“I called him and said that I’m prepared to meet you by myself, alone and unarmed.”
Who said that? Is that a piece of dialogue from some movie? The emissary of some city under siege offering to go out and meet the marauder at the gates, perhaps?
No, it’s a spokesman of the Dera Sacha Sauda offering to meet the representative of the Akal Takht to talk peace terms. Welcome to Punjab in the 21st century.
For those who came in late, for the past several days, Punjab has been in a state of turmoil. The trouble started with an ad featuring Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the leader of a religious sect called the Dera Sacha Sauda, dressed in robes akin to those, allege Sikh groups, worn by the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Not only that, Sant Gurmeet Singh was also dispensing some sort of liquid to his followers, an act suspiciously like the Amrit Sanskar of the Sikhs.
If you can’t make heads or tails of any of that, here’s a concise (feel free to chip in if you see any information missing) bit of historical context for you:
Let’s start with Guru Gobind Singh. The last of the ten Gurus of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singhji had the extreme misfortune to be born in what the Chinese call “interesting times”. Almost his entire family (father, mother and four sons) was murdered by the forces of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb but against all odds he succeeded in constructing what we today call the Khalsa.
He introduced the 5 Kakke, formalized the baptism ceremony (Khande di Pahul), and proclaimed the Granth Sahib to be the eternal Guru among other things. Obviously, his is a sacred name for all Sikhs.
Then there is the Dera Sacha Sauda. Called a cult by some, the DSS is a relatively new entrant on the scene. A spiritual organization with social aims, it was set up in 1948 by Shah Mastana, a Baluchistani. The DSS disavows allegiance to any one religion, rejecting all dogma, and meets its financial needs through the work of its members rather than alms or donations.
Here is where the problems begin. There are three main components at work:
- Similarities: First of all, the very name “Dera Sacha Sauda” is based on an incident in Guru Nanak’s early life. Given twenty rupees by his father to start a business, he spent it on what he called “true business” or sacha sauda – food for the poor. Secondly, there is the root of the immediate controversy – Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh (only the third leader of the sect since its inception) dispensing what the Dera calls “jaam-e-insaan” while dressed in a robe that sort of looks like one worn by the 10th Guru.Thirdly, both groups work in pretty much the same area of the country, with the Dera laying claim to more than 10 million members. A growing organization, they attract members from Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan among others.
- Politics: This is the territorial part of the dispute. The elections held earlier this year in Punjab handed a pretty convincing defeat to the Congress but on the other hand it did absolutely no favors to the radical fringe such as the Simranjit Singh Mann-led splinter group of the Shiromani Akali Dal – the one supported, amongst others by the pro-Khalistani, lately nonviolent Dal Khalsa.But alarm bells went off when Dera support won the Congress a significant number of seats in an area considered to be an Akali stronghold. The Dera was no longer just another cult with eclectic beliefs – it was now a political threat.
- Crime: Neither the Dera nor those calling for its blood are what you might call untouched by scandal.
On the one hand, the Dera and its leader are both under investigation by the CBI for the murder of a journalist, Ram Chander Chattarpati. The CBI is also investigating the claims of abuse and sexual exploitation leveled by Chattarpati prior to his death.
On the other hand, the people at the forefront of said “protests” include some who were involved in those long years of violence in Punjab, if not directly then by party affiliation. Simranjit Singh Mann, for example, was arrested just last Monday for “trying to garland the statue of former chief minister Beant Singh with photographs of his assassin at Jalandhar”.
So that’s the nasty brew in the making. One part religion, one part politics, one part crime and one part that holy of all holies “sentiment”. From demands for an apology, to burning effigies, to saber rattling, various marches to and fro… this entire incident gives an extra dimension to the phrase, “making a mountain out of a molehill”.
For one thing, in a country like India, pageantry is part and parcel of religion. Everybody dresses up to show themselves off. I don’t have to like it, you don’t have to like it – the disciples, however do have to like it, and a lot of them do. If Singh was dressing up for his supporters in the Dera then that was his right.
Then there is the question of what exactly he wore. Even if his robe resembled (emphasis resembled) that of Guru Gobind Singhji, this level of reaction is entirely disproportionate. The Guru’s clothes weren’t exactly made of some kind of unknown design. If you look at paintings of the Guru, you’ll see him dressed not all that differently from the rest of his men. Among other things, he was a warrior in a time of war, for heaven’s sake – not some sort of dandy! It’s an insult to the Guru himself to reduce him to the clothes he wore.
But of course, there is that last element – the jaam-e-insaan. I can perhaps understand how imitation robe + random liquid = perversion of Sikhism to some people. But these are not just some people; it’s masses of them. The moment property began to be destroyed and people began to die, this whole thing reached a level of gravity that it simply did not warrant.
We are not living in the Dark Ages – why didn’t somebody, anybody, from the Akal Takht, if nowhere else, just pick up the phone and call the Dera to see what they had to say? I would guess that it was because this is the age of “hurt sensibilities” – those magic words that guarantee you loads of publicity and public support, no questions asked. At least for a few hours.
Questions like, what exactly is this infamous jaam-e-insaan?
The jaam is just a mixture of water, milk and Roohafza, say dera officials. “Not like the amrit used to baptise Sikhs,” Singh adds.
Who wants to tell the mother of Kamaljit Singh that her son died for Roohafza?
[Originally published at Desicritics.org]