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.