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The lure of the dera

The sect caters to the diversity of livelihoods in a way social workers cannot match

August 28, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

GURGAON, HARYANA, 16/01/2015: Supporters wearing the T shirt duing a press conference regarding the release of the movie- Messanger of God by Shant Gurmeet Ram Rahim, in Gurgaon on January 16, 2015.  
Photo: Manoj Kumar

GURGAON, HARYANA, 16/01/2015: Supporters wearing the T shirt duing a press conference regarding the release of the movie- Messanger of God by Shant Gurmeet Ram Rahim, in Gurgaon on January 16, 2015. Photo: Manoj Kumar

The Dera Sacha Sauda sect headed by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is a fascinating phenomenon which cannot be analysed through the standard upper middle-class lens that dismisses it as a criminal or law and order problem.

The Dera is a mirror to middle-class fantasies, a mirror which captures modernity by caricaturing and distorting it. A part of it is seen in Singh himself. His name embodies an idea of equality, the equality of all religions which goes beyond any secular ideology. Secular ideologies are often dry today, while the Dera search has a stamp of fantasy, a yen for the latest technology. In fact, the symbolic power of technology is in desire fulfilment, and Singh’s group captures it. However, Singh wishes to say technology does not make you a robot, but a prophet, a superhero, a genius ready to help humanity.

The dream of equality

Listen to his song, ‘Love Charger’. There is a poignant mediocrity to his performance. Bhakti and karaoke combine in good measure as he sings an ode to the Satguru. In English, the mysticism disappears and rap and pop sneak up on you as laughable, watered-down mysticisms. The text is repetitive. You condemn it, but your body dances to it and you find yourself mumbling the lyrics. It is a song every student of mine hums, a karaoke song to god and guru exclaiming a faith where “any moment, any problem, in heart call you.”


It could be dismissed as being ludicrous but the ludicrous sometimes captures our dreams more fully. The dream of equality can go back to the Bhakti movement, or it can summon the French Revolution. One thing is clear: democracy and modernisation have not delivered equality. The lower castes, the Other Backward Classes needed an imagination beyond the aridity of socialism and Marxism, the promises of equality that offer little. In the drudgery of routine made more meaningless by modernity, the pidgin of faith that Singh espouses makes sense, provides a sense of communitas, welcoming the poor and the discarded in a way that ideology cannot. English middle-class snobbishness dismisses the sect as mediocre, as a law and order problem. But fantasy and faith go together to create a circus of desire where quackery and belief can co-exist. This needs to be understood. Few will wonder how these Satsangs pervade lower middle-class life and provide a poetics to small-town life. Here one can erect a dream of success, a millennial faith in technological happiness, where Singh revs up a sense of anticipation.

Perusing a list of Dera Sacha Sauda ashrams in India, one can see them as terrains of social service or as personal enclaves full of sexual kinkiness, most probably a combination of both. These groups are large, and States like Haryana, Bihar, Punjab and Rajasthan are fertile grounds for people who dream of a millennial equality, where good and evil combine. Do our progressives ever ask why this man thinks of the actual lives of widows and sex workers, while our ideologues talk of abstract equality? Here, governance and empathy work for marginal groups which are accepted without condemnation. Agreed, the roots of exploitation might also be seeded here, but how do you separate, judge, and provide the report cards?


Imagine doing a human indicators study of these ashrams, comparing them with enclaves where the government has conducted its welfare projects. If these groups are evaluated on the ideas of community, solidarity and well-being, they will probably receive a better rating. So, is the secular the only idiom of justice or are there other vernaculars? Do we dismiss the faith of these people on their guru as another ridiculous Ganesh phenomenon?

It is true that the relation between these groups and electoral politics is a bit seedy. The size of the following makes politicians see them as vote banks, pamper them with real estate, turn a blind eye to the little exploitations and the sheer defiance of the government that must be going on in these enclaves. Politicians love to be invited as VIPs to these enclaves where spectacles are created which can boost their egos. Complicity and conviviality between these groups is witnessed as each fine-tunes the other in their joint march to power and history.

Grey areas

The challenge today is, how do we look at the aspirations of people without treating them with contempt, without orientalising them, as many in the West do when they imagine India as a land of gurus without sensing that some of these groups have the same ardour and faith that fundamentalism abroad is displaying? How do we separate the different Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhs: the reformer, the devotee, the fraud, the rapist? How does a culture look at such a man without falling between a lazy secularism and a multi-coloured fundamentalism?


As citizen social scientists today, we have to go beyond the knee-jerk celebrations and dismissals. The demographic emergence of millennial ashrams is a source of concern and curiosity. How do these ashrams, which deal with small-town meaning and modernity, appear and become global phenomena? How do they acquire so much freedom so as to become parallel communities which challenge the official? How long have they been beyond the scrutiny of law and order forces? How could so many of them assemble arsenal? It is almost as though these ashrams are enclaves of secession, of groups which have diffused their life and lifestyles as different from the mainstream. The sense is that unlike Sadhguru or Sai Baba, these groups do not need to associate with government; they have the confidence and culture to challenge it on the streets.

The old notion of civil society of the secular NGO, the idea of public does not quite fit our democracies today. Our biggest NGOs are religious groups, which are often little multinationals in terms of the power they wield. Dismissing these groups as bad faith will not do. People and even the government realise that at moments of disaster these groups have the power and commitment to be among the best disaster-managers. Their work ethic and their religiosity create a network of competence that the state and secular humanitarians cannot match. They read the classifications of marginal beyond standard categories and cater to the diversity of livelihoods in a way social workers cannot match. Their ideology is a bricolage of Bhakti, technology, spirituality and social science, the very idioms in which many of us speak. These groups provide a mirror to an alternative future which our secular Constitution has no sense of. We have two options: dismiss Ram Rahim Singh as a law and order problem or go out and understand what is happening to our culture today under the stress of modernity and globalisation. The proliferation of goddesses, the epidemic of gurus, and the appeal of millennialism reveals that India is a mix of secularism, faith, and superstition that has an experimental pluralist quality to it. It demands that we step out of our drawing-room ideas of governance and social science and get a vernacular sense of what India is thinking beyond the realm of consumption and marketing today.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University

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