The Dera Sacha Sauda rampage — like several other similar instances in the past — underscores the fallout of exclusion in highly unequal societies
When payback arrives for the hucksters of god, expect some disruption of the mundane life and some dents in the façade of civic stability. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan had a long and gaudy tenure as head of the Dera Sacha Sauda, a religious cult which claims the allegiance of a vast flock stretching across contiguous parts of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. The fury that followed his conviction on rape charges was brief but intense. It claimed 38 lives and, though there was no identification of the dead for days, every indication was that most, if not all, were followers of the Dera.
It was not the first time that rational beings had put their lives on the line for the honour of a man whom those of a different rationality saw as a clownish charlatan and a criminal. As always, contempt and condescension were reserved in equal parts in the aftermath for all who had been prey to the Dera delusion.
Singh’s conviction was founded on the rationality of the law, but contested by those who regard him as god’s messenger. It was a gulf in perceptions too profound to permit a reflective pause, which might have shown a path towards expressing disagreements in an agreeable way.
The civic sensibility rests upon a shared sense of reason, often raised upon a substratum of emotional bonding. Reason frequently is embedded in a document such as a Constitution and a system of law, and in its exercise relies upon an inductive process of inference. If the empirical evidence adds up, all rational persons should arrive at certain firm conclusions. Agreement on those principles is what makes a people something more than an arithmetical aggregation. It is what makes a people a “people”.
Days after his conviction for the rape of two women placed in his servitude as an escape from family indigence, news emerged that Singh would face a murder charge for eliminating the whistle-blower who encouraged his victims to pursue their case. Another spiritual entrepreneur, Sant Rampal, in detention since 2014, was meanwhile acquitted in two of the cases brought against him, though he will remain in detention while charges of sedition and murder are prosecuted.
A distinctly more sober character, Rampal had been captured from his lair in Hissar district of Haryana in 2014. He had defied numerous summons from the court hearing a murder case dating back to 2008, prompting a summary order for his arrest. As his followers formed a protective cordon, the police only managed to effect his arrest after a pitched battle. Five dead bodies discovered on the premises afterwards may have been victims of the tumult, adding to the gravity of the charges.
Confined for long years within obscure ghettos of faith and alternative universes of reason, Singh and Rampal would have remained relatively untroubled had they not ventured out to butt heads with custodians of the larger faith, which claims to embody a higher value of reason.
In 2007, Singh appeared in public in a garb that the last guru of the Sikh faith is normally portrayed in. The high priests of the Sikh faith were outraged and amid loud imprecations of blasphemy, demanded his arrest. Within the Dera word went around that the guardians of the faith — by then reconciled with the temporal power holders in the Akali Dal — were merely expressing their resentment at the Dera’s vigorous campaign against substance abuse. This fed into rumours of the involvement of top Akali politicians in the illicit trade.
An edict from the Akal Takht, the highest seat of religious authority in the faith, called for the social boycott of all Dera adherents. This may have been diluted at the ground level since the Dera faithful, largely of lower-caste origins, cannot be excluded from economic processes except at great cost. The alienation at the social level though, was sharpened by the Takht’s assertion of clerical privilege.
Sant Rampal, a distinctly more austere figure, stirred up resentments in 2008 with a frontal verbal assault against the Arya Samaj, a reformist organisation now ossified in doctrinaire rigidity. A person was killed in one of many affrays that ensued, leading to Rampal’s indictment on the murder charge. Sedition charges followed the long standoff at his ashram in 2014, when he threatened the police contingent sent to enforce a judicial order with every manner of dire consequence.
It would be a brave soul who would try to find his way through the thicket of confusion that surrounds the term “civil society”. The best construction is that the term refers not to a thing but a process: a process by which particularities within a complex social milieu are ironed out and a common set of interests articulated to guide state policy. Singh and Rampal, in their own ways, represent the unsubtle processes of exclusion in highly unequal societies. Because they have tapped into a deep vein of resentment at pervasive discrimination, they deploy strength in numbers, compelling dominant sections to talk terms and connive in their creation of enclaves of absolute impunity.
There are junctures where this shabby compromise collapses, triggering a certain retribution from those at the top of the power hierarchy. Unless a reconstitution of the compact is swiftly accomplished, the consequence could be sharpening strife in a region of proliferating religious cults, where agrarian crisis has taken a heavy toll of livelihoods and well-being.