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Sunday Special » People

Posted at: Sep 10, 2017, 12:47 AM; last updated: Sep 10, 2017, 12:47 AM (IST)TALKING POINT

Babas’ bombast & magic

In a country of ambition, frustration and confusion, spiritual levitation often comes with miracles caused by sleight of hand. The conviction of Dera Sacha Sauda chief in a rape case reveals fault-lines in our belief system
AN air of disbelief surrounds the Dera Sacha Sauda headquarters in Sirsa over a fortnight after a CBI court convicted dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of rape, committed over 15 years ago. Among his followers wandering listlessly at Satnam Singh Chowk is a local reporter. He has a story to tell — about himself. 

“I suffered a paralytic attack about 10 years ago. Doctors were plain negative. 

A dera follower told me to see Pita-ji (father-figure as the dera chief is known as),” he says, refusing to reveal his name. “A few days later when I went to see Pita-ji and told him about my condition, he hugged me tightly in front of his doctors. I am perfectly fine now.” 

“The baba cured several people with his touch as he partook of biscuits offered to him,” says a female follower who identified herself as Jas. “They summon their (the baba and his gurus) names before going to work. “inka naam lete hain to kaam ho jata hai (if we invoke their names, our work gets done),” says Gaurav, another follower. 

Sirsa is a comparatively newer district of Haryana, and a perfect place for such miracles to happen: healthcare facilities and education standards in rural areas are dismal. “People, like in any other such place, often look for divine intervention; just anything that can deliver them from their ailments and socio-economic pressures,” says Ramesh Varma, an RTI activist. 

Something similar keeps happening elsewhere in the country. An international TV channel recently reported about a guru, Prahlad Jani (82), who lives in Gujarat. He claims he has been without food or water for over 70 years. The channel reporter gained access to his studio apartment’s ‘cave’ and found a refrigerator. It did not surprise Sanal Edamaruku, who is an atheist and head of the Indian Rationalists’Association. Recently, Edamaruku had a confrontation on live TV with a swami who claimed he could kill him by uttering mantras. 

Another example Edamaruku cited was of a baba with millions of followers around the globe. He is known for creating jewelry and holy ash from thin air. Recent videos posted on YouTube showed his abilities were just a sleight of hand.

‘Miracle managers’

The world is full of them. In Japan, it was Aum Shinrikyo. The Japanese New Religious Movement gained international notoriety in 1995, when it carried out a lethal sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway. Its founder Shoko Asahara was sentenced to death and many of his followers arrested for attempting to influence politics through devious means and conspiring to buy weapons from Russia. 

The ideas of belief and faith become terrifyingly bizarre when these swing to extremes: any opposition leads to violence. That’s why in Sirsa, where there are 21 deras of various babas, a small argument with any follower could cause serious street fights. “These dera supporters are very aggressive. They don’t tolerate anything even remotely insulting to their spiritual heads,” says a Sirsa resident. 

The dera head was accused of forcing castration of around 400 followers in 2014. This was apparently done to safeguard women followers from possible sexual advances.

The Ram Rahim again came under the scanner in December 2014 after the Punjab and Haryana High Court ordered that activities of the sect should be periodically monitored after reports appeared about arms training at the dera. 

Why so many babas?

In a country riven with frustration, confusion and ambition, babas are like placebos. People flock to them thinking that they can help in giving them the next big break in their lives, psychologists say. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta says since Hinduism does not have a single book and communion, people tend to believe in one miracle or the other. “You go to a baba hoping he will deliver things to you. Religion, as we know it, is just a gloss and doesn't draw Indians to gurus in the first place,” says Prof Gupta. As long as belief in magic and miracle survives and times remain uncertain, India’s gurus and babas are assured a place in the sun, he says.

“The Indian middle classes are a very schizophrenic bunch of people,” says Meera Nanda, author of The God Market: How Globalization Is Making India More Hindu. She says it is time the religious trusts are regulated, audited and taxed. “They look at renunciation, asceticism, a life of simplicity as a higher ideal, but that is an ideal hardly anyone can live up to with this growing wealth,” she said.

Dera’s army of motivators

Dera Sacha Sauda was a well-knit outfit of “motivators.” For the Team Gurmeet, he is the “last man to be alive on earth.” This deeply entrenched belief and stories of the miracles were enough to impress the rank and file that he was “god of gods.” 

The DSS had an all-powerful “45-member committee” assigned to expand the dera by not only getting more people to adopt the ‘naam’from the ‘Pita-ji’but also arranging donations in cash and kind. 

This committee comprised full-time members of the dera who enjoyed the confidence of Ram Rahim. The committee members used to take a tour of the specific blocks of the dera and hold meeting with the “saadh sangat” and to deliver the word from their chief. 

The field staff of the dera had a 15-member committee at the district level and a seven-member panel at the block level. A bigger contributor to the DSS kitty of funds was given membership at block and district levels. 

The members of these committees are now scared. Most of them were a part of the field team kept at an arms' length from the inner functioning of the dera. However, some of them have a fairly good idea of the business-like approach of the DSS. 

— Inputs by Deepender Deswal from Hisar and Prashant Saxena in Chandigarh

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