Traveling by a local taxi the other day, I was stunned by what I heard through an unsolicited expert opinion from my chauffeur on the issue of the Dera Chief Gurmit Ram Rahim‚Äôs indictment in a rape case. A mere phone call from a TV channel requesting my participation in a debate on the Dera issue was just the break the chauffeur seemed to need before delivering a long discourse on how the system treats ‚Äėanyone who seems to represent the poor and deprived or aggrieved sections.‚Äô
It was clear that the chauffeur was a Dera sympathizer , if not a follower. But he earned his livelihood the most dignified way: through hard work. When tentatively offered an opinion different from his ‚ÄĒ and that too only in the form of a question ‚ÄúWhat about all the sensational disclosures of the goings on in the Dera?‚ÄĚ, the chauffeur shot back, ‚ÄúDo you recall similar disclosure following the Operation Bluestar.‚ÄĚ The comparison , unacceptable to me, made a lot of sense to my new found intellectual sparring partner. This set me thinking about how realistic our media-driven beliefs on important personages and events usually are.
But it also opened up the question whether or not the indictment of the¬†‚Äú Dera Sacha Sauda‚ÄĚ chief Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh Insan would see an end to the role which these Deras ¬†play in the politics of the country. Behind this optimism lies not just the judgment itself, damning the so-called Messenger of God to 20 rigorous years in jail but also the contemporary and historical context in which the judge had chosen to place his verdict. And we are not talking here only about the now-infamous Sacha Sauda Dera . Almost all Deras have mastered the art of offering one night stands at affordable political prices to all potential clients, with coquetry being the name of the game ‚ÄĒ ‚Äėwinking at every political passer-by and sleeping with the one who satisfies their instinct the best.‚Äô Deras are wooed by political parties or their representatives individually for their questionable support. These towers. literally made of ivory, literally navigate the fortunes of politicians and parties through a grotesque abuse of committed vote banks. Politicians apart, the other important category of Dera followers are powerful bureaucrats.
The way these Deras have been operating , and the immunity which they have so far enjoyed from punishment for all kinds of well-known unethical practices has meant that instead of a place associated with sanctity, love and harmony among people , a Dera has come to mean ‚Äúheadquarters of a powerful ‚Äúholy-man‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ feared, not revered. In Punjab, most of these headquarters are ‚Äėsired‚Äô by Godmen whose modesty and humanitarian work is quite a camouflage for their real intent ‚ÄĒ power and pelf.
Why do these Deras enjoy such massive and committed following despite repeated expose on their misdeeds? The single most important and effective reason is the failure of organized religion to keep re-inventing itself and to uphold social and spiritual values. Corruption in and degradation of the institutional facets of existing religions have created the vacuum that these Deras rush in to fill.
The other important reason is the failure of the political and the administrative system to deliver justice. People see that these so-called holy men are visited by powerful politicians, bureaucrats and rich and wealthy men of the world. Common people find these Godmen convenient bridges to reach rulers and influential men and get their routine works done. As a consequence, these God men acquire social gravity, attracting countless followers as mere particles in a shower of stardust. They function through elaborate networks to widen their bases. The kind of properties in posh urban and semi urban localities which the Deras own in Punjab and Haryana alone would rival the assets of any state, and speaks volumes of the political and bureaucratic patronage they enjoy. Such properties of only a few of the mainstream Deras would be enough to write off the entire debt of all farmers in the state!
The Deras‚Äô cause is also marketed through distribution of free clothes, adoption of destitute orphans, especially girls, or by organising blood donation camps and free kitchens. (Not to be confused with the Langar in Gurdwaras for which no individual can or has ever claimed credit.)
Then, there is the psychological factor. Most of the followers of these Deras are innocent common people having problems ‚ÄĒ material, social , psychological or spiritual ‚ÄĒ common to all of us. They turn to these God men for help or solace and for finding for themselves a sense of dignity which they are deprived in the traditional social milieu outside the Deras. Godmen‚Äôs attire resembling iconic holy saints of the past provide the spiritual placebo.
Many of the followers are plain needy in material terms, others suffer spiritual deprivation because of the failure of organised religion, and still others are plain greedy men with criminal tendencies who just need an umbrella to operate under. The last explains the speed at which any of these Deras can inflict violence at will and at the pressing of a button. Not all Dera chiefs are criminals but most are religious quacks or hypocrites of the worst kind.
The judiciary and the media may have exposed the sinister face of these Deras this time but it is hard to answer the question posed by my chauffeur,‚ÄĚ Are these Deras the only sinister spots in society? What about powerful bureaucrats, politicians, business houses who prosper by feeding off the common man‚Äôs flesh and blood, and who play games even with these Deras?
It is tempting to avoid these questions under the media glitter of the anti-Dera sentiment engineered by the reported and judicially proven deeds of some of these Dera men? At some point or the other , we will have to move away from this fleeting obsession with the immediate and address the larger question of explosive contradictions in the entire system ‚ÄĒ such as big business houses functioning as crime cartels with impunity ensured by political patronage, as much as the presence of the so-called holy men do directing the destiny of a secular democracy.
Having dealt with one more Dera, it is time for society to move away from a narrow and saleable obsession with just one kind dens of murky goings on and widen the reform to cover the entire gamut of social network, beginning with politics, bureaucracy, politicians and bureaucrats ‚ÄĒ even the big business-cum-media houses.
One way could be to constitutionally ensure that political parties or leaders who receive the blessings and backing ‚ÄĒ even unsolicited ‚ÄĒ of these men of questionable holiness and integrity are barred from electoral politics ‚ÄĒ unless they repudiate and condemn these blessings and support in words preferably pre-drafted by a panel of constitutional and legal experts. This process could be enacted into a law through a special session of the Parliament.
But the debate must not stop there. Dens of social, financial, political and bureaucratic corruption spawn the entire space we inhabit. A more comprehensive approach to social cleansing is the order of the day. A multiplicity of steps could be considered for a wholesome initiative for social reform. To find these out, an open and robust public debate must begin today and must be concluded in time for necessary measures to come into force before it is too late.