Sunday, November 23, 2014

Analysis: Sants and Sinners - How spirituality, crime are a deadly cocktail in Punjab, Haryana

The Sant Rampal episode has exposed the dark underbelly of the flourishing network of so-called spiritual gurus in Haryana and Punjab. 

Goons trained as commandos by former military and police personnel, mind-numbing affluence that is in clear conflict with the message of simplicity they preach, bloody property disputes, thousands of devotes in rural areas, political leaders at their beck and finally, that audacious assertion that they are above the law – a potent mix of religion, con act, muscle and money power continues to dominate the lives of people in the states.

Sant Rampal’s rise to fame makes for interesting reading. He worked as a junior engineer with the Haryana government for 18 years before he was dismissed from service. He took to the path of spiritualism and later presented himself as an incarnation of great poet Sant Kabir, and opened Satlok Ashram at Karontha in Rohtak. His derogatory remarks against Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayanand landed him in trouble. A clash ensued between Sant Rampal ‘s followers and the Arya Samjis in 2006 in which one person was killed. Rampal was prosecuted and spent 22 months in jail. His ashram was seized by the Haryana government. Later on the order of the court, his ashram was released.

Built on a 12-acre piece of land, Satlok Ashram has the capacity to accommodate more than 50,000 people. It houses a five-story building, complete with a swimming pool and a massive hall, meant for Rampal’s personal use. This is where, his devotees say, he took regular baths in milk. The total property of the Sant is estimated at more than Rs 100 crore. But this could be gross underestimation.

The worth of deras and ashrams in Punjab and Haryana, according to informed sources, ranges anywhere from a few hundred crores to a few thousand crores. Sant Asaram Bapu, who is serving a jail term on charges of rape, land grab, evading arrest and several other charges, has huge chunks of land in Haryana and elsewhere in the country, the value of which is estimated at more than a hundred crores. Some of the property is forcibly acquired from farmers, and property disputes involving ashrams and locals are common. The gurus maintain a posse of bodyguards, mostly criminals seeking escape from the law, for personal security as well as protection of property.

Followers of Piara Singh Bhaniarawala, founder of Ropar-based Baba Bhaniarawala sect, were accused of burning `birs’ of the Holy Sikh book, Guru Granth Sahib. In 2003, Baba Piarawala survived a murder attempt. Even after his death early this year, Ashutosh Maharaj, founder head of Divya Jyoti Sansthan, based in Nurmahal in Jalandhar district of Punjab, continues to remain controversial. 

The Baba’s dera authorities refuse to cremate him, saying that the Guru is in samadhi (meditation) and will come out of it at any time. Sant Niranjan Das is the head of Dera Sachkhand Ballan based in Jalandhar. Violent clashes had taken place in 2009 in Punjab when the deputy chief of Dera Sachkhand Ballan, Sant Ramanand was killed in Vienna, Austria, following tension between the dominant Jat Sikh, and Ravidas sect leaders.

According to a rough estimate, there are about 9000 Deras in Punjab, making it an average of more than a dera per village. The four main deras of significance in Punjab are the Dera Sacha Sauda based in Sirsa district, Haryana, which claims to have a following of more than four crore people, Radha Soami Satsang (Beas) and Dera Sachkhan Ballan in Jalandhar district, Bhaniarwala Dera in Ropar district and Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan in Jalandhar.

The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) abhors dera culture as the Sikh religion does not approve of worshipping a guru in physical form and instead holds Guru Granth Sahib as the only living Guru.

One reason for the rise of the deras was the fact that despite the Gurus’ teachings of social equality, in actual practice Sikhs seemed to have differentiated between the people of upper and the lower caste. The discrimination led to the rise of deras and sects in search of honour and dignity and equal social status. Some deras are into genuine social service while many like Sant Rampal’s have a dubious record.

Dera Sacha Sauda is known for its social service, including organizing blood donation camps on a regular basis (it has a world record in blood donation), fighting against drugs and alcoholism, helping victims of natural calamities and other public services. But dera head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh faces charges of rape, murder and forced castration, in addition to blasphemy. The dera is reported to have a following of more than two crore people.

The gurus, deras and ashrams flourish under political patronage. In fact, it is a quid pro quo arrangement where deras and ashrams promise the support of their followers for particular candidates and parties in elections and in return get promise of protection from the police and the law from the latter. During every election in Haryana and Punjab, political parties seek the support of the sants.

The most recent example of how a political party benefited in this way was seen in Haryana when the Dera Sachha Sauda openly supported the BJP during the recent Haryana assembly elections. BJP’s massive win in the elections was attributed partly to the support provided by the sachha sauda. Later Haryana BJP leaders went to the dera to pay their respects. The fact that the dera is implicated in several court cases was ignored.

“Not all deras and ashrams are bad. The Nath dera, Giris and Puris are fine examples of self-less social service to society. We run educational institutes, including medical colleges for the welfare of the public. We are known for social service. We and some other ashrams have an absolutely clean record. We have never been controversial and we never seek any publicity for our work, but according to our faith and belief we keep away from women,’’ Mahant Chotunath of Nath Sampraday Ashram, Chandigarh told INNLIVE.

However, after the cases of Asaram Bapu and Rampal not many would agree. It’s a big illegal industry that continues to flourish in the guise of spirituality. The victims are the unsuspecting masses.

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