Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Saturday, January 17, 2015

MSG Movie: Religion Today Is Bizarre When Not Barbaric

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has been accused of serious charges of rape and murder and has been in midst of deadly conflict with the Sikhs in the past.

With the CBI filing FIR against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, in connection with the alleged forced castration of his followers at his Sirsa-based dera in Haryana, the already contested and muddled religious landscape of Punjab and Haryana is once again back in the limelight. Religion today is often bizarre when not barbaric. Punjab and Haryana, of late, have provided us with a range of religious spectacle to demonstrate this.
Barely had the Baba Rampal’s Satlok Ashram controversy in Haryana ended, another baba in Noormahal, Jalandhar, Punjab, hogged the limelight.

"Frozen Baba" or Ashutosh Maharaj, the head of the Noormahal dera was declared clinically dead months back. However, followers refused to believe and kept his body in a deep freezer. At one stage it looked like another site of conflict between the state and the dera, but finally with court allowing the body to be kept for a few more months, the issue temporarily eclipsed in background.

And just when it looked a little tranquil, another godman declared his arrival, in his new avatar as actor-director-producer of a film titled Messenger of God. A recent three-full page colour advertisement in prominent English daily showed him riding Harley Davidson and walking with his clenched fists in bollywood-style aggression in the background of flying enflamed cars. He is none other than the same Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insa, head of Dera Sacha Sauda, another controversial dera, headquartered at Sirsa, Haryana with a large following in the region.

Gurmeet Singh has been accused of serious charges of rape and murder and has been in midst of deadly conflict with the Sikhs in the past when he was alleged of blasphemy for impersonating Guru Govind Singh, the tenth guru of the Sikhs.

Historically, this region has been a crucible of competing religious identities. Other than Sikhism which clearly provided a counter to Hinduism, the region has been an active site for Arya Samaj, Christian and Islamic missionaries and Shuddhi Movement, especially since the late 19th century. This besides hosts of smaller, but no less significant, traditions like Kabirpanthis, Ravidasis, Valmikis, Nathpanthis and others trying to stake their claim in public space.

These deras typically have strong subaltern base. While the lower castes became the most favoured poaching ground in the larger politics of conversion, the new denominations did not quite alter the social standing of these castes. The phenomenon of separate Dalit gurudwaras that dot the landscape of Punjab and Haryana today is indicative of exclusionary practices of the mainstream.

It is in such a milieu that the culture of dera prospered. While the mainstream religions increasingly became too abstract and rigid, these deras instead emphasised a fuzzy syncretism and simpler codes of conduct and thus endearing to the people on the margin.

It will be fairly accurate to argue that many of these deras strategically built on the religious social history of the region, such as Rampal picking on Kabirpanthis vis-a-vis Arya Samaj and others like Gurmeet Singh building on lower castes’ disillusionment with the mainstream religious formations. More people brought more donations and together it brought political patronage. Nostalgic diaspora looking for roots throng these deras contributing generously to its coffer.

By one estimate there are more than 9,000 deras, both Sikh and non-Sikh, in about 12,000 villages of Punjab alone. Most deras do have controversial existence owing to their propensity to stand in counter to the mainstream with features like presence of a "living guru" and accommodation of varied religious traditions.

CommentHowever, it is these more colourful ones, and they are numerous, who hog the limelight. These deras have amassed wealth of unimaginable proportions. Under the stupor of big money and encouraged by overt political patronage, heads of these deras get delusional and start feeling above the law of the land. Still others, more enterprising ones, keep working on newer USPs.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, for instance, also considers himself to be a rock star whose album Highway Love Charger apparently a rage among his disciples and has sold more than 20 lakh copies. See this video on YouTube to experience the heady mix of pop and parmatma. Welcome to the new world of pop religiosity where ostentatious is sublime and cacophony is musical.
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