DERA is a Punjabi word for a camp, a place to rest, and a place to gather. Religious deras are congregations headed by living sants and babas that are not affiliated with mainstream faiths, even though they liberally borrow the mainstream (especially Sikhism’s) religious idioms and symbols. To quote Pramod Kumar, who directs the Institute for Development and Communication in Chandigarh: “There are six major deras in Punjab—Radha Soami, Namdhari, Dera Sacha Sauda, Nurmahal, Nirankari and Dera Sachkhand Ballan. They draw their discourses from multiple traditions like Islam, Sufism, Kabir, Christianity and Sikhism and couch them in regional dialects, myths and symbols. Dera ‘babas’ (self-appointed godmen) rely excessively on oral discourses. In this region, oral tradition is dominant and text reading is not very popular. Therefore, these babas become the sole mediators between God and the devotees for imparting holistic knowledge and guidance.”
The reverence for living sants, something that Sikhism does not allow, has been a source of sometimes serious conflicts between the deras and the orthodox Sikh establishment. (Sikhism recognises only the 10 canonical gurus.)
In fact, the first skirmish between Ram Rahim and mainstream Sikh groups happened in 2007 when the godman dressed up as Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, an act that Sikhs deemed blasphemous. A large proportion of followers of Deras comes from Dalits (who make up nearly one-third of the population of the region) who do not feel welcome in traditional Sikh gurdwaras.