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Dera through the Punjab lens

There is a need to urgently address disquiet over multiple crises

August 30, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

An Indian youth rides a bicycle past a poster of controversial guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in Sirsa on August 28, 2017.
An Indian court sentenced a controversial religious leader to 20 years in prison on on August 28 for raping two of his followers, authorities said. A lawyer for the victims had said Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had been sentenced to 10 years in jail, but India's Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) later clarified he received two consecutive 10-year sentences.
 / AFP PHOTO / STR

An Indian youth rides a bicycle past a poster of controversial guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in Sirsa on August 28, 2017. An Indian court sentenced a controversial religious leader to 20 years in prison on on August 28 for raping two of his followers, authorities said. A lawyer for the victims had said Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had been sentenced to 10 years in jail, but India's Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) later clarified he received two consecutive 10-year sentences. / AFP PHOTO / STR

It was a decade ago that the shroud of banality ‘ Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan ’ spun fell on Punjab, in particular the Sikh community. I saw it first-hand in the summer of 2007 when my mother lay dying from stage IV cancer in Mandi Dabwali, south Punjab, 40 km from Sirsa where he is the head of a Dera. Soon after Baisakhi that year, Gurmeet Singh — whose rise remains shrouded in mystery and who was already charged with rape and accused in the murder of journalist Ramchandra Chhatrapati — had imitated the tenth Sikh Guru Gobind Singh’s clothing and ritual Khande di Pahul while conducting the initiation for the followers of his cult, the Dera Sacha Sauda.

 

The Sikh faith disallows the use of the term Sacha Sauda and anyone dressing up as a guru, the term because it is associated with the first guru, Guru Nanak. When he was younger, Guru Nanak’s father gave him some money for trade, which he used instead to feed the poor and hungry. When his father asked if the deal was good, he answered it was a true deal — a sacha sauda . Though no one knows how Guru Gobind had dressed in the year 1699 at the inauguration of the Khalsa, the 20th century painter Sobha Singh had formalised the look of some of the gurus and the Sikh community had accepted the pictorial representation as an article of faith. When the self-styled godman parodied this, the Sikhs reacted. The Dera followers, called Premis (lovers), were at war against the Sikhs. The police stepped in. Curfew was imposed. Desperately and helplessly trapped, I could not leave my mother’s side. Punjab remained frozen for weeks. The community took this matter to its own court, the Akal Takht.

The rise of Gurmeet

In the last decade, the rise of the banality of Gurmeet Singh has known no bounds . He has taken on every available moniker — saint, doctor, Ram, Rahim, Insaan — and parrots messages of peace and harmony while leading a degenerate life. He has amassed Guinness world records for the largest vegetable mosaic, highest number of birthday greetings, eye scan and blood donation camps. His biography lists over 50 talents in the arts and sports. His atrocious self-promotional movies succeeded at the box office and further established the strength of numbers of his followers. Owing to his reach in the political constituencies of south Punjab and Haryana, political parties of all hues — the Akalis, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress — have patronised him. Groups of Sikhs and Premis clashed, there were attempts on his life, but he seemed above the law — a power not only unto himself but a power broker in Haryana and Punjab.

In autumn 2015, the State froze over incidents of sacrilege of the Sikh Holy Book. Again Gurmeet Singh was involved, for two reasons: one was his Dera’s alleged involvement in the stealing of a Granth Sahib from Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village, random posters appearing in villages saying the Dera would target the Sikhs; the second was the Akal Takht, under the influence of then Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal-controlled Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, finally pardoning Gurmeet Singh for the incidents of 2007, even though he never presented himself to the Takht. When Sikhs protested, the Akal Takht revoked the pardon but the anger of community against their institutions falling prey to the shenanigans of politicians led to the Sarbat Khalsa (plenary meeting) which remained inconclusive. Even the probes into the 150-odd incidents of sacrilege remained inconclusive.

 

Change in the air

Yet, something remarkable was unfolding. Whether it is river waters or lack of disclosure of the reasons to conduct Operation Blue Star or justice for victims of the anti-Sikh carnage of 1984 or probe into extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances during the militancy period of 1978-93, the Indian state has spectacularly failed in any attempt towards truth and reconciliation in a post-conflict Punjab society. But defying the dominant perception of the nation, even as the State was inflicted with desecrations, the people of Punjab — including Hindus and Muslims — curled up in anger. There were some provocations, but they were minor. Social media rage turned to black flags, large gatherings took place, local gurdwaras supported the protesters, but Punjab displayed extraordinary restraint. It did not spiral into violence. Once could be an exception but Punjab repeated it last week. The Dera Premi incidents in Panchkula left 38 dead and damage to properties in Haryana but not in Punjab.

Punjab is sending out a signal: it is shunning violence. Do not mistake this shunning of violence as an absence of disquiet. I see my mother in Punjab — multiple maladies, desperately waiting for medication and healing, which remains unavailable. The disquiet looms large in its agrarian and industrial crises, the utter lack of social and economic healing despite the change of governments. Now that the courts have acted, locked away one Baba, the next step should be to strengthen the people’s belief in systems of justice and address other long-standing grievances. It is only by establishing systems of individual and social justice that we can address post-conflict societies.

Amandeep Sandhu is working on a book on Punjab

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