We are now again in the midst of a conflict situation that Punjab gets embroiled in every few years — Gurudwaras versus Deras.
At a micro level, the divide between the two is quite pronounced, the deras being popular with rural folk while for the Sikhs from the upper classes (predominantly Jats), the invariable congregation is towards gurudwaras, broadly under the tutelage of the SGPC, (Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandak Committee).
At a macro level, however, the divide finds expression only once in a while. The last time was in 1978 when the Nirankari dera ignited the spark. It offended the traditional Sikh faith by trying to equate its own living guru with the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. This implied that this guru’s lineage could extend beyond the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh — a blasphemous idea for a Sikh devotee.
Interestingly, this conflict is not because neither of them wants the other to have a presence in the state. Both have social acceptance and psychological relevance. The conflict is about a state of mind. The gurudwara followers fastidiously abide by the Sikh tenets. But a Sikh from a poor family and a downtrodden class does not find solace and strength solely in the Guru Granth Sahib. He certainly means no disrespect to the ten Sikh gurus who enshrine Sikh thought, but he looks for a living and palpable physical, psychological and emotional support, which he, perhaps, finds in a guru counsellor.
Dera gurus provide that support. They help with marital and family problems. They provide hope. No wonder the dera chiefs have followers lined up in hordes for them; the gurudwaras pale in comparison. Unfortunately, their success sparked off attacks by the likes of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, which sucked Punjab into a painful chapter of over a decade of militancy that left more than 25,000 people dead. Now suddenly, 2007 has threatened to replicate 1978.
In the intervening years, there have been many such conflicts. In 2001, the dera Bhaniarawala caused similar anguish when its chief sought to present himself as an inheritor of Guru Gobind Singh. Copies of Guru Granth Sahib were set ablaze by Bhaniarawala followers while the Sikhs threatened to decimate the dera.
In the case of the Dera Sacha Sauda, the very name of its chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, explains it all. Born into a family which went religiously to gurdwaras, Gurmeet Singh modified his real name to expand his reach. So he also touches the chord of non-Sikhs. People might term this a hoax, but his followers call him pitaaji.
Estimates vary widely, with some suggesting that there are thousands of such deras in the state, but of these, about 250 count for something. They have made a solid contribution in social terms, for invariably they make demands of their followers, such as no use of liquor or narcotics, no dowry, and equal treatment to all. Dera Sacha Sauda and the Radha Soamis gained tremendous popularity in Punjab with these teachings. In rural Punjab, where alcohol and drug abuse are real problems, women support these deras.
The deras have also been part of the political climate. A word from the dera chief is enough to tilt the followers for or against a political party. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, himself an astute exploiter of the deras’ might, had a taste of it in the last Assembly elections when the Sacha Sauda directed its followers to go the Congress’s way. Badal’s party lost as many as 12 Assembly seats in the Malwa region.
It is only when dera chiefs talk of their resemblance to the Sikh Gurus that Sikh blood starts boiling and their positive contribution is ignored. Sikh scholars say that in a religion where shabad or the word of God (immortalised in the Guru Granth Sahib) is the guru, there is no place for a living guru.
Yet, it has to be acknowledged that the SGPC and the mainstream Sikh leadership has failed miserably to address the problems of poor Sikhs. Over the years they have taken no care to touch the personal or emotional lives of the downtrodden.
Their role has been confined mainly to perpetuating its hold on the historic gurudwaras.
The deras are, in many ways, against the basic tenets of the Sikh faith, which stands threatened by the mushrooming of deras in the last decade. But they have cemented their place in society, and this is where the leaders of Sikhism have to ask themselves some important questions.