping back to normality after the violence that broke out after the conviction of the Dera chief.
Curfew has been lifted, internet curbs have been relaxed, markets have opened and schools and colleges are back to normal. Yet an undercurrent of muted support for Gurmeet remains. As do posters of the ‘Messenger of God’, flaunting a sleeveless, funky Tshirt, a multicolour cap and trousers.
“Pitaji is not a rapist. He has been framed,” says Bhagat, who joined the Dera five years ago. With anger writ large on his face, he starts hurling abuses at the media. “You made our god look like a demon,” he fumes.
“Till a few weeks back, media used to die to get an interview with Pitaji. Now the same media has ganged up against him.” Bhagat pauses for a moment.“He will soon come back,” he adds, as he attempts to put a hoarding of MSG back on the iron window of the canteen. A reminder of the conviction for rape and heinous criminal charges of castration and murder fall on deaf ears. “I trust him blindly,” he mutters, staring into the empty canteen room.
Such conviction runs deep across Haryana. Over 140 km from Sirsa is Garhi Hansi, a village in the Hisar district. Sukhbir, 30, still can’t believe that Gurmeet is behind bars. One of the officials who has stayed back to take care of the small ashram at Garhi Hansi, Sukhbir joined MSG when he was 18. A Dalit from an impoverished background, he dropped out of school as his parents couldn’t meet his educational expenses. The Dera was a logical progression.
“Pitaji ensured that I completed my education and he even gave me a job at the Dera,” he says, adding that he can never believe that Gurmeet could have raped his disciples. “Can any father rape his daughter?” he asks, adding that there is a conspiracy to malign him. “Rich can have gurus, but the poor can’t.” The decked-up ashram at Garhi Hansi is now empty and the pedestal from which Gurmeet used to address his followers has been covered. Pictures of the godman stare at the security forces who have occupied the adjoining canteen.
Political scientists are not surprised by the conspiracy theories flying thick and fast among followers. Deras, they reckon, have replaced gurdwaras and temples as destinations for religous solace. “It’s a reflection of the wide gulf between the haves and havenots, both in terms of materialism and spiritualism,” says Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science in Panjab University.
Gurdwaras and temples in Punjab and Haryana, he points out, haven’t been able to fulfil the spiritual and social aspirations of the people. Kumar explains why. The Green Revolution ushered in prosperity only for the creamy layer of the society. The landed aristocracy made most of the new riches and perpetuated the discrimination against the lower and socially backward classes and castes.
The landless Dalits and Other Backward Classes who had faced humiliation for decades saw deras as a place where equality existed. Deras, with their message of no discrimination, attracted people who started believing in the notion of an egalitarian society. “Deras offered a refuge to people who were facing discrimination even in a progressive religion like Sikhism,” adds Kumar.
The social crisis coupled with an economic bind pushed hordes into the folds of selfstyled godmen. Towards the end of the 1990s, the beneficial impact of the Green Revolution receded, agriculture was not giving satisfactory returns, farmers became indebted and the menace of drugs and alcohol began to take its toll. Deras became a refuge for the disgruntled. “Babas are living persons who people could talk and relate to,” points out Kumar. “When god goes out of reach, godmen enter the picture.”
Take, for instance, Radhika Kaur in Jalandhar in Punjab. The 38-year-old homemaker is a follower of Ashutosh Maharaj, who was pronounced clinically dead on January 28, 2014. Since then his body has been preserved in a freezer by his followers at the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan headquarters at Nurmahal in Jalandhar district. In a moral victory for the followers of Ashutosh, the Punjab and Haryana High Court in July this year allowed the preservation of the body.
The high court said the belief of the followers cannot be shattered by the state. “Samadhi (the final stage of union with the divine before or at death) as a concept is not alien to the Indian society, having formed a part of many a folklore and mythology. It finds vociferous practitioners among yogis and ascetics,” the bench said in its judgment. Emphasising Article 25 of the Constitution, the bench ruled that it gives a citizen the right to profess, practise and propagate religion till the “preserved body does not conflict with public health”.
Ensconced in her three-bedroom apartment, Kaur says she doesn’t believe in god. One of her rooms has been converted into a temple where a picture of Maharaj is fixed on a grand sofa as an idol. “Ashutosh Maharaj is not dead. He is in a state of meditation (samadhi),” she says. “He will return soon after fulfilment of his spiritual mission.” The other members of her family join her to talk about the “miracles” performed by Ashutosh. One of them, points out Radhika’s sister-in-law Amrit Kaur, was when her son recovered “miraculously” from brain fever. The doctors, she claims, had given up hope and it was only because of the maharaj that his son survived. For 50-year-old Jagdish Malhotra, it was not the lure of a miracle that made her an ardent follower of Ashutosh. It was the existential question of connecting with god after death. “Salvation doesn’t happen by going to temple or fasting.
It happens by getting all your queries answered by the guru,” says the homemaker. “Life starts with guru and ends with guru.” Malhotra, who donates food to the ashram every week to serve the poor and homeless, adds that service to humanity has been the motto of Ashutosh and his organiations.
Word of mouth is crucial in forming a congregation. Dharamveer Shahpuri will vouch for it. A director of a private school in Jind in Haryana, Shahpuri is the only one in his group who is not affiliated to any baba. “It doesn’t make any sense. No educated person would do it,” he says, adding that most of the people who end up becoming disciples are the ones who just follow the herd. “It’s a herd mentality. Others are doing it, so the rest join,” he adds. Conceding that there has been a surge in the people joining deras over the last few years, Shahpuri feels that there is no place for logic when it comes to faith. “Rationality goes out of the window when the heart starts ruling the mind,” he adds.
Anil Kumar, 39, a businessman in Delhi who runs a private security agency that supplies wrestler-turned-bodyguards to celebrities, embraced Sant Rampal when he was 25. A friend’s mother, who happened to be principal of a government high school, introduced Kumar to the world of Rampal. “Santji showed me the true meaning of life,” claims Kumar, who had always struggled to understand the Hindu scriptures. “The priests in the temple were of little help as they were materialistic and didn’t engage with the devotees.”
Rampal, Kumar lets on, made his followers understand the meaning of all religious texts and explained why the rituals followed by all religions are hollow. “Whenever I had any query in life, guruji solved it.”
Rampal, who claims to be a direct descendant of Kabir, was in the news in November 2014 when after a 10-day standoff between his followers and security forces, he was arrested at his Satlok Ashram in Barwala in Hisar. He’s no stranger to controversy. In 2006, Rampal objected to certain portions of the core text of the Arya Samaj, Satyarth Prakash, and consequently ran into trouble. The protest by Arya Samaj followers led to a clash with Rampal disciples, resulting in the death of one person. Charged with murder, Rampal spent 22 months in prison and was released on bail in 2008. Between 2010 and 2014, Rampal skipped court hearings 42 times and, in November 2014, the Punjab and Haryana High Court ordered the government to produce Rampal in a contempt of court case.
Late last week, a Hisar judicial magistrate acquitted Rampal in two criminal cases of obstruction in the discharge of duty by government officials and of wrongful confinement. However, he still faces trial in other cases, including a murder conspiracy, sedition and rioting.
“It’s just a matter of time before he is acquitted in other false cases,” says Kumar, who spent 22 months in prison with Rampal and was released on bail last August. “Sant aur surma kabhi nahin haarte (The saint and the brave never lose),” he says.