Interview: Prof. Santosh Kumar Singh

Deras & Dalit identity

Print edition : September 29, 2017

Prof. Santhosh Kumar Singh.

Interview with Professor Santosh Kumar Singh.

Professor Santosh Kumar Singh of Ambedkar University, Delhi, has researched on and engaged with the Ravidassia religious movement in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh for the past several years. He spoke to Frontline on the recent developments around the Dera Sacha Sauda. Excerpts:

What is the historical necessity for deras?

Deras, variously referred to as akharas and ashrams, are typical of the north-west frontier region, which includes Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh in present-day India. A dera broadly connotes religious congregations around a living guru and is largely seen as an offshoot of the mainstream religious tradition. The Western notions of religion as watertight compartments do not fit in the Indian context. Our belief systems are more fluid; more often than not one stream flows into another. In other words, our world is not so much about boundary as it is about porosity and intercultural permeability. The north-western region, being an entry point, has been a crucible of multiple ideas and streams. The region also happens to be the seat of Sikhism, which was founded by Guru Nanak essentially as a counter to Hinduism’s orthodoxies and hierarchical caste principles and to propose an egalitarian space.

Deras are, at the same time, a reminder of our larger traditions of argumentation and counter views in the domain of culture and religion. Several deras have flourished here as they disagreed with the mainstream either philosophically or in other terms such as codes or false claims to the “gurudom”. Guru Nanak’s son Sri Chand Maharaj disagreed with his father and founded a new stream called Udasi Dera, which extolled the virtues of an ascetic life, contrary to Guru Nanak’s emphasis on household and this world. These deras became a favourite refuge of Dalits and people of the lower castes in the region because the mainstream, contrary to its premises and promises, gradually became discriminatory, and caste-like formations emerged there. For instance, although textually Sikhism is an equalitarian religion, in practice the lower castes and the untouchables could never be adequately integrated. The phenomenon of separate gurdwaras and funeral grounds for Dalits in the villages of Punjab is a testimony to the exclusionary practices prevalent in the mainstream. The Jat Sikhs and others emerged as dominant castes because of their monopoly over land, which led them to monopolise the Panth.

There are deras of all hues and orientations. There are both Sikh and non-Sikh deras. Namdhari and Nirankari, for instance, are Sikh deras as they follow the Sikh maryada, or code of conduct. Deras that accommodate other religious traditions, along with some of the Sikh maryada, are non-Sikh deras. In both deras, there is an element of a living human guru, and that is what makes the deras appear subversive to the mainstream as their panthic prescriptions prohibit the notion of a living guru. The Sikh tradition and its 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, brought a closure to the idea of “gurudom” beyond 10 gurus. The holy book Guru Granth Sahib is considered the Guru since then. It is this and other ways of tampering with the panthic traditions that make the relation between the dera and Sikhs strained.

What kind of ideas did Ram Rahim preach to win so many followers? What is the Dera Sacha Sauda’s history and how did Ram Rahim come to head it? Are the stories of coercion to be believed?

The Dera Sacha Sauda was founded in 1948 by one Sufi sant Mastana Beparwah of Balochistan, as a small spiritual and social organisation. In the 1960s, it was taken over by Baba Satnam Singh, and it was in the early 1990s that Gurmeet Singh took over the gaddi [seat]. There are many stories about the transition. Some stories point to criminal coercion, while others, especially those from dera supporters, believe he was spotted by Satnam Singh, who found the young man eligible and endowed with divine virtues. Gurmeet Singh came from a landlord Jat family in Ganganagar district in Rajasthan. His parents were followers of Baba Satnam Singh and were regular visitors to the Dera.

It is only later that Gurmeet Singh added Ram, Rahim and Insan to his name, probably to make himself and his Dera more appealing to people of all faiths. It is in his time that the Dera witnessed massive expansion, and his following increased multifold and the Dera headquarters at Sirsa, Haryana, transformed from a small derato a Dera with more than 700 acres [280 hectares] with massive infrastructure.

The region has a strong presence of Dalits. For instance, Punjab has the highest percentage of Scheduled Castes in the population [32 per cent] in the whole of India. Their alienation and disillusionment with the mainstream resulted in a huge number of this segment, along with other lower and backward castes, gravitating towards deras such as the Dera Sacha Sauda. The 1990s also happen to be a watershed in the country’s economic history as large-scale policy shifts took place towards privatisation and liberalisation. It is no surprise that these deras filled in these spaces through their philanthropic and social welfare activities in education and health. The poor and weaker sections, especially the most vulnerable, naturally found these deras trustworthy and of immense help.

For example, the Dera Sacha Sauda had built huge networks in the region through drug de-addiction camps as the region’s youth were badly hit by the menace of drug abuse. Post Green Revolution, stories of farmers’ suicide, agrarian crisis and decline in agriculture were heard. It is in these tumultuous decades that the Dera Sacha Sauda really expanded its base through some smart strategies, keeping in view the region’s changing social and economic profile.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s discourses, for example, used to be extremely earthy, with old-world wisdom and moral preaching that extolled virtues such as respect for parents and elderly people and love for family and brotherhood. He kept a conscious distance from anything that was esoteric or grand philosophy. Clearly, he was aware of his clients’ socio-educational and economic profile. His discourses catered largely to the illiterate or semi-literate, poor agri-gentry and became extremely effective. Premis [lovers], as his followers were called, loved their pitaji [father], especially when he ventured into films and songs. For his followers, all this only added to his charisma.

How is the Dera Sacha Sauda different from the more political deras such as the Sachkhand Ballan?

Just because most deras have a large Dalit base does not mean all of them could be considered to espouse aspirations of Dalit empowerment and politics around subaltern issues. The dera of Sachkhand at village Ballan, also known as Dera Ballan, near Jalandhar, for instance, is a Ravidassia dera that forefronts its ambition and political objectives around its religious guru, Sant Ravidas, a 15th century Bhakti poet belonging to the same caste as the followers of Dera Ballan. Dera Ballan has been in existence for close to a century. It has been in the news recently for articulating the independent religious identity of Ravidassia Dharma, especially since 2009 when one of its sants, Sant Ramanand, was killed in Vienna, Austria. The dera later brought out its own holy book, Amritbani Ravidas Maharaj. Such is the level of political awakening that the Dera Ballan has more pictures of Ambedkar in the shops outside and within its premises than those of its own sants. The Dera Ballan’s salutation, “ Jo bole so nirbhay, Guru Ravidas Maharaj ki jai” [those who hail Ravidas do not need to fear], resonates with “ Jai Bhim”, the salutation of Ambedkarites. The dera is actively engaged in building and developing the birthplace of Guru Ravidas in Varanasi. In comparison, there is absolutely no presence of Ambedkar or other heroes of Dalits in the Dera Sacha Sauda. It is all about its star guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, and his larger-than-life image, carefully constructed through market, money and materialist props.

Ambedkar realised the importance of culture and religion in the empowerment of a community and he set the example when he embraced Buddhism. But the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has not addressed that need of people. Is that why it is mostly Dalits and people belonging to the backward classes who form the core base of most deras?

In this respect, Ambedkar was simply outstanding among his contemporaries, someone who looked at the emancipatory possibilities within religion, provided it contained justice as its core principle. For him, Hinduism lacked that core. As for the BSP, it is ironic it has a mere rudimentary presence in the land of Babu Kanshi Ram and Mangoo Ram. Dalits are divided between two mainstream political parties, the Indian National Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal, and despite a substantial numerical presence, they have very little political base. The BSP chief, Mayawati, focussed more on her base in Uttar Pradesh; Punjab largely remained insignificant in her scheme of things. Deras’ affiliations, paradoxically, have gone against the cause of larger Dalit consolidation.

For instance, Valmikis and other groups in the region do not quite approve of the Dera Ballan’s foisting of the Ravidassia identity [on folllowers]. Many Ravidassia, too, are critical of the Dera Ballan, especially those who consider the Ad-Dharmi project of Babu Mangoo Ram a better model of Dalit identity crystallisation in the region. But the times have changed. The younger lot, an extremely articulate and modern generation, are familiar with Ginni Mahi’s Chamar Pop Songs but know very little about Babu Mangoo Ram, as I found out during one of my dinner meetings with a rich businessman’s family from Boota Mandi in Jalandhar. These young boys and girls take pride in their Chamar Ravidassia identity.

The followers of Dera Sacha Sauda are being painted with the same brush as Gurmeet Singh. Is that a correct depiction?

That is most unfortunate. The media painted his followers as criminals, and that was unfair. Most of them were victims of certain sociocultural and economic conditions, which the Dera Sacha Sauda exploited to lure these people under the garb of religion.

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