Godmen’s own country

The Dera Sacha Sauda fiasco is a classic example of the state-temple-business nexus and what ensues when the basic social functions of the state are “spiritualised” and contracted out to godmen.

Published : Sep 13, 2017 12:30 IST

Gurmeet  Ram Rahim Singh arrives for a press conference on the release of his film "MSG, The Warrior Lion Heart" in New Delhi in October 2016.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh arrives for a press conference on the release of his film "MSG, The Warrior Lion Heart" in New Delhi in October 2016.

Insan. Human. Homo sapiens.

This sweet Urdu word immediately evokes fellow feeling. In a community of insans, how does it matter who you are? It is your humanity, your insaniyat, that counts.

Dera Sacha Sauda, the religious order that burst into the national headlines recently, insists on identifying all followers as insans. Indeed, the moniker “insan” has almost become the trademark of Sacha Sauda and sets it apart from the competing deras (camps) in the region.

Ten years ago, the Dera’s godman, Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, began a new initiation ceremony which he called Jaam-e-Insan. Those who wished to join the Dera were to drink a ruhani jaam—a jaam, or a peg, of “humanitarian nectar” made of water, milk and rose essence (rooh-afza). Partaking of the nectar was followed by reciting a 47-point pledge (naam) whose very first commandment to the initiate was to replace (or at least, supplement) his/her caste name with one simple word, “insan”. No longer a “Sharma, Verma, Arora, Sandhu, etc.” (to cite the Dera’s website), all were now reborn as Insan, human beings. The ceremony took place on April 29 each year, the foundation day of the 69-year-old religious order, and used to be conducted by the baba himself. (The similarities with the Sikh baptism ceremony, which involves drinking of amrit [nectar] and recitation of the “Ik Onkar” verse from the Granth Sahib, are striking.)

Now that Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, aka Messenger of God, has finally got his comeuppance for his crimes, the diabolical nature of this seductive but hollow and corrupted humanism stands exposed. It capitalises on the very real hunger for fellow feeling among the struggling masses of our society and turns it into political currency to be traded for political and economic advantage.

In a society where surnames are dead giveaways for one’s caste status, it is easy to understand why such a religion of insaniyat would appeal to those who have been denied a life of dignity. What is more, Sacha Sauda supplements the symbolic humanism with material humanitarianism: it runs a network of social welfare programmes like schools, health and de-addiction clinics, speciality hospitals and vocational training programmes. Dera Sacha Sauda describes itself as a “Social Welfare and Spiritual” organisation for which it gets tax breaks and grants from the state.

It is this whole package, which ties together the need for community, spiritual meaning and material welfare, that explains the explosive growth in the popularity of Sacha Sauda, with a membership running upward of 60 million, concentrated in the States of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Maharashtra but apparently spread all over the world. For all the evidence of criminality, from rapes to murders and castrations, the “premis” remain loyal to their guru, with thousands of them terrorising the city of Panchkula after his conviction.

Providing food security, education and health are the basic obligations of the state. In a secular democracy like we claim to be, no citizen should have to barter his or her “ruhani” (spiritual) aspirations to have access to basic goods and services. Yet, this is the New Deal of neoliberal India: the fundamental social functions of the state have been “spiritualised” and contracted out to gurus and ashrams, which have amassed great wealth and power in the process.

Noxious nexus Plenty has already been written on the serial complicity of all major political parties in courting the convicted guru who, in turn, played each one of them for his own ends. In 2009, it was the Congress that received his support and won 40 assembly seats in Haryana; in 2014, it was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that got his nod and shot up from 4 to 47 seats to form the government. Once in power, a payback was expected and duly delivered. Barely 10 days before he was convicted, senior Ministers of Haryana were in attendance with Rs.51 lakh—all from public funds—as a birthday gift for the godman. There is plenty of evidence to show that the state machinery of Haryana went easy on the rampaging devotees because it was beholden to the godman for being in power in the first place.

Through all of this, the Dera managed to accumulate great wealth, with assets in land and the entertainment industry, including Ram Rahim’s movie and music ventures, running into billions of rupees. Following the lead of Baba Ramdev, the Dera launched its MSG brand of consumer items, including rice, pickles, honey and biscuits. According to Jansatta , the daily income of the Dera was over Rs.16 lakh—and that was three years ago. The icing on the cake is that all this wealth is exempt from income tax because the Dera is a religious institution.

In a nutshell, this is how the state-temple-business nexus works: the godmen buy them with votes of their followers, and they pay back with subsidies and protection, while both parties get rich on the spoils of their collaboration.

The two women who pursued justice against great odds and succeeded in having their rapist convicted deserve our admiration and gratitude—admiration for their courage, and gratitude for helping us see up close the workings of a prominent state-sponsored spiritual corporation. It is now up to us to understand the dangers of what we are faced with and do something to break this noxious nexus between spirituality, politics and money.

The biggest danger of the tie-up between state and religious institutions lies in the erosion of legal-rational sources of authority and the growth of charismatic authority centred on God-like men and women. Indeed, the very words that Max Weber, the 19th century German social theorist, used to describe charismatic authority come uncannily close to the personality type we so routinely encounter in our numerous babas and matas. Charismatic authority, according to Weber, stems from the entirely personal devotion to, and personal trust in the “quality of a personality, held out to be out of the ordinary (and originally thought to have magical powers…) on account of which the person is evaluated as being gifted with supernatural or superhuman or at least out of the ordinary power not accessible to everybody, and hence as a leader”.

It is the person deemed extraordinary, with God-like abilities of insight, grace and miracle-making, who defines what is right and wrong and who gets what. Contrast this with a constitutional or legal-rational basis of authority in which a common and impersonal set of rules and laws applies to everyone equally, the charismatic person included.

The legal-rational authority has not given way to the charismatic in India—at least not yet. After all, the law did eventually (after 15 years) catch up with the guru and he is now sitting in a prison cell. At the same time, the deep and widespread reach of charismatic authority also stands exposed in the obeisance that top elected officials (including Prime Minister Narendra Modi) routinely paid to the alleged godman of Sacha Sauda and in the response of his followers who were ready to kill and to die in his name. For his followers, Ram Rahim was not just a God-like insan, but literally God, an incarnation of Shah Mastana, who founded the Dera in 1948. Ram Rahim himself actively cultivated the image of his person as a channel through which miracles were performed, such as giving speech to the mute, eyesight to the blind, babies to childless mothers and curing AIDS and cancers.

While India is technically a country of laws, the guru culture weakens the reach of law. After all, gods and their human messengers are not bound by human laws: rape becomes “divine forgiveness” (“Pitaji’s maafi,” as the victims described it), castrations will bring you closer to God. No wonder that the Dera devotees reacted with such violent passions after the verdict, for how can you imprison God? Such “divine” lawlessness is bound to thrive in the current climate. The collusion between vote-bank politics, outsourcing of state welfare to spiritual entrepreneurs, and our cultural-religious heritage that exalts the mystic visionary, the “seer” of higher truths, over common mortals, is creating ideal conditions for the erosion of the already frayed and fragile constitutional order in the country.

To some among the Hindu Right, but also among the Left-leaning postcolonial theorists, there is nothing wrong with the balance tilting in favour of charismatic authority. On the contrary, they see it as a welcome rebalancing of India’s “colonial modernity” towards its own indigenous cultural ethos. Rakesh Sinha, a professor at Delhi University with Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh sympathies, defended the huge monetary gifts by the Haryana government to Ram Rahim as an example of “constructive engagement with the faith of millions”. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj lashed out against the guilty verdict as an insult to Indian culture and the faith of the millions.

Such sentiments find an echo in postcolonial theory which has declared war not just against Western imperialism but also against Western or Eurocentric categories of thought. True decolonisation requires “provincialising Europe” (the title of an influential book) so that we can begin to “be what we are” and not some mimetic copies of the West. Dipesh Chakrabarty, the author of the book and the quote, insists that the “hyper-rationalism” borrowed from the missionaries and colonial administrators prevents the Indian Left from sympathetically engaging with the religion of the masses to whom their gods and ghosts and spirits are very real and meaningful. Rather than try to disenchant and secularise the popular masses, a truly democratic engagement with them would require, according to Chakrabarty and his fellow-travellers, that we step into the enchanted, magical world of the masses and adopt the conceptual framework that makes the gods real.

However democratic the intentions, this is a recipe for authoritarianism of the worst kind. The problem with gods and their messengers is that they are infallible. Divine commands cannot be challenged by evidence and logic; they can only be obeyed. Besides, the assumption that the subaltern masses will only respond to charisma of godmen and that the legal-rational regime of laws is necessarily foreign to them is nothing but a form of self-Orientalisation, for it grants that the Indian mind is essentially spiritual and to think rationally is to be mentally colonised by the West. The growing visibility of religious movements in the public sphere and political affairs should surprise no one. We have not guarded the fence between religion and politics properly, and we are now reaping the whirlwind.

Keeping religion out of politics is not easy even when the boundary wall is well-demarcated and guarded, for the rhetoric of god and morality has a natural tendency to influence political affiliations and voting behaviour. Take the case of the United States, a country with the strictest separation of the two spheres. There are laws in the U.S. (notably the Johnson Amendment of 1954) that prohibit tax-exempt organisations—which includes all religious institutions—from directly or indirectly supporting or opposing any candidate for elective public office. The law did not stop evangelical preachers like Jerry Falwell from openly supporting Donald Trump in the last election. Nearly three-fourths of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump, taking him to the White House. Now that he is President, Trump has signed an executive order that aims to get rid of the Johnson Amendment. It is not clear if he will succeed in this goal, for there is a lot of resistance—even among the mainstream churches themselves—to weakening the wall between the church and the state in the U.S.

Religion and Indian secularism In India, secularism never recognised such a boundary wall in the first place. We have no laws that restrict what religious bodies can say and do when it comes to political advocacy. On the contrary, aspirants for elected office openly court religious bodies, donning the appropriate attire, touching the feet of the “holies” and participating in ritual prayers. The godmen for their part—even actors playing gods on TV or films!—use their divine auras to win political offices.

All such mixing up of two spheres is perfectly within the law in India. Indian secularism is not premised on a wall of separation but only on equal treatment to all religions: as long as all religions are theoretically allowed to jump into politics, and none is singled out for special treatment, everything goes. We don’t have an American-style First Amendment that disallows the state from entangling itself with matters of faith, and vice versa. But still, there are some things we can do. If we cannot regulate speech that crosses boundaries between politics and religion, can we not at least regulate the flow of money changing hands between the two spheres? We cannot stop politicos from courting the godmen, but why must we allow them to raid the public treasury to enrich the babas of their choice?

Recall that earlier this year, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao happily took out five and a half crore rupees from the public exchequer to make a gift of gold to the Tirumala temple. The Rs.1 crore or so that the Haryana government has gifted to Dera Sacha Sauda since it came to power is small potatoes in comparison. This is only the cash payment: there are hardly any public records of the grant of lands and other legal/administrative privileges (like setting aside environmental laws to let mega events sponsored by religious bodies, accreditation of religious universities and colleges).

What law in the Constitution prevents us from regulating the money nexus? There has been much talk of anti-corruption laws. Are politically motivated gifts to religious bodies not a form of corruption? Why should they not be regulated and brought under control? We must learn some lessons from the Dera Sacha Sauda fiasco. Otherwise, let us all get ready for many more Panchkulas.

Meera Nanda specialises in the history and philosophy of science and religions. She is the author of The God Market: How Globalization is Making India more Hindu , published by Random House in India (2009), Monthly Review Press in the United States (2011).

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