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Why Do Indians Love To Blindly Follow Self Styled Babas?

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These days, gods seem to be in news for all the wrong reasons. From financial fraud to rape and even outright murder, their self-appointed leaders seem to be grabbing national attention on a fairly regular basis.

The script is super predictable. From time to time, one of these self-styled gurus, that we may have never heard of, but who has lakhs of crazy fans is charged with a crime. The guru maintains his innocence despite compelling evidence, his followers allege conspiracy and sometimes even take up arms against the state. The guru may eventually even go to prison, but his followers refuse to stop believing in him.

A saga of this sort unfolded in 2014 when the country witnessed a standoff between the police and an ‘army’ of devout followers outside Sant Rampal’s ashram in Haryana. Rampal was wanted in a murder case and was trying to evade appearance in the court and custody.

We witnessed a repetition of similar events on Friday when controversial Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was held guilty of raping and sexually exploiting two female disciples by a CBI special court in Panchkula. What followed was arson and violence by the guru’s supporters, a violence that has claimed at least 32 people and injured more than 350 people so far.

Left: Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, Right: Rampal.

In Thrall Of Godmen

Those of us who don’t subscribe to this kind of blind, raging faith find the phenomenon baffling. We wonder – just who are these people? And what is forcing them to fanatically follow these godmen, when common sense and logic should command them to do the exact opposite? More importantly, why do so many people believe in these dubious men and women to the extent that they are even willing to die for them?

I think the more prudent question to ask is not why so many Indians believe in these men, but why lakhs of people of this country feel the need to believe in them.

Mankind’s propensity to believe in a God or higher power is well known. According to evolutionary psychologists, this propensity can be linked to the unique ability of human beings to attribute design or reason to things, even where there may be none. This capacity to reason and to create elaborate, compelling stories gave early humans a great edge over other creatures, allowing them to co-operate in large number with other strangers to fulfil causes larger than themselves – to win wars, build communities, and establish nations.

With society being in constant flux in the last two decades due to socio-economic factors, the need to rely on a higher power seems to have also increased. In a country of a million gods and thousand identities, the changing landscape has had huge cultural and psychological implications. Rootless individuals seeking to make sense of their world may drift to alcohol, drugs or psychiatrists to find answers. In India, most seem to have drifted to the godmen.

It’s not difficult to understand why. India has had a long history of gurus or spiritual guides – the learned master who helped people attain higher knowledge. In recent times, the tradition seems to have metamorphosed into an industry, with godmen exploiting weaknesses of existing institutions like family, religion and society to their advantage, and offering instantaneous miracles and quick fix solutions to cure the dissonance caused by modern life.

The changing socio-economic structure has only widened this chasm further, adding to people’s stresses and anxieties, making them more vulnerable to the antics of the dubious godmen. Today, the godman isn’t just the miracle maker, he is also the agony pundit, the family consultant, the psychologist and the spiritual guide. He offers answers, solutions, happiness, an easy path to follow in an otherwise cruel and difficult world. He is the anchor that roots the individual to a cause, to a community of fellow devotees. Over time, he becomes the devotee’s moral compass.

Accuse the godman, and you aren’t just accusing the baba, you are attacking the devotee’s blind and unshakeable faith in the man.

The Deadly Cocktail

This cocktail of deep dissatisfaction and blind faith, however, turns truly noxious when you mix politics in it. Godmen wooing gullible individuals wouldn’t be much of a problem if politicians didn’t use them to catch or influence voters. And even though we are still to hear of a baba who managed to convert his followers into an influential vote bank, the truth is that politicians still persist in providing these self-styled prophets political patronage. Political patronage sometimes allows these godmen to literally run parallel states, replete with their own armies, at times! Many, in fact, start seeing themselves as being above law, operating in their own zones, where they command unparalleled devotion and in what can be argued, true power in the form of mass following.

This is a huge problem. India may be a religious country, but that should not give politicians reason to mix politics with religion. We are, after all, a secular democracy. The true definition of secularism is to keep religion out of politics. Similarly, democracy necessarily implies keeping politics out of religion.

When the two mix, things get messy. And that is why we need to constantly question this unholy nexus. Because faithless opportunists present as big a threat to a thriving democracy as fraudulent prophets.
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Image source: Keshav Singh/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images, Ravi S Sahani/ The India Today Group/ Getty Images.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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