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.”
In rural areas of Punjab and Haryana, where there is significant alcohol and drug abuse, the practices preached by the DSS are effective in attracting followers. Rajendra Singh, a retired government employee, who is a resident of Makimpur, listed the DSS’s teachings: “Abstinence from alcohol; abstinence from non vegetarian food; and accepting women of the same age as one’s sister, elder women as one’s mother, and younger women as one’s daughter.” He added that non-vegetarian food was considered “rakshasi khana,” or demon food, in the Hindu religion. “In our Hindu religion, we believe that only a guru can help us attain moksha,” he said. He said that it was his pursuit of attaining moksha that led him to became a follower and attend the DSS’s satsangs.
Jain Rana, a resident of Bahalgarh village who continues to be a staunch follower of the DSS after Singh’s conviction, told me that the Bahalgarh ashram has a four-layered mobilisation process. At the top is a 45-member apex committee that visits the DSS headquarters at Sirsa often and attends meetings with the DSS chief. The committee determines the ashram’s decisions on various issues, including the recruitment of new members and on methods to address problems faced by residents of the region in which the ashram is located. The apex committee passes on the directions of their guru to a 25-member committee, comprising senior followers of the ashram. The 25-member committee prepares a strategy to implement the directions of the apex committee and is also responsible for recruiting new members to the ashram.
At the third tier of its organisational structure is a 15-member body. Comprising followers who work on the ground in their respective districts, this body is guided by the recommendations of the 25-member committee and implements these in each village. The 15-member committee appoints an individual in each village, who is termed the “Bhangi Dass,” who mobilises its residents and encourages them to join the Dera. (The term “Bhangi” is a caste slur often used to refer to the Scheduled Caste community that would traditionally clean toilets. A report published in The Tribune on 24 August notes that the term lends “respect” to the community by identifying a DSS unit-head with the name. It adds, “That is why so many low-caste people are Dera followers.”)
The 15-member committee is responsible for organising satsangs and the Bhangi Dass mobilises residents of a village to attend it. Devout followers such as Rana are known within the DSS as satsangis, because they attend the satsangs religiously and adopt a life governed by the practices of the Dera. According to Rana, a follower is accorded the status of a satsangi when the spiritual leader tells them a “secret mantra.” Rana told me that although he no longer followed Gurmeet Singh, his and his family’s faith in the cult is unassailable. “The mantra that he gave us isn’t wrong,” Rana said. “All of us continue to chant that.”
Most of the satsangis I spoke to—at least 15 in each village—were hesitant to speak about their continuing faith in Gurmeet Singh after his conviction, and I had to persuade them to discuss it. I also visited the homes of some of these devotees—in several houses in each village, photos and posters of the organisation and its leaders, including Singh, were still stuck to the walls. Rana, however, said that he had gone back to worship Beparawah Mastana and Satnam Singh—the first and second heads of the organisation—and had removed the posters and pictures of Singh. The door to his son’s house also bore a sticker of the DSS’s insignia—a symbol containing the religious iconography associated with Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
Rana became a satsangi in 1992, and his son Uttam Singh, who was in his thirties and ran a grocery shop, became one in 2004. While Uttam said he began following the Dera because of his father, Rana told me he joined the Dera because he believed that it was what a Hindu should be doing. He said their family had joined the DSS because of their belief in the Hindu religion. “Satsang toh acchi cheez hoti hai”—A satsang is a good thing, he said. “Hindu dharm mein toh hum isse accha mante hain”—In the Hindu religion, we consider it to be a good thing.
Mahipal Dral, a 32-year-old resident of Dipalpur, was more critical of the organisation. Starting at the age of 13, Dral said, he regularly visited the DSS’s ashrams in Sirsa and Barnawa, in Uttar Pradesh. Drar added that as soon as he became an adult, he stopped going to the ashram, stopped reciting the mantra, and stopped wearing any symbol of the DSS. “They were just creating blind followers,” he said.
He added that people would drop women members of their families at the ashram, as an offering in “service” of the DSS, and that the women would then live in the ashram and work for the rest of their lives. He continued, “Aise hi pathar todte hain aur kheti karte hain”—they would crush stones and farm. According to him, the satsang preachers convinced the followers that anyone working for Gurmeet Singh was doing god’s work.
The methods of mobilisation adopted by the DSS also included taking the villagers en masse to watch Singh’s movies. At around ten kilometres from the villages, which are situated on Grand Trunk Road, is the TDI mall. DSS followers in all three villages told me that every month, the Bahalgarh ashram arranged for buses to pick up all the villagers and took them to the mall, free of cost. At the mall, they said, they were shown movies from Singh’s MSG series of movies at the Q Cinema theatre, which the ashram would book for the screenings.
Raj Singh, a resident of Makimpur, said that a DSS member would visit every house in the village and tell them that they would be shown a movie in a multiplex without them having to spend a penny. “A lot of people go to watch the film because of this,” he said. In Dipalpur, Mahipal Antil said that these occasions were like picnics for the villagers. “Irrespective of whether they ever attended the satsangs, they go to watch the movies, and eventually get attached to the ashram activities,” he added.
Ranbir Singh, a 60-year-old resident of Makimpur and Rajendra’s elder brother, said he started attending satsangs five years ago at his wife’s insistence. He continued to do so for two years before he stopped. When I met Ranbir, he was slouched on his charpoy in the lobby of his home, smoking a hookah against the background of three buffaloes mooring. He said his wife thought it would help him to quit drinking alcohol. “But they did nothing,” he continued. “The preacher would just ask all the addicts to stand up in front of all the people and ask us to leave alcohol as soon as possible.” He said he stopped attending the gatherings because he found them humiliating. “It did not help,” he added. “I still drink today. I drink whisky every day.”
Rajendra told me that he has been a satsangi since 1995 and that he would continue to believe and follow the teachings of the DSS his whole life. He said he continued to believe in the DSS because he valued the three teachings, but added that he had stopped considering Gurmeet Singh his guru, because the latter had failed to abstain from sexual relations with women. Rajendra told me he was deeply hurt when he discovered that Gurmeet Singh had raped women. “Satsang mein toh kabhi galat baat nahi bola unhone”—He never said anything untoward during the satsangs.
Jai Bhagwan, another resident of Mukimpur, also told me that he had attended satsangs in the past on his wife’s insistence that they would rid him of his alcohol addiction. I asked him if he was able to stop drinking. “No, not at all,” he responded. “I’m drunk right now.”
Several DSS followers in the villages told me they attended satsangs in the hope of finding a solution for their familial troubles. According to Devi Sharma of Makimpur, this hope was why women were normally the first within families to become followers. “Women as home makers are always the ones who find herself at receiving end of any problem that arise in a family,” Sharma said. “Whether it’s about husband’s alcohol addiction, his unemployment, any disease, or any kind of other financial problem—the women of the house always suffer.”
Sharma said each house in the village faced at least one of these issues. As a result, she added, when DSS members visited their houses, listened to their grievances, and told them that their problems would be resolved by attending the satsang, women would immediately agree to do so. She continued, “The women think, ‘What is the problem in going once or twice if it’s a satsang?’” According to Jodhka, the professor of sociology, “there is a lack of platforms for redressal of family-related issues” because governments in India have always assessed development in terms of economics. As a result, he said, “These babas fill in those gaps and provide a sense of security.”
Sharma told me satsangi women had come to her house as well. She said she attended satsangs for a brief period in 2015, but that she soon became disillusioned with it. Sharma’s mother, Mankaur Sharma, sat beside us and constantly swore at Gurmeet Singh throughout the conversation. At one point, Mankaur asked, “Why would we go to him? We are Brahmins. We ourselves are god.”
In Dipalpur, Anil Antil, a young resident who was formerly a follower of the DSS, told me about another method of mobilisation through which he had become a follower. Anil told me he played cricket in the district and that he visited the Bahalgarh ashram in 2013, when the ashram organised a cricket tournament in which he participated. “It was a district-level tournament and the entry was free for any team,” he said.“Some prize was also going to be distributed by Ram Rahim,” he added.
Anil recalled that during the break between two innings of the match, the players were made to hear the DSS’s satsangs. He told me he stayed in the ashram till the completion of the tournament, but never visited the ashram again. “They make you go crazy,” Anil said, referring to the satsangis at the Bahalgarh ashram. “They say, ‘Pitaji is everything, leave everything and come to us.’”
The Dera’s network and means of mobilisation has resulted in the creation of followers who appear to have a cult-like loyalty to it. In Makimpur, I visited the house of Naresh Singh, the village’s Bhangi Dass. A sticker of MSG was stuck to his door. Naresh’s 17-year-old daughter, who asked to remain anonymous, answered the door and informed us that her father was not home. I asked her about the conviction. She told me that her faith in “Pitaji” had not wavered, and was the same as it had always been. “This is all a conspiracy against him,” she said.When I asked her what the conspiracy might be, she refused to discuss it further. “If I say something, you will write against me,” she said. “Media is showing only one side.”