24-year-old Ravi Kumar feels like a ‘walking corpse’. “Zinda toh hun, par laash hun,” he tells me, a pall of gloom hanging over his every word. Ever since the CBI court convicted Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh guilty of raping two sadhvis, Kumar hasn’t eaten a morsel. He says he tries to sleep, but the thought of his guruji, lying alone on the cold prison floor keeps him up all night.
Kumar, a final year student of agricultural studies at the Chaudhary Charan Singh University, Hisar, started going to the Dera Sacha Sauda’s commune when he was seven. He says he owes his life to Gurmeet Ram Rahim. “We lived in a joint family and my dad, his brother and grandfather were all alcoholics. They would drink every day. The situation was so bad that we were on the verge of selling our agricultural property. We had gone broke. My mother visited temples, sought blessings, but nothing changed. Then, someone took her to the dera (commune) and our lives changed. All the men in my family sweared off alcohol,” Kumar says.
For the 7-year-old boy, this was nothing short of a miracle. “What Guruji did for us, even God or government couldn’t do. He was our true saviour,” he says. Kumar isn’t the only one who feels this strongly for the now convicted godman.
Ever since the CBI court pronounced its verdict, sentencing the rockstar guru to two decades in prison, lakhs of youngsters, like Kumar, living in parts of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, have been left feeling angry, despondent and hopeless. They don’t see Ram Rahim Singh as a criminal. For them, the Bling Baba is God incarnate himself, the true messenger of God, the rescuer and Messiah who liberated them from their miseries. And for whom, they are willing to even lay down their lives, if needed.
Ascribing this blind, unwavering, almost dangerous belief to brainwashing cults, religious indoctrination or mind control is easy. But that’s too simplistic. Because not all those who follow the Dera are ignoramus, uneducated religious fanatics. In fact, most aren’t. They are students and professionals, men and women, with regular homes and families, decent education or/and jobs. These are mostly common working class of this country, belonging to the lower and middle classes. So what gives? Why did this crowd of lakhs gather outside the court and turn violent?
The answer lies in exploring the socioeconomic realities of the places the Dera has the most adherents in, namely the area that connects Haryana (Sirsa, Fatehabad), Punjab (Malout, Fazilka, Abohar, Mansa) and Rajasthan (Hanumangarh, Sri Ganganagar). Apart from the fact that areas having huge Dera followers, these places also share the common problem of rampant alcohol and drug abuse, especially among the youth population.
The numbers speak for themselves. From 2011 to 2015, Haryana witnessed a four-fold increase in the number of addicts visiting the de-addiction centres in its hospitals from 842 to 3,390. According to doctors, at least 20 new people, mostly aged below 35, arrive at these centres, every day.
Punjab’s epidemic problems with drug abuse are well known. The Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey, conducted in 2015, found that 230,000 people in the state were drug users. That translates to 836 drug users per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 250 per 100,000 (for 2012).
Owing to its close proximity to Punjab and Haryana, districts like Hanumangarh and Sri Ganganagar, have also been witnessing a growing drug abuse problem amongst youth since the last few years.
From blood donation camps to cleanliness drives, the Dera Sacha Sauda runs more than 133 welfare activities in these parts, but it is the Dera’s de-addiction programme that has managed to convert even its most ardent critics into devoted followers.
Manoj Kumar is a case in point. An architect by profession, he says he is a ‘practical man who believes in logic and reason’. His entire family are Dera supporters, but he says he always found it difficult to believe in ‘the baba and his miracles’. Until, he got addicted to smoking, and risked losing his life.
“The doctors had told me to quit, but I couldn’t. I tried e-cigarettes, wearing nicotine patches, chewing gum, but nothing worked. I even went to temples, prayed to no avail. Then someone in my family told me to visit the dera just once. I went there only for their satisfaction and was given the guru mantra. With support from the dera, my family and the mantra, I quit smoking within 10 days. For me, personally, it was a big miracle and a life altering experience. Since then I have been a part of the dera,” says Manoj, who even bagged a role in Ram Rahim’s recent movie ‘Jattu Engineer’.
But just how does the dera do this? “It is quite simple. All the person has to do is to come and serve in the ashram for 8 to 10 days. At the ashram, you are given a mantra to chant and taught everything about meditation and self-control. The dera provides free residence, meals and even free medicines if needed. After 10 days, one is sent back home with just one single advice – to not spend time with those who are addicted.”
Calling it ‘a great drug rehab and reform centre’, the dera’s website claims to have vowed 60 million people off addiction through this ‘magical free meditation’. The inadequate responses by respective state governments to tackle the growing crisis of addiction amongst youth seems to have only increased the dera’s appeal, making it a venerable institution in these areas.
Add to that the hundreds of causes the dera espouses, from organ donation to providing free legal aid, and even helping childless couples adopt children, and it becomes easy to understand just why Gurmeet Ram Rahim evokes such strong emotions in these quarters.
“It was the dera who first took the matter of calling transgenders the third gender to the Court. And the dera that espoused the cause of using dead bodies for research. Guruji doesn’t talk about Ram or Allah. He only talks of insaniyat (humanity) and building an egalitarian society. He has worked tirelessly and selflessly for common citizens. Even Gods and governments cannot claim to do so much,” says Sonu Panchal, another dera adherent.
The faith in their guru is so ingrained that the question of doubt doesn’t arise. To the devotees, the court verdict is nothing but a ‘big conspiracy’ to nail their beloved Guruji. “They listened to 2 sadhvis, and decided to convict him. What about the thousands whose lives he saved, the lakhs he has helped, do they not matter?,” I am asked. Reasoning with them is futile.
Ravi Kumar, in fact, was in Sirsa praying for Ram’s acquittal inside the dera headquarters when the violence broke. Quizzed about the violence, Kumar told me, “Log bhawnaon mein beh gaye (people got carried away by emotions), it shouldn’t have happened. But everyone loves him so much, no one could control it”.
If for a moment, you get past the incredulity of Kumar’s statement, you get a glimpse of the incredible power Gurmeet Ram rahim enjoys amongst the youth. After all, a university student, bunking classes, in order to pray for a Godman, may seem wildly baffling. But to Kumar, it was no big deal. In fact, he is proud of it.
“Most students in my university smoke and drink. You know how frank girls and boys get in colleges. They do that too. But I have never indulged in any of these things, never looked at a girl with anything other than respect. This is all because of my guruji,” Kumar tells me.
Watch a few interviews of Gurmeet Ram Rahim and you realize that building a wide following amongst the young lay at the heart of the Baba’s strategy to expand the dera and its following. Apart from taking up causes like addiction that directly affected the youth, the dera holds a plethora of activities, from career counselling and matchmaking, especially for youngsters.
In fact, in many interviews, Gurmeet Ram Rahim often talks about how he reworked his whole persona, just to appeal to this demographic.“Earlier, we used to sing bhajans, but youth stopped listening to us. So we thought, why shouldn’t we do what the youth wants. In the end, we have to serve the bitter medicine of God, why don’t we just sugar coat it?” the Guru remarked in an interview.
Music, movies and sports became the guru’s channels to reach out to his disciples. The aim? To channelizing younger generation away from immoral mores, cheap music and other means that makes them directionless. Hymns were sung in ‘modern music’, and music albums recorded.
Sports competitions were held regularly. The Baba even invented his own sport – Rumali Chu, a mix of kabaddi, athletics and wrestling, that most youth who are a part of the dera play.
And then came the movies. They not only skyrocketed the guru’s popularity, but also made Ram Rahim a household name. Adherents claim that the movies aren’t just ‘obscene, dirty bollywood films’, but ‘cinema with a message for humanity’and ‘something that can be watched with the whole family’.
Ravi Kumar has seen the first movie 13 times. Manoj Kumar claims to have watched it over 30. The guru’s popularity has in the last few years, only surged. And the Dera Sacha Sauda claims to now have 60 million adherents now, not just in India, but also in countries like Australia, Canada and Singapore.
“You can shut our guruji behind bars, accuse him of a 100 crimes. But we don’t care. We will continue to believe in him, follow him and do work in his name,” Sonu tells me.
For him, like many others, the judgement or the sentence don’t matter. His crimes definitely don’t matter. All that matters is Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s word. And their unconditional trust in its truth.