By Ravikant Mishra and Sajjan Kumar:
Take a look at two distinct but interrelated scenarios to appreciate the intricate causality and cultural significance of unprecedented violence in the aftermath of the conviction of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim and place the event in a broader context.
First, a cursory glance at the areas forming the epicentre of unprecedented violence would reveal their strategic importance from a security point of view. Panchkula is the headquarter of the Haryana Police, Sirsa has an air force station, Ambala, Bhatinda, Patiala and Hisar have army cantonments. While Madhuban, which is near Delhi, contains the Haryana armed police base that has six battalions of reserved forces to meet an urgency like the current violence.
Second, since the 2000s, the interplay of the Indian State taking on popular religious authorities and corresponding with them are indicative of the core nature of new-religiosity in contemporary India. Even if they get differential societal response emanating from respective socio-religious support bases, it does not make a difference. This is revealed in three instances, namely, the arrests of Sankaracharya of the Kanchi in 2004, of Asaram Bapu in 2013 and Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim in 2017.
While the common thread in all the three instances happens to be a popular religious authority being at the receiving end, the response of their respective socio-religious bases is so volatile. Such volatile moments reveal their distinctiveness and specificity from each other. In other words, it would be imperative to see the correlation of violence and the sociology of support bases taking three instances to help understand the nature of cultural politics in contemporary India. Let’s take them one by one:
Firstly, in 2004 when Shankaracharya of Kanchi was arrested for the murder of Sankararaman (he was later acquitted of the charges), manager of the Sri Varadarajaswamy Temple, the media called it as sending shockwaves across India. Given the stature of Shankaracharya in Hindu cultural milieu, it was natural to expect rapturous responses from the Hindus, whose highest religious symbol was ‘humiliated’.
However, there wasn’t much social rupture from the followers of Shankaracharya. Rather, it was an absence of any violent response by Shankaracharya’s devotees that marked the supremacy of the secular state over societal religiosity. The institutions of both Shankaracharya and religion faced harsh comments and yet there wasn’t large scale public violence by his devotees. The lack of popular protest against Shankaracharya’s arrest got interrupted only by a symbolic elite protest wherein R. Venkat Raman, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Chandrasekhar, one ex-President and two ex- Prime Ministers of India sat on a three-day dharna in Delhi.
Secondly, in 2013 religious leader Asaram Bapu was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a teenage girl. Both his supporters and critics hurled acidic comments on each other.
Thirdly, the recent arrest and conviction of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim in Haryana, on the charges of raping a former female devotee, is witnessing unprecedented violence in the state of Haryana and Punjab, so much so that Prime Minister himself had to issue a strong statement condemning the violence.
The magnitude of Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s supporters’ violent response is immense. Already, 38 people have died and around 300 hurt in the mob violence. The supporters have been on a rampage attacking railway stations, media, and other public properties in towns across Punjab and Haryana. Notably, these towns are also the centre of various security establishments, besides normal police presence. The army had to flag march in these areas to contain violence and maintain law and order and yet the situation is volatile. Curfew has been imposed not only in Punjab and Haryana but in Delhi and nearby areas as well.
In many cases, the police were easily outnumbered by the Dera’s violent supporters. Even the security of the respective judges who convicted Gurmeet Ram Rahim is threatened. This is despite the fact that the guru who is convicted of rape charges is also accused of murder and violence. It must be noted that the social support base of the Dera chief hails mainly from the Dalits and other subaltern castes.
In this backdrop, the crucial question is why the supporters of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Ram Rahim are going berserk?
While the Shankaracharya is characterized as Brahmanical, gurus like Asaram are perceived to be the religious icons of the urban middle class. In contrast to the two, the Dera Sacha Sauda is a religious institution which symbolizes a subaltern bastion, mainly of Dalits and lower castes in Haryana and Punjab.
Thus, seen in terms of the social support bases hailing from the Brahmanical to the middle class to the subalterns as seen in the cases of Shankaracharya, Asaram Bapu and Dera Sacha Sauda chief respectively, the discourse of violence in the context of the clash between secular law and religious authorities has a clear logic. It’s a case of the linear progression of violence from the Brahmanical authority to that of the middle classes to those in the subaltern zones. That is, thicker the subaltern base in the religious domain, greater the propensity of violence as the larger paradigm here is of ‘subalternity’, which is about assertion and entitlement in public sphere against the elites. The presence or absence of the perceived ‘anti-elite anger’ seems to account for the differential intensity of violence in the cases of Shankaracharya, Asaram Bapu and Dera Sacha Sauda chief.