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Akalis, Congress woo Dera Sacha Sauda

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Dera Sacha Sauda head Sant Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh.
Dera Sacha Sauda head Sant Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Bhatinda: On May 7, the largest agricultural belt and cotton hub in Punjab, the Malwa region, goes to the polls. Though there are umpteen poll issues, parties are as usual queuing up at the Dera Sacha Sauda chief, Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh’s durbar. Both the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) are trying to get the votes of the Dera’s 10 million followers who have a reputation of voting as a block.

Dera (sect) politics, especially after the 2007 fiasco, has become very important for political parties in the region that accounts for five constituencies out of the 13 in the State. It all started when the Dera followers were told to vote for the Congress in the last Assembly election in 2007 helping the party defeat the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) in the Malwa region that had traditionally supported the Akalis.

Sikh anger

The reason for such a diktat was the alleged repression of the Dera and its followers by the SAD and other radical Sikh groups after the Dera Chief, in 2007, posed in a dress that made him look like the Tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, and distributed a liquid to its followers converting them to an ‘Insaan.’

This, according to the Dera that operates from Sirsa in Haryana, was meant to free them from their caste and religious identity. But this infuriated radical Sikh organisations which saw it as a threat to Sikhism, and the SAD also came out in support. Violence ensued against the Dera followers.

Since then, Sikh religious courts have ruled to execute the Dera chief or at least indict him. Most of the Dera followers are Dalits and belong to the backward castes who are attracted to the Dera for its egalitarian preaching in a caste-torn Punjab. Since politics revolves also around religion, radical Sikh groups, such as the Dal Khalsa, and political parties, such as the SAD (Amritsar), had always opposed to the Deras, seeing in them a threat to gurdwaras. According to a Punjabi newspaper, Desh Sewak, there are 9000 Deras, spread across 12000 villages. Dera Sacha Sauda and Radhasoamis are the biggest in the region.

In 2007, Sacha Sauda started a Political Affairs Wing (PAW) to advice its followers who to vote for.

Entry into politics

The Dera’s metamorphosis from a purely spiritual organisation to a political force has made it the centre of attention. And when the Sirsa-based organisation supported the Congress in the 2007 Assembly elections in the politically-sensitive Malwa, it was a significant change from the past. Earlier it would support individual candidates based on merit. In 2007, because of the diktat, the SAD (Badal) was almost decimated in southern Punjab, despite winning everywhere else and forming the government subsequently.

Mr Aditya Insaan, Dera’s secretary, told a national magazine, “Our only direction to the followers through the PAW, is that their vote should be collective and in the larger interest of the Dera. The PAW was formed to address the legitimate social needs of our followers since we were facing persecution from Sikhs in Punjab. All political parties exploit religion for their ends, and we need to use our strength to protect our larger interests.” However, there have been accusations against the Dera chief that he is trying to get political clout to escape the many criminal charges he is facing. But the Dera secretary had told Frontline last July that such cases against Gurmeet Singh were filed under political pressure the State government was facing from the liquor lobby. Dera Sacha Sauda has been a strong advocate of a liquor-free State and claims to have given de-addiction therapy to at least 45 lakh people.

SAD softens stand

In the last few months, to prevent electoral reverses, the SAD (Badal) government is said to be softening its stand on the Dera by letting it re-open the branches in Punjab that were shut after the violence. But the Dera, according to some reports, is sceptical about the SAD. Congress leaders, wary of the SAD’s conciliatory moves, have been making frequent visits to Baba’s durbar.

In an election where local issues, more than national, seem to have gained prominence for various reasons, the Dera could make a significant difference in the Malwa region.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 19, 2009)
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