KHANPUR KOLIAN village in Pipli block in Kurukshetra district of Haryana lies on the Grand Trunk Highway. The narrow entry to the village is as nondescript as its location, but it is from here that in 2002 an anonymous letter went out to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and to a few concerned citizens in the village. Others to receive the copy were Jagmati Sangwan, the then general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, and Raja Ram Handaiya, the president of the Rationalist Society.
Khanpur Kolian was the ancestral home of its seven-time sarpanch, Joginder Singh, who was an ardent follower of Gurmeet Singh. All his children, including his five daughters and the only son, Ranjit Singh, served at the Dera Sacha Sauda. A Jat, Joginder Singh organised satsang s whenever Gurmeet Singh was in the area. Ranjit Singh was an important sewadaar [worker] in the Dera from 1972 and handled the prayer meeting expenses of Pipli. “There was a special room for Baba ji in our house,” Ranjit Singh’s college-going son said. The family owned about 100 acres (40 hectares). Joginder Singh was afraid that his only son would fall into bad company and decided to send him to the Dera. Joginder Singh had a good reputation in the village and that influenced many people from the village and the neighbouring areas to join the Dera. The anonymous letter also reached Balwant Singh, a “rationalist” and a friend of the sarpanch. “We were sitting at a tea shop when the postman arrived with the letter. It had no name; the sender’s address was smudged. Some of us read it and the contents just shocked us beyond words,” he told Frontline .
It was May 2002. No one knew who had penned the letter though it contained a reference to an influential sewadaar from Kurukshetra and a sadhvi who had quit the Dera. “I didn’t know that Ranjit had left the Dera. Ranjit was a sewadaar and a top-ranking official in the special 10-member committee of the Dera,” said Balwant Singh. On July 10, 2002, Ranjit Singh was shot dead by assailants as he was returning from the fields. The needle of suspicion pointed to the Dera. There was a strong rumour that Ranjit Singh’s sister was the woman disciple referred to in the letter and that the letter had been written by him. Balwant Singh and Handaiya received threats for allegedly writing and circulating the letter. Handaiya was beaten up by Dera followers and was asked to seek a pardon from the Dera if he wanted to live. The turning point came when Poora Sach editor Ram Chander Chhatrapati was shot at outside his home on October 24. He succumbed to his injuries on November 21, 2002. All of Sirsa came out in protest. It was the first public protest against the Dera.
The High Court directed the District and Sessions Judge, Sirsa, to inquire into the anonymous letter. The Sirsa judge, in his report, said that nobody in the Dera was prepared to disclose anything about the sexual abuse of girls and that none could enter their hostel without the Dera head’s permission. The report also said that “the possibility of such acts could not be ruled out” and the truth could be ascertained if the matter was investigated by a central agency. The Central bureau of Investigation (CBI) stepped in on the directions of the High Court.Dera’s origins
The Dera Sacha Sauda was established in 1948. Gurmeet Singh, who later added Ram Rahim to his name, originally belonged to a Jat Sikh landowning family in Rajasthan. He became the head of the Dera in 1990. The organising committee of the Dera and its heads were from “upper” castes; the bulk of its followers were from the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes. The Dera Sacha Sauda was originally located in land spread over 25 acres (10 hectares). It gradually added 600 acres (240 hectares), mostly during Gurmeet Singh’s time.
Residents of Begu village adjoining the Dera land said that Dera followers intimidated them into selling their land. “The Dera did offer good rates, so farmers parted with the land. But there was an element of fear as well,” said a teacher in Begu.
The educated sadhvis of the Dera taught students while the uneducated women disciples looked after the young children. In 2005, the CBI got the information that 53 sadhvis were staying in the Shah Satnamji Girls Hostel, 80 sadhvis were in the ashram of the Dera, and 24 sadhvis had left the Dera. Some 20 of the 24 who had left between 1997 and 2002 could be traced. Most of them were married and initially declined to speak for fear and concerns about family reputation.
Frontline spoke to a cross section of people, including Dera followers, in Sirsa. A ritual involving the giving of an exclusive “name” to Dera followers made them feel special. The concept of “naam dena” was lifted from the Gurbani (various teachings of Sikh gurus), and the followers were told that the “name” kept them alive even after death. “They were made to believe that the baba had a direct link with that ethereal space,” said Virender Bhatia, a Sirsa-based writer. The devotees were given monetary incentives to bring new members. The Dera Sacha Sauda had its own administrative units. Titles such as “Bhangidass” were conferred on nodal persons who would be responsible for holding meetings, recruiting new members and spreading the philosophy of the Dera head. They would also be used to mobilise votes for any particular party that had “received the blessings” of the Dera head. Bhangi is a derogatory term used by caste Hindus for the Dalit scavengers in northern India. By adding the suffix of “dass”, Gurmeet conferred an aura of respectability to an occupation considered to be inferior in the caste hierarchy.
A good number of Dera followers were women, who sought refuge or looked for spiritual solace. “Our work is not appreciated in our homes. In the Dera, we get recognition,” said a woman follower. In short, they were made to believe that they were equals in an unequal system and Gurmeet Singh had answers for all the problesm they faced in their lives. His new religion was “insan” (human being) and his acolytes were given the suffix “Insan”. It was an opiate of a different kind, that which offered ephemeral equality.
Vegetables and other products “blessed” by the Baba were auctioned at ridiculous rates. A crate of grapes was bought by a Dera follower for Rs.25 lakh; a pumpkin was sold for Rs.67,000; one okra piece was sold at Rs.5,000. Musical nights called “Roohani Nights” with high-priced tickets were organised within the Dera where Gurmeet Singh performed. The Dera complex boasted a five-star floating hotel, hospitals, colleges and schools as well as a cricket stadium. Observers recalled the passion with which Dera followers worked. For instance, a sewer line was set up within a month without the use of machines. The Dera got the tender from the government.Two women change the narrative
No investigation could be carried out before 2005 as the Supreme Court had granted a stay in December 2003. The stay was vacated in October 2004. The CBI zeroed in on 18 of the 24 sadhvis who had left the Dera. Getting them to depose before the CBI was still a problem. Two of them finally decided to come out with the truth. Their testimonies were horrifying. One of them was posted as a sentry at the entrance to the “gufa”, or den, which was Gurmeet Singh’s sanctum sanctorum. While on sentry duty, she saw two other sentry sadhvis enter the cave in the night and leave the site in a disturbed state. One of them abused Gurmeet Singh while the other wept. The main prosecuterix told the CBI that she had been raped by Gurmeet Singh twice but she was unable to leave the Dera as her brother Ranjit Singh’s daughters were studying there. Her testimony was similar to the contents of the anonymous letter that detailed the circumstances of the rape. She was brainwashed into believing that she was impure on account of her “mistakes” and that the sexual experience (which was statutory rape) with the “Baba” had purified her. He warned her against disclosing the incident to anyone. She was summoned to the “gufa” a second time within a year of the sexual assault. When she refused to go, she was told that she would be denied food from the langar (community meal). She went, and when Gurmeet Singh forced himself on her, she told him that she would tell her brother everything. Gurmeet Singh allegedly said that being a staunch disciple, Ranjit Singh would not believe her and that if he did, he would get him killed. He boasted of his connections with Ministers. Within six months, she was summoned a third time. This time she freed herself before the assault could be committed. She finally told her brother, who believed her and took her and his two daughters out of the Dera in April 2001. Even this could not happen without the baba’s permission. The family did not file a police complaint.
The other prosecuterix also gave a similar testimony alleging that there was a route from the girls’ hostel to the godman’s den. When she was posted as a sentry in September 1999, she was summoned to the den. As she regarded the “Maharaj” as God incarnate, she went and was subjected to rape. She learnt later that her sister, too, had been raped. The next day, she left the Dera along with her sister when her parents came for the majli s (assembly). It was evident that in all the cases, the families of the girls had strong ties with the Dera and not all of them were from poverty-stricken backgrounds. Other sadhvis traced by the CBI also narrated similar tales of sexual exploitation.Blind faith
The sadhvi victim, the daughter of Joginder Singh, came in contact with Gurmeet Singh in 1992 when he stayed at her house in Khanpur Kolian. He told her to visit the Dera. A graduate from Kurukshetra University, she was impressed by what she saw at the Dera, and in July 1999, she started living in the Dera as a sadhvi. One of the reasons for her joining the Dera was to escape the persistent attention of a man she knew. Joginder Singh thought it would do her good to send her to the Dera, which was seen as a safe haven and a purifying experience. She was asked by the fellow sadhvis whether “ pitaji” (father), as Gurmeet Singh was known, had pardoned her. She did not then understand that “pardon” was an euphemism for rape.
On July 1, 2002, Ranjit Singh told her that people from the Dera had been threatening him regarding the anonymous letter and that he had told them that he would expose everything if the threats did not stop. “Apologise or pay with your life” was the message. Ranjit Singh refused to go back to the place he had served for 25 years. Within 10 days, he was shot dead. It was only after the arrest of two Dera followers allegedly involved in the murder that the sister came forward, with moral support from her in-laws and family, and gave her statement on March 19, 2007, to a judicial officer in Chandigarh. In the case of the second rape victim, too, it was found that two generations in her family were followers of the Dera. Her induction was but natural. She was renamed by Gurmeet Singh. Within a year of her joining the Dera, she was raped by Gurmeet Singh. She told her parents about it and left the Dera the very next day. She got married and found that her in-laws were followers of the Dere. She faced tremendous pressure in the form of phone calls, threats and compulsions to sign affidavits resiling from the charges.
The CBI interrogated senior employees of the Dera. Their statements, subjected to polygraph tests, corroborated stories of sexual exploitation. Charges of rape and criminal intimidation were framed against Gurmeet Singh as early as September 6, 2008. In his defence, the Dera head placed on record welfare activities such as alcohol de-addiction and female foeticide prevention campaigns carried out by the Dera and that he was sexually unfit to commit a rape. There was a huge delay in recording the victims’ statements. There was no formal complaint and the anonymous letter was the only basis for the case.
The final hearing in the murder charges against Gurmeet Singh will take place on September 16. The High Court ordered search and sanitisation of two Dera premises in Sirsa. Yet, there are few who speak out openly against the Dera head. “You see, we have to live here. The Dera premi s are very angry especially as the baba is in jail and many of them were shot dead,” said a Sirsa resident. Anshul Chhatrapati, son of the slain journalist, was happy that justice was done.