Jailed sect leader: Why deras command huge following

2017-08-29 08:31
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in Mumbai, India. (Punit  Paranjpe, AFP File)

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in Mumbai, India. (Punit Paranjpe, AFP File)

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Rohtak - The sentencing of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the controversial leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, has raised questions about the functioning of "deras" in India.

A dera is a social welfare and spiritual organisation with a leader as its head, who commands the trust and devotion of their followers.

Singh, known by his moniker Ram Rahim, was on Monday sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping two female followers in 1999 at the sect's headquarters in the city of Sirsa in Haryana state.

Singh has led a flamboyant and opulent lifestyle. He has produced music albums and films, which he has starred in.

Gory details of Singh sexual encounters with his followers, as well as the castration of hundreds, have come to light during his trial.

In recent years, many sect leaders or "babas", as they are known in India, have come under scrutiny over allegations of sexual harassment and corruption.

At the same time, some deras have forged close ties to political parties. Under Singh, Dera Sacha Sauda has openly supported the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules at the federal level as well as in Haryana.

"I think where all these babas and deras go wrong is in getting enticed by the corrupting politician's allurements; or, in thinking that they can exploit the politician for their own use. No one - and, that means, no one - ever gets the better of the politician," wrote Harish Khare, editor-in-chief of the Tribune newspaper.

But not all deras are centres of corruption and exploitation.

There are about 10 000 deras with millions of followers in northern Punjab state alone. The majority of those who attend the deras come from the lower castes or classes, which form one-third of the state's population.

Ronki Ram, a professor at Panjab University in Chandigarh, the capital of both Haryana and Punjab states, says people find equality at deras and do not face discrimination.

"In a society like India, which is hierarchical in terms of caste and religion, the people who belong to lower castes and class mostly go to deras. But some people from the upper or rich class and caste also go there. But the majority of people, nearly 80%, belong to the lower caste," Ram said.

"They also provide many services such as the free community kitchen or langar, subsidised items for the household. Deras also run schools and colleges providing good education at cheaper rates."

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