- culture, Opinion, social

The deras in the modern times

Birinder Pal Singh

‘Mera Bharat’ is truly ‘mahan’ in the sense of not only living with packs of paradoxes since the advent of modernity but still sustaining and strengthening the extent of these contradictions even when we are about two decades old in the twenty first century. The project of promoting ‘making in India’ is going along the growing business of the multinational corporations. If the government is worrying for the poor and demonetising the big currency notes yet it is launching notes of higher denomination that only lighten the weight and size of the rich man’s purse. If the leadership is claiming to fight corruption through demonetisation, the banks tasted corruption over night. We are seeking integration through ‘one country, one tax’ yet witnessing cow vigilantism and lynching of a particular community. The list is long and unfortunately, unending.


The illusion of development is given through the project of bullet train(s) in the country, but we witness two rail accidents in a single week (August 2017). The Lucknow metro developed the snag on the very first day of its flagging off in this month. The super highways are under construction yet we are not able to keep the existing roads running without disruption. The highways are often blocked on one pretext or another by the protesting Jats, Gujjars, Patels, kissans or whoever, whenever and wherever.  In August the mighty Indian railways had to cancel 450 trains to the north India just to make a rape accused baba (godman) appear before a court? The transport services were suspended and curfew imposed in numerous cities of Punjab and Haryana including the union territory of Chandigarh. If the whole region is to come to a stand still on such a pretext –peshi of an accused person– of what use is the high speed transport? The whole region was jammed due to the negligence and inefficiency of the Haryana government or may be by design, as indicted by the Panjab and Haryana high court. The case in point is the personal appearance of the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) chief in the CBI court at Panchkula.


It is the irony of Indian democracy and the pattern of its economic and political development that rioting, violence and devastation of public property is not thawing seventy years after independence. Unfortunately, the frequency and intensity of such incidents have increased. Is it not paradoxical that 40 people were killed, the public property was hugely vandalised and the state exchequer incurred gigantic losses because a rape accused baba was convicted. Our administrative machinery is not in tune with the modern times in managing issues objectively and judiciously. The medieval practice of patronising the traditional institutions for narrow parochial ends is continuing still in the twenty first century. The whole chaos was made by the impulsive violence of the DSS followers.


Is it not paradoxical again that when our democracy should have matured enough to weed out pre-modern institutions and practices, these are getting strengthened with each election to the assembly and the parliament across the country.  It is not the fault of deras, here and elsewhere, but of the political elite who approach these for votes. This practice is not specific to a particular political party but it has become the political culture of India. The DSS hobnobbing with the Congress, the Bhartiya Janta Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab and Haryana elections is no secret.


The institution of dera or dehra is not new. According to the Punjabi encyclopaedia Mahan Kosh, it refers to the grave of a saint or a spiritual person. In that sense it is a quasi religious institution. Structurally, it mediates between the institutionalized religion and the people at large. The deras were seminaries of a sort where people would go not only to learn the ways of life and meanings but to seek remedy to their real life practical problems from its head who often ‘connects’ them to the divine, the metaphysical being. He provides meaningfully satisfactory answers and solutions to the peoples’ problems. In the absence of reason and rationality people take his word as final. The dera head is like a psychological counsellor who provides solace to a distressed and wavering mind. The deras were centres of religious discourse between the saints and the religious leaders roaming from place to place or on pilgrimage.


The deras as centres of learning and exchange of ideas, as institutions of religious discourse were patronised by the kings and the landlords with land grants for their self dependence and relative autonomy. But the deras then were not centres of temporal power. These were institutions of the people and for the people. If the association of deras and the state is not novel, then what is the problem now? The deras as centres of learning and exchange of ideas and service to people is continuing still.


The DSS at Sirsa (Haryana) was founded by Mastan ji in 1948. His successor Shah ji handed it over to Gurmeet Singh hence (MSG) the brand name of its products and institutions. The DSS not only ‘connects’ the poor people with the divine but provides them material benefits of necessity, with subsidised canteen services, with best medical treatment in a super speciality hospital and cheap quality education in its four schools and two colleges. The 700 acre campus has a multiplex and a stadium and all other necessities of life including production of organic products and other commodities. Above all, the DSS has own currency of lower denomination of Rs. five and ten. It is (was) nothing less than a city states where the Baba’s writ runs large.


It is no small achievement that seven girls in the roller hockey team due to represent India in the September 2017 games at China belong to the DSS. Besides these functions (of the state), the most important contribution of its chief is to fight the drug menace, so very rampant in the adjoining Malwa region of Punjab. The greater following of low caste and low class women is attributed to the Dera’s role in weaning away their addict husbands and sons from drugs and liquor. It is no wonder that he is ‘god’ to these women.


At the religious front too he played the role of a leveller to the low caste people by making them transcend the age old barriers of oppression and humiliation. He would call them premis, the loved ones giving a singular unifying identity to all people cross-cutting religious, caste, class, gender and age barriers. A new solidifying surname of ‘insan’, of being human is given to each person in lieu of the regular ones. This is why the DSS attracted a mammoth following. The Dera chief is named Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh because it combines the three major religions – Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam – of this region in a single person. Not only this, his throne too had large sized symbols of these religions including Christianity thus inculcating a sense of transcending the boundaries of hierarchy and segregation both within each religion and between all religions of the premis. The Sikh religion too fought against the caste order but now Ravidasis and Balmiks have separate gurdwaras. In villages too, the cremation grounds of these castes are separate. Increasing economic power and political clout of Gurdwaras has made these institutions contesting spaces between upper and lower castes.


The DSS chief was no less than the head of a state. He had a fleet of the latest SUVs and luxury cars that moved in a convoy putting to shame the head of a poor state. He had his own security that made the inner ring to the Z security given to him by the government. The government is not only not trusted but belittled so far as his personal security is concerned. If Jayalalitha boasted of 750 pairs of shoes, the Baba has 1500 pairs. The Baba not only posed to be all powerful and mighty but validated it through five films he produced and acted. He played a superman doing unimaginable wonders and eliminating all enemies.


If the existence of Deras and their relation to the state predated the rise of contemporary state then what has changed now? It is the changed nature of the state and the modern market. The emergence of democratic state in a relatively backward economy adopting exogenous factors of social and economic change is pivotal. These forces were quite alien to the ethos of a multi-millennia old society with a long history of a particular type of social and material culture. Gandhi’s prescription in this matter is worth noting when he says that India lives in villages and we must strengthen them than develop the urban centres that for him were dens of vices. The heterogeneous and anonymous culture of cities based on individualism and impersonality had to be inculcated through the modern institutions of education, politics and media. The modern state had to occupy the driver’s seat to steer the traditional society on the path of modernity and modernisation. The state in India failed on this count in its role and responsibility to strengthen these modern institutions and put checks on corruption built into liberal democracy. Hence, the mismatch of tradition and modernity.


The first decade of independence witnessed the establishment of modern institutions of education and health services that did well up to quite some years. For instance, the government medical college and hospital at Patiala (Punjab) established in 1952 attracted patients from Rajasthan to Jammu and Kashmir. Its doctors were amongst the best in the state. Now the local people, including the poor ones refrain from going there. Even those who ill afford expensive medical treatment go to private clinics that have proliferated around it. Such working institutions including other schools and colleges have been spoiled deliberately by the later day political elite for personal ends. The culture of nepotism and corruption is responsible for the spoil.


If the state had been people oriented and the political elite committed to modernise the Indian society from day one, the Nehruvian model of development could have evolved effectively and the state institutions would have been working efficiently. If the poverty could not be eliminated, it would have not been as worse as on today. The development of agriculture and industry and concomitant generation of gainful employment opportunities would have smoothened transition from rural to urban and from tradition to modernity. This equitable development would have not only minimised the efficacy of the Deras and the Khaps but eliminated them altogether.  At best these would have remained vestigial institutions of titular significance. Both these traditional institutions have occupied the space created by the inefficient and corrupt political system.


The contemporary Dera culture, to my mind is a consequence of the lopsided economic development, corrupt political system and the rise of consumer market, a potent source of tension and anxiety. The void in society created by the above forces compels the poor to seek mental solace and material support of whatever kind from these traditional institutions whose piety and spiritual power is already etched on their minds historically and culturally.


The author is with the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Punjabi University, Patiala-147002. e-mail: birinder_pal@rediffmail.com



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