It is four days after mayhem brought Haryana to a grinding halt. After facing flak for being unable to prevent the violence that caused damage to property and claimed more than 30 lives, the constables in Sirsa are taking no chances. All the three roads leading to the old Dera are blocked. Apart from the barricades that have been placed 3 km before the Dera at Satnam Singh Chowk by the Central Reserve Police Force, the Indo Tibetan Border Police, the Sashastra Seema Bal, the Indian Reserve Battalion, and the local police, fences and wooden planks have also been mounted — signs of the forces being extra cautious. Residents of the area are not allowed to leave and outsiders are not allowed to enter. “Madam, hum nahin jaa rahe to apko kaise jaane dein (If we’re not going inside, how can we let you go)?” asks constable Ajay from Haryana Police.
There is another route to the old Dera. It is slightly circuitous, but worth a try. But around 500 metres ahead, a constable suddenly appears. “Madam, don’t you know this is a prohibited area? What if something happens to you? Who will be responsible?” he asks, even though the road is empty and residents are not allowed to step out of their homes.
A kilometre away from Satnam Singh Chowk is Preet Nagar. Here too the approach to the locality is barricaded. Gali Number 13 is where some of the Dera supporters have agreed to talk to this reporter, courtesy of a mediator. Preet Nagar, where almost every resident is a follower of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the man who is responsible for the forces coming here and who has been convicted of rape, is a maze of gullies. We ride through the packed streets, the uneasy calm after the chaos hanging heavy in the air.
Inside a house that the mediator leads this reporter to sits Chand Rani with her daughter Sapna, 27, and son Gaurav. When she speaks, others listen. No one speaks out of turn. They all appear shaken both by the violence and the conviction of their ‘Pitaji’, as Singh is referred to reverentially here.
Rani joined the Dera 30 years ago; she was attracted to Singh’s predecessors, Shah Mastana and Shah Satnam. “Since I had faith in Pitaji’s predecessors, it was only natural that I have faith in him,” she says. None of them is prepared to believe in the charges brought upon Singh by two of his female followers — that he, their ‘guru’, had sexually exploited women.
What led Rani and her children to the fold were stories of miracles that their cousins and uncles had shared. Singh cured ailments and illnesses just with his touch, their relatives had said, or when he ate the biscuits that they offered to him. The family says their belief in the three ‘gurus’ remains unshaken. They invoke their names before going to work. “Koi bhi kaam karne se pehle inka naam lete hain to kaam pura ho jata hai (If we utter their names before we go to work, we know it will get done),” says Gaurav.
The younger generation is steeped in belief too. Nipanshu, 18, who goes to Shah Satnam Ji Boys School that is adjacent to the old Dera, drops by. He says he has never cheated in an examination because that’s what he has been taught in the ‘Satsang’. “We are taught never to cheat even if we haven’t studied for an exam. Remember ‘Pitaji’ and everything will be taken care of. I’ve always excelled in studies,” he says proudly.
An hour into the conversation with Rani, the neighbours troop in. They sit down and proceed to swap stories of miracles, all of which are woven around ‘Pitaji’. No one in this group utters a critical word.
This colony is a melange of castes. The followers of Singh, the families claim, cut across caste, religion, and class. “His followers include kinnars (transgenders). He has made them humans,” says Narendra Kumar, 56, who runs a grocery store in Preet Nagar.
A typical ‘Satsang’ with Singh, which took place once a month, involved sermons on doing good deeds and eschewing meat, alcohol, and drugs. Singh, who established the new Dera 5 km away, reached out to the old Dera followers via projectors set inside the prayer hall.
A local reporter from a leading daily recounts how he suffered a paralytic attack 10 years ago. The doctors in Sirsa had given up on him. “I was told to meet Pitaji. He summoned a team of 10 doctors to examine me and held me tight in his embrace. I am absolutely fine now. I ran towards the Dera to personally thank Babaji,” he says.
While most stories that are shared here are eulogies of Singh, some in the fold, who are slightly older than Rani, are critical of the Dera chief’s ways. His flamboyance, his actor persona, and his love for publicity do not appeal to them. But belief is strong and they nevertheless flock to the Dera.
At the entrance of the old Dera stands a huge poster of Singh’s latest release Jattu Engineer. A blue-colour canopy, with coloured photographs of Shah Mastana on the left, Shah Satnam on the right, and Singh in the middle, greets visitors. This leads to an open-air hall, the size of a badminton court. Two middle-aged woman sit inside a small room and keep tabs on visitors. “Dhan Dhan Satguru Tera Hi Aasra (Glory to Satguri, you are our only saviour),” is how they greet people. Inside the Dera, around 70 people have congregated. “Aa jaenge ji Pitaji (He will return),” says an old man to another.
In the canteen on the first floor, it is business as usual. But no one talks here; conversations with outsiders are strictly discouraged. “This place is accustomed to 100% attendance but many have left now,” whispers a woman. “Humne to dekha nai hai. Ye conspiracy hai. Aane wala time sab bata dega. Aap dekhna (This is a conspiracy. You wait and watch. Time will eventually set everything right).”
Outside Gate Number 10 of the new Dera stands Kulbir Singh, a pharmacist, who does not take kindly to being questioned. Singh associated himself with the Dera 17 years ago following the footsteps of his father. And at another police checkpoint, a family of five — man, wife, two teenage boys, and an elderly woman — are found leaving the Dera with several bags in their car boot. The younger woman was the only one willing to talk. They had come to stay in the new Dera four years ago, but were leaving now as they’re scared, she says. “Our house is in Noida. We’re going back now. Our children were studying here in the school run by the Dera. I don’t what to do about their future now.” The future of the two schools run by the Dera, and of the children who study there, looks uncertain now.
In Sirsa city, there is a sharp contrast in the two worlds that run parallel to each other, between the world inhabited by the Dera followers and the one which the residents of the town occupy. Most of the residents take a dim view of the cult around Singh, dismissing it as a ‘Gunda Raj’. “He has built a whole new world inside the Dera spread across 1,000 acres. It even has a seven-star hotel, a hospital, two movie halls that run only his films, several factories, and two schools. But he hasn’t added to the development of the city. His supporters have only added to our woes,” says Sanjay Garg, resident of a colony near Satnam Singh Chowk and an employee of National Insurance Company.
If Singh’s conviction and the anticipation before the verdict gave the residents a difficult time, the violence on August 25 turned their world around. As a curfew was imposed from 10 p.m. on August 24 till August 28 (when it was relaxed from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.), several residents complained they had no electricity. Water supply was cut off, forcing them to rely on water tanks that would come once or twice a day. They were short of groceries. “Is the vegetable shop open? I haven’t bought vegetables in the last four days,” grumbles a middle-aged woman as she walks out of one of the empty streets opposite the old Dera. She returns home disappointed.
The story that led to the indefinite curfew, the chaos, and the big glaring headlines spans years. Catching Singh was no easy task. Following the allegations levelled by women inmates through an anonymous complaint addressed to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other authorities that had surfaced in May 2002, the CBI managed to track down 150 ‘sadhvis’ who had stayed at the Sirsa Dera of Singh. It had taken the agency more than two years to zero in on the women.
However, a breakthrough eluded the investigating team as the 130 women, who were then put up at Singh’s den, refused to speak when contacted. The agency then pined its hopes on the 24 who had left the Dera. They managed to track 20 of the 24 ‘sadhvis’, most of whom were now married and settled. In all, 18 were spoken to. But they refused to cooperate, fearing that it would tarnish the reputation of their families.
The snail-paced probe got a shot in the arm from the startling findings in the case of Ranjit Singh, a former staunch supporter of Singh, who was shot dead in July 2002 under mysterious circumstances. The agency found that Ranjit Singh’s sister was also a “sadhvi” in the Dera between 1999 and 2001. She was one of the 18 whom the agency had tracked down.
It turned out that Ranjit was associated with the Dera for 20 years. However, in 2000, he suddenly lost interest in the Dera and withdrew his sister and daughters from the ashram in April 2001. When the anonymous complaint surfaced in 2002, he told his father that all the allegations were correct and that Singh and his supporters suspected his role behind the complaint. There was a threat to his life, but he refused to apologise to Singh. Days later, he was killed.
Ranjit Singh’s sister was examined in February 2005, but she did not reveal much. She gave the details of Singh’s personal accommodation called gufa (cave), which used to be guarded by ‘sadhvis’. She provided brief accounts of some ‘sadhvis’ abusing Singh after they came out of his gufa. She added that Dera people were dangerous and could kill her and her family, and told the investigators that she wanted to forget about everything that had transpired there.
The victim finally opened up more than a year later, in July 2006, when she stated that Singh raped her twice, first in August 1999 and then a year later.
This was the breakthrough that the CBI had been looking for since December 2002. The victim gathered the courage to speak up after the CBI arrested a key Dera functionary and got warrants issued against two others. She disclosed to the CBI that all the ‘sadhvis’ were aware of Singh’s activities, but they remained quiet out of fear of reprisal. Singh would tell them of the enormous clout he had in political and government circles.
The second victim’s statement was recorded from May 2006 onwards. Her father disclosed that his second daughter had also been raped by the Dera chief. Statements of their relatives and some others linked to the Dera strengthened the agency’s charges. Armed with strong corroborative and circumstantial evidence, the CBI filed a chargesheet against Singh on July 30, 2007, under Sections 376 (rape), 506 (criminal intimidation) and 509 (insulting a woman’s modesty) of the Indian Penal Code.
The charges were framed against Singh on September 6, 2008. During the trial, the CBI counsel examined 15 witnesses and the accused. A witness was examined as a court witness on the Supreme Court’s orders in November 2016. But it would take nine years for the trial to come to a closure. The defence examined 37 witnesses and the final arguments were concluded on August 17 this year. On August 25, the special CBI court finally held Singh guilty of raping two women and issuing criminal threats, for which he was subsequently sentenced to a total of 20 years of rigorous imprisonment.
The faithful, however, remain unmoved by the charges against their spiritual leader. As we prepare to leave, tales of miracles performed by Singh, reformer for his followers even if rapist according to the law, flow thick and fast.
Shyam Mehta, another resident of Sirsa town and an avid follower of the Dera, tells us how the fortunes of his brother-in-law’s business changed, offering it as proof of Singh’s powers. “My brother-in-law, who lives in Bhiwani, had a small grocery shop 12 years ago. He visited the Dera to seek blessings of Pitaji. The same year, he started a mobile phone business in Delhi. Today he owns two showrooms: one in Delhi and the other in Bhiwani. He is a millionaire now,” he says with pride and devotion in his voice.
It doesn’t stop there. The prayers of a distant relative were also answered by Papaji, he says. “She was desperate for a child after 13 years of marriage. All Pitaji said was ‘Ho jayega’ (It will happen). And she was pregnant within five months,” he says. Regardless of who says what, for his followers Singh is a messenger of god.
But where there is disbelief for some there is victory and hope for others. Hours after the sentencing of Singh on August 29, there is a quiet sense of relief in Ranjit Singh’s house in Kurekshetra. Well-wishers drop by the two-storey bungalow. “I hope he (Gurmeet Singh) will be sentenced for my husband’s murder too,” says Ranjit Singh’s wife.