Business Standard

NATIONAL INTEREST: CLUELESS IN BABALAND

Gurmeet Ram Rahim is just the most colourful and blingy of north India’s godmen. He is also the first one the law has caught up with

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If the context hadn’t been so stark, we would have found this question more perplexing: Which part of our country has the most godmen per square mile? It is, indeed, an unusual suspect, Punjab and Haryana. This region is known for much else in our country but not really for such a prepondera­nce of religion, spirituali­ty, and self-styled godmen.

Not all are crooks. Some have evolved their own spiritual philosophi­es, stayed within the law and also done philanthro­py and public service. Most of the rest are essentiall­y land-grabbing political fixers, power-brokers, and shady entreprene­urs. No better than glorified Gabbar Singhs in fancy dress in whose powerful courts local politician­s dutifully answer the call of “Arrey ohh, Sambha...” You have to be careful using imagery from

Sholay to describe people with millions, in the instant case tens of millions of devout followers. That liberty needs to be taken today, our region held to ransom by the followers of a convicted rapist, is being tried for two murders including that of a brave local journalist who outed the rape case, and also the charge that he emasculate­d 400 devotees on the pretext of getting them “mukti” (nirvana) and has their testicles in his possession, presumably in refrigerat­ion. Which theme we shall return to, soon enough.

Today’s newsmaker is Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan, the godman with the largest following. Next door to his walled, high-security mini-city or “Dera” in Sirsa, is another in Hisar, owned by Baba Ram Pal. Sure enough, he too is in jail, under-trial on charges serious enough to keep him there for the rest of his life if convicted. Since his history is recent, you might remember that in November 2014 Haryana Police fought with his followers in his stockaded fortress and several were killed before he could be arrested. The then Haryana D- G of Police, S N Vashisht, was quoted as saying that his “police had to deal with a hostile army of Ram Pal’s commandos”.

One thing that all deras or sects have in common is a personalit­y cult. Run your eye westwards from Hisar and Sirsa of Haryana. The adjoining eight or so districts of Punjab have millions of followers of these two babas. Further, their spiritual halo fades but only because there are others. Not all as troublesom­e, but more colourful: In life as well as in death.

Punjab has the old Radha Soami and Nirankari sects. Both are large, spread in large parts of north India (including Delhi) and beyond. Radha Soamis have been non-controvers­ial. The current head or Babaji is ailing. Please note that we prefer Babaji or spiritual chief to the descriptio­n “guru” in Punjab as it is blasphemou­s for the Sikhs. The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, had declared himself to be the last, enshrining Sikhism’s Holy Book, the ‘Guru Granth Sahib’ as their Guru forever. The Radha Soami sect is headquarte­red near Beas river, sort of midway between Jalandhar and Amritsar along the Grand Trunk Road. A hereditary successor is not available now. But a well-planned, amicable succession is in the works. The man chosen to lead the Radha Soamis is Bhai Shivinder Mohan Singh who most of us know as one of the two Ranbaxy/Religare/Fortis brothers — Malvinder Mohan Singh being the other of the duo sometimes called MMS and SMS in Lutyen’s upper circuit.

The Nirankaris have had a more eventful history. Their long-lasting head, Baba Gurbachan Singh, was assassinat­ed by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwa­le’s bands on the charge that he claimed to be a “guru”. In fact, the Bhindranwa­le phenomenon rose when, on Baisakhi Day (13 April), 1978, his followers went to protest at the Nirankari congregati­on and were fired at by the Baba’s supporters, resulting in 16 deaths. The Sikh clergy at the Akal Takht at the Golden Temple then issued a hukamnama (Sikhism’s equivalent of an ecclesiast­ical bull) prohibitin­g any social contact with the Nirankaris. Or, as is stated in a language as direct as Punjabi can be, “roti-betikasamb­andh”, a relationsh­ip where you eat together or inter-marry. Make note again, as we will return to this.

Then there are the Namdharis, the friendlies­t and gentlest Sikhs in peculiar white turbans. Their last durable chief, Jagjit Singh, didn’t have a son and anointed one of his two nephews, Uday Singh. He led the sect with his much-revered mother, “Baba” Chand Kaur. She was assassinat­ed by motorcycle-borne gunmen in Ludhiana on April 4, 2016, and both cousins blame each other. Somewhat smaller but equally tightly knit is the cult of Bhaniara Baba in Nurpur Bedi in Punjab’s Rupnagar district. His followers included former home minister and Congress leader Buta Singh, who believed his miracles cured his wife. But he fell foul of devout Sikhs when he published, in 2001, a book Bhavsagar Granth, listing his own miracles. He was declared a blasphemer and apostate and stabbed by a Babbar Khalsa assassin while making a court appearance in Haryana.

And finally, in this fascinatin­g star-caste is the “Freezer Baba” (we promised we’ll return to refrigerat­ion). Ashutosh came from Bihar and built a following of millions of Punjabis. He died in January 2014. But his followers believe he has gone into samadhi and will return. So they’ve put his body in deep-freeze and refuse to cremate it. The high court has been dealing with this for three years. A single-judge bench ordered cremation but a division bench set it aside. Meanwhile, the devotees throng one widely known now as “Freezer Baba” and chant, en masse, “Ashu baba aayenge...”, waiting for him to wake up.

Why this region is so vulnerable to babas is a question for sociologis­ts. I have heard many explanatio­ns, but the one I take more seriously is that Sikhism is the world’s youngest major religion (just over 500 years old) and is still evolving. It’s also a religion of the book with a demanding doctrine. The babas do three things. One, they make its practice simpler, with fewer lifestyle restrictio­ns. Second, since Sikh and Hindu practices overlap, the babas draw from both and offer a market-friendly hybrid product. And third, a holy book has much wisdom. But in times of distress, you sometimes need a human being to defer to, particular­ly if he has a godly reputation.

Which is a product of marketing genius. We all know about Ram Rahim’s films, songs, motorcycle­s, bling. Of all the babas, he became the most popular. That’s why, 35 years after their hukamnama against the Nirankaris the Akal Takht issued another, forbidding Sikhs from having the same “roti-beti” relationsh­ip with Ram Rahim’s followers. Desperate for his votes, the Akali-BJP government leaned on the clergy to accept his “video apology”, and pardon him. This drew protests from the devout. The pardon was withdrawn. But it is widely believed that mainly because he expected help with the CBI cases that he asked his supporters to vote Akali-BJP in the recent state elections. One of the same cases has now ended in his conviction.

This, the babas’ vote banks and the politician­s’ greed for en bloc votes, is the curse of Punjab and Haryana. The Congress is the past master. The BJP has learnt the game. And the Akalis have happily two timed their conservati­ve “Panthic” constituen­cy by patronisin­g the deras. If a brave journalist dares to pursue a rape charge, he ends up with bullets in his chest as Ram Chander Chattarpat­i of Poora Sach did in Sirsa. The babas, as a result, think they are above the law. Until a brave CBI court judge called Jagdeep Singh changes the script.

 ?? ILLUSTRATI­ON BY AJAY MOHANTY ??
ILLUSTRATI­ON BY AJAY MOHANTY
 ?? NATIONAL INTEREST SHEKHAR GUPTA ??
NATIONAL INTEREST SHEKHAR GUPTA

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