On the afternoon of 25 August, a Central Bureau of Investigation special court in Haryana’s Panchkula district convicted Gurmeet Singh, a self-styled godman, of raping two women in 2002. More commonly known as Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan, Singh is the third spiritual leader of the religious cult Dera Sacha Sauda. Many followers reverently address him as Pitaji, or father. On the day of Singh’s conviction, immediately after the news broke, thousands of followers of the godman laid siege to several regions across Haryana and Punjab—at least 30 people were killed in the ensuing violence.
In its aftermath, several media reports sought to explain the large following that Singh commanded—the consensus appeared to be that the “non-sectarian space” provided by the Dera Sacha Sauda attracted large numbers from oppressed-caste communities. The Indian Express wrote that a large number of DSS followers belonged to “lower Sikh and Hindu castes.” An opinion piece in The Hindu noted that Singh’s name itself “embodies an idea of equality ... which goes beyond any secular ideology.” Surinder S Jodhka, a professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, asked in an article published in the web publication The Wire: “Should we look at deras as open and casteless spaces where Dalits and the marginalised peasantry experience a sense of security and relief?” Additionally, several publications, such as the regional daily The Tribune, also noted that the DSS provided subsidised food and free healthcare that drew a large following among the marginalised communities.
Little was reported, however, about the Dera’s following among dominant-caste communities. In early September, I visited three villages—Dipalpur, Makimpur, and Bahalgarh—in eastern Haryana’s Sonipat district. Dipalpur and Makimpur are within a five-kilometre radius of Bahalgarh, where a DSS ashram is situated. The residents of these villages told me the ashram regularly held satsangs and conducted religious programs such as namcharcha, or hymn singing.
I spoke to several followers of the Dera in each village—the majority of them appeared to belong to a land-owning agrarian class. They were predominantly members of the Brahmin, Antil, Bairagi, Kumhar and Khati castes—three of which are considered upper castes, while Kumhar and Khati are classified as other backward class communities. My conversations with them shed light on the various other factors beyond the “casteless space” created by the Dera that contribute to the large following it commands. For instance, the organisation helped its residents address household problems, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, which are rampant in several rural areas of Punjab and Haryana. The Dera also adopted diverse and intensive methods of grassroots-level mobilisation, due to which even village residents who were not its followers would invariably attend its satsangs. Though I did not meet any Dalit residents in Dipalpur and Makimpur, in Bahalgarh, none of the Dalit residents I spoke to were followers of the DSS. “We only have one baba, that is Ambedkar,” a young boy among a group of teenagers in the village told me.
The DSS was established by Beparawah Mastana in 1948, in the district of Sirsa in Haryana. It now has 40 ashrams across India as well as overseas centres in Australia, United Kingdom and Italy. On its website, the DSS identifies itself as a “social welfare and spiritual organisation,” and notes that it has 60 million followers across the world. In each village I visited, the residents told me that the DSS spread its network through its women followers. Devi Sharma, a woman in her thirties who resides in Makhimpur and is a housewife, said that “Once women start visiting the ashrams, they will insist on the husbands to attend and the kids will automatically follow.”