The controversy over Dera Sacha Sauda, the breakaway Sikh sect, has only just begun to wind down. Early May saw a frenzy over Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who angered Sikhs by imitating Guru Gobind Singh, Sikhism’s revered Tenth Guru. Gurmeet Singh had appeared in photographs carried in two dailies, in which he wore attire similar to the Tenth Guru in order to advertise his organisation. Gurmeet Singh apologised a few weeks later, but by then the matter had escalated so far that hardline Sikhs refused to accept his contrition. Besides being belated, the subsequent apology was undercut by Gurmeet Singh himself, who defiantly stated that he wears “whatever my followers design and give me to wear”.
Groups on both sides were able to bring out supporters en masse. Under the leadership of a hardline Sikh religious group, the Damdami Taxal, more than 10,000 protesters moved towards Salabat Pura Dera, 30 km from Bhatinda, where Gurmeet Singh was alleged to have committed his act of sacrilegious imitation. There were subsequently clashes involving Sikhs and up to 3000 Dera activists, leaving at least one person killed and dozens more severely injured.
The Punjab state government, which initially attempted to maintain a distance from the issue, was forced to intervene after the supreme Sikh body, the Akal Takht, issued an ultimatum on 20 May, demanding that the state government close down all reform deras within a week. While Dera Sacha Sauda activists complained that they were being scapegoated, sword- and kirpan-bearing Sikhs blocked roads and organised dharnas. Punjabis were suddenly witness to a sight they had not seen in two decades, harking back to the days of militancy that had engulfed the state during the 1980s.
Rise of the Khalsa
Dera Sacha Sauda is one in a long line of reform movements to challenge mainstream Sikhism. But Sikhism itself initially emerged as a reform movement of sorts, in an attempt to end the caste discrimination rife in Hinduism. Established in the late 15th century by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), Sikhism grew to become the world’s fifth-largest religion on the efforts of nine additional Gurus, all of whom the Sikhs believe were inhabited by a single spirit. After the death in 1708 of the Tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, this eternal spirit was said to have transferred into the sacred scripture of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, also known as the Adi Granth.
Sikhism’s promise to give equal rights to all, without discrimination of caste or creed, led many Hindus, particularly Dalits, to join the new faith as a way to better their lives. But shaking off caste discrimination proved not so easy, and as the years passed, Sikhism too reverted to caste hierarchies. As realisation of this dawned on followers, the need was increasingly felt to initiate reform within Sikhism. The emergence of various reform movements began, with each group choosing to base itself in a different centre or camp, known as a dera.
As with reform, militancy is not new to Sikhism, which is characterised by a strong martial strand in both faith and practice. This martial tradition can be traced back to the early 17th century, when the Fifth Guru, Arjan Dev, was imprisoned by Mughal rulers, who were suspicious of the strength that Sikhism was gaining. The death of Guru Arjan Dev, in prison, prompted his followers to establish both a military and a political organisation, with which to repel further Mughal harassment. The Sixth Guru, Har Gobind Sahib, was responsible for the creation of the Akal Takht, which is still the central decision-making body of the Sikhs. Guru Har Gobind Sahib also became known for carrying two swords with him at all times – for temporal and spiritual (known as piri and miri) purposes. For the khalsa, or ‘pure’, defending the independence of Sikhism by the use of brawn became integral to the faith, a unique characteristic in comparison to the other major world religions.
Amidst reform processes and militancy, the past five centuries have seen the ebb and flow of fundamentalism within the Sikh ranks. Some of the most prominent of these schismatic uprisings have been the Nirankari, Namdhari, Radhaswami, Nirmale, Sewapanthi and Niladhari movements. Each of these groups came about in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ Sikhism. As such, though each worships the ten Sikh gurus, they also oppose some of the Sikh traditions, and mainstream Sikhs have regularly – and sometimes violently – opposed the actions of these sects.
One of the most prominent of these incidents involved the Nirankari movement, and its trajectory may prove insightful for the current situation surrounding the Dera Sacha Sauda. Sikh religious leader Dayal Das (1783-1855), from Peshawar, founded the Nirankari sect in Rawalpindi. In an attempt to ‘purify’ Sikhism of the rites and rituals that had crept in, he advocated the concept of nirankar, or a ‘formless’ god – a significant departure from the insistence on the supremacy of the text of the Granth Sahib. After Independence, the group’s base moved to Chandigarh, where, during the 1970s, Nirankari leader Avatar Singh wrote his vani, a self-proclaimed scripture. Although the Nirankaris were always adamant that their movement constituted a new ‘spiritual movement’, rather than a new religion, mainstream Sikhs reacted negatively to Avatar Singh’s vani. The tension escalated, and there were violent clashes during 1978 in Amritsar, led by hardliner Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Two years later, Nirankari leader Baba Gurbachan Singh was murdered in Delhi.
The Sikh community has constantly felt vulnerable, a feeling that comes from the perception of being politically short-changed throughout history. In 1929, at the famous Lahore session, Jawaharlal Nehru, then the president of the Indian National Congress, passed a resolution that the Constitution of India would not be finalised until it was acceptable to Sikhs. In 1946, he again reassured the Sikh community that there was nothing objectionable in the idea of Sikhs having a territory of their own. But the Congress suddenly changed its stance after 1947. When a draft of the proposed constitution began circulating in 1949, Sikhs were aghast to find that, instead of autonomous states and a federal constitution, the document proposed a purely unitary structure. Sikhs in the Punjab Assembly subsequently objected. There followed three decades of frustration with the central government of modern India, a standoff that prevented the Sikhs from consolidating their identity in a geographical territory of Punjabi-speaking people.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Sikh demands included regional autonomy for Punjab; the return of Chandigarh and other Punjabi-speaking areas in the newly created Haryana back to Punjab; a special status for Sikhs in the Indian union, as well as some protections for Sikhism; and a reworking of the allocation of river waters and electricity to Punjab. Yet, when the Sikh-dominated Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) came to power in Punjab in 1977, with support from the Janata Party, it did little to ensure that these demands were met. The dissatisfaction of the common Sikhs with the Centre was subsequently drawn upon by a militant nationalist separatist movement.
By the early 1980s, some Sikhs were calling for separate provincial statehood and even an autonomous area of their own, the Sikh khalistan, or ‘Land of the Pure’. The Sikh leader at the time, Harchand Singh Longowal, abortively attempted to avert a civil war by negotiating between the uprising and New Delhi. But Bhindranwale, who emerged at the centre of the maelstrom, had already wrapped up the support of devout Sikhs around Amritsar. State repression against the ultra-religious Amritdhari Sikhs further fanned the flames of Sikh separatism. Jagjit Singh Chohan, a leader of the Khalistan movement, subsequently called on the Sikh community to come forward and struggle for their own state. In 1984, armed with automatic weapons, members of the Khalistan movement took control of the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib.
In June of that year, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had sought to encourage a Hindu-Sikh divide amongst the Punjabis, gave her generals permission to launch Operation Bluestar. Indian troops stormed the Golden Temple, killing Bhindranwale and hundreds of armed supporters. In the mayhem, hundreds of innocent Sikhs were also killed, as well as at least 100 soldiers. The bloodbath in the Golden Temple infuriated the Sikh community, ultimately leading to the assassination of Indira Gandhi. She was killed on 31 October 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards, which in turn sparked riots that killed several thousand across India, including 2000 in Delhi alone.
The July 1985 accord between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Longowal promised to pacify some sections of the Sikhs, particularly with the handover of Chandigarh to Punjab, but also due to accessions to demands relating to water and hydroelectric power. But barely a month later, the moderate Longowal was assassinated by Sikh extremists unhappy with the deal. The violence continued to spiral, with the common Punjabi caught between Sikh militants and the increasingly brutal police repression. Hundreds of youths were killed and hundreds more ‘disappeared’.
In the early 1990s, after Punjab police chief K P S Gill had been given a “free hand” to crack down on extremists in the state, the Centre claimed success in quashing Sikh militancy. In 1993, New Delhi declared Punjabi militancy “over”. While a combination of police repression and political dealing are said to have solved the Punjab problem, undoubtedly some sparks of rebellion remain. International pro-Khalistan organisations continue to exist. The three-decade-old Dal Khalsa, based in Amritsar, was revived in the mid-1990s after a national ban on its activities expired. Also very much alive is the Babbar Khalsa group, which claimed responsibility for the 1995 killing of Beant Singh, chief minister of Punjab, who played a large role in ‘controlling’ Sikh militancy in the state. In addition to armed militant Sikh groups such as the Khalistan Commando Force and the Khalistan Zindabad Force, which target the state, other Sikh breakaway groups also continue to exist, on occasion clashing with mainstream Sikhism.
The true business
The Dera Sacha Sauda came into existence in 1948 at Sirsa, in present-day Haryana, then part of the undivided state of Punjab within India. The organisation was founded by Shehenshahji Mastana, a pious Sikh leader from Balochistan, with an eye to social reform and spiritual purification – among the Sikhs in particular, but also others in general. The organisation takes its name, sacha sauda, meaning ‘true business’, from the place where a 12-year-old Guru Nanak was believed to have fed the poor, with money given to him by his father to do business. Indeed, with a charter to include all religions in the new faith, the Dera has emphasised humility, meditation and social work. Other prominent reform deras of pre-Independence India were those of Baba Prem Singh and Peer Buddhu Shah, both in Punjab, but Dera Sacha Sauda is by far the most prominent.
There are two types of reform deras in Sikhism. The first exclusively follows the tenets of the Sikh faith, and bestows its gurus with supreme power. These deras are popularly known as being part of the Nihang group. The second type does not restrict itself to Sikhism. While neither condemning nor supporting Sikhism, this second type claims to follow the positive aspects of every religion, including Sikhism. Dera Sacha Sauda falls into this latter category, as a social reformatory ‘faith’ with its own set of guidelines. The immense popularity of Dera Sacha Sauda, which claims to have 15 million followers, is a direct result of its active reform work over the past half-century.
The Dera Sacha Sauda purports to accept no donations, but owns 700 acres of donated farming land in Punjab and Haryana, from which the bulk of the organisation’s income is drawn. (The group’s income has come under regular suspicion in recent years for Gurmeet Singh’s propensity to drive around in luxury cars.) The Dera’s physical presence goes far beyond these two states, however, and includes 36 local and urban branches in eleven states across India. In tune with its mandate, the organisation’s main outreach focus is on social work. In 1994, the Dera opened a 175-bed hospital at Gurusar Modia, in Rajasthan. In 2004, it also opened a girls’ school in Gurusar Modia. The organisation has been active in responding to disasters, such as those that have taken place in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh state. The Dera also has a number of world records under its belt, for having organised massive blood- donation drives.
Gurmeet Singh has said, “Our religion is humanity and to help the needy.” The group’s faith, considered a combination of all religions, is referred to within the Dera as insaan. Though Dera Sacha Sauda technically does not follow any one religion (other than Insaan) – its base of followers, though mostly Sikh, is also Hindu and Muslim – it is still considered a Sikh breakaway group because all three of its chiefs have been from the Sikh community. As such, the organisation’s movement away from Sikhism has inevitably irked the Sikh community, which has long criticised the Dera, as well as other deras, for ‘diluting’ the spirit of Sikhism. At times, these criticisms have been more intense than others. While violence has not been unheard of, the incidents of May 2007 were in a category of their own.
The Dera leader’s personality has not helped matters. Indeed, at the centre of the storm – several storms, in fact – is Huzoor Maharaj Sant Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh, third leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda, himself. Gurmeet Singh was born on 15 August 1967 to a devout Sikh couple in Ganganagar, a frontier town in Rajasthan. By the time he was seven, the Dera’s second guru came to know of Gurmeet – “In other words, one Master Saint found the Other one”, according to his official biography. Sixteen years later, on 23 December 1990, during the peak of the militancy in Punjab, Gurmeet Singh took over as the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda.
Subsequent years, particularly the first several months of 2007, have revealed Gurmeet Singh to be less than a ‘god incarnate’. Indeed, past indiscretions aside, he now appears to be more of a thoroughly earthly megalomaniac – even worse, one that has found, in faith, a convenient outlet for indulging his lusts. Gurmeet Singh now stands accused of murder, sexual exploitation and illegal possession of arms and ammunition, amidst longstanding demands by the Punjab and Haryana High Courts of a CBI probe. In early August of this year, the CBI filed a charge sheet against the Dera and Gurmeet Singh.
Anxieties of identity
Although it is the Dera’s social work that has been key in drawing millions of followers in recent decades, its numerical strength has given the Dera significant political clout, particularly in Punjab and Haryana. This has also made the organisation the centre of intense speculation. More than most, Punjab cannot afford to exclude religion from politics, and state politics are dominated by Sikhs. Punjab’s biggest party is the Shiromani Akali Dal, which has significant influence over Sikh religious organisations, including nearly eight decades of control over the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the most prominent Sikh religious body.
As such, when violence erupted this past spring, the SAD-led Punjab government had little space in which to turn: the state government could not suppress the Dera, given its numbers; nor could it turn its back on the mainstream Sikh community, which had come out onto the streets in the tens of thousands. Meanwhile, the SAD’s coalition partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was also experiencing difficulties, with memories still fresh over the large-scale killings of Hindus in Punjab during the 1980s. BJP worries over the possibility that Hindus would again be victimised if violence were to spiral have had the party favour a solution that would rein in both the Dera and the Sikh community at large.
Further complicating matters is the fact that, in the last state assembly elections, Gurmeet Singh threw his support not behind the SAD, but behind the Congress. Indeed, with the Congress having won 37 out of 75 seats in the Legislative Assembly during the last election, largely in constituencies that have a significant number of Dera supporters, some have even warned that the Dera is stealthily entering Punjab and Haryana politics through the backdoor. The pan-India following of the Dera Sacha Sauda could ultimately spoil the SAD’s future political ambitions.
Given that the Dera leadership encourages its followers to sacrifice their lives in the name of their guru, any action against the 15 million Dera followers throughout India could have an immediate impact on Punjab politics. At the same time, Gurmeet Singh’s alleged imitation of Guru Govind Singh has fuelled such anger among Sikhs that there now is a palpable sense of foreboding. Did this issue really deserve such attention? Meanwhile, the extent of mobilisation on the part of community points to an insecurity among the Sikhs about losing its identity – anxieties that seem based more on an imagined sense of persecution than on ground realities.
Indeed, the Dera Sacha Sauda controversy seems to have revived the dormant flicker of Sikh extremism. Given that Sikhs have the impression that deras weaken the Sikh spirit, countering these organisations is presented as a struggle to retain the ‘purity’ of Sikhism, and adhere to its fundamental teachings.
Today’s Sikh youth has moved far from the path of extremism, having emerged from the ravages of the Punjab insurgency. Young Sikhs have built new lives by forgetting their past, and realise that religious fundamentalism and militancy not only destroy ethnic diversity, but also put secularism in danger of collapse. Yet, with religious extremists having found a new lever, the hold of rational elements may be more tenuous than many realise. There is tension in the air in Punjab, and the renewed violence potentially inviting Sikhs to travel back in time, revisiting the traumas of the 1980s. Perhaps they will uncover some of the old embers, which could well ignite. Before the Sikh opposition to the Dera goes down the same path as the bloodshed sparked off by the opposition to the Nirankaris three decades ago, the moderate voices must make themselves heard.
~ Asif Anwar Alig is the editorial coordinator for Vision, the Journal of Business Perspective, at the Management Development Institute, Gurgaon. Abid Anwar is associated with the United News of India in Delhi.