North India has emerged as the epicentre of colourful and blingy babas who make practice of religion simpler, with fewer lifestyle restrictions.
If the context hadn’t been so stark, we would have found this question more perplexing: Which part of our country has the most godmen per square kilometre?
It is, indeed, an unusual suspect, Punjab and Haryana. This region is known for much else in our country but not really for such a preponderance of religion, spirituality and self-styled godmen.
Not all are crooks. Some have evolved their own spiritual philosophies, stayed within the law, and also done philanthropy and public service.
Most of the rest are essentially land-grabbing political fixers, power-brokers and shady entrepreneurs. No better than glorified Gabbar Singhs in fancy dress, in whose powerful courts local politicians dutifully answer the call of “Arrey ohh, Sambha…”
You have to be careful using imagery from Sholay to describe people with millions, and, in the instant case, tens of millions of devout followers.
That liberty needs to be taken today, our region held to ransom by the followers of a convicted rapist who is also being tried for two murders, including that of a brave local journalist who outed the rape case, and also the charge that he emasculated 400 devotees on the pretext of getting them “mukti (nirvana)” and has their testicles in his possession, presumably in refrigeration. A theme we will return to, soon enough.
Off to jail
Today’s newsmaker is Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan, the godman with the largest following. Next door to his walled, high-security mini-city or dera in Sirsa is another in Hisar, owned by ‘Sant’ Rampal.
Sure enough, he is in jail too, now convicted on charges serious enough to keep him there for the rest of his life.
Since his history is recent, you might remember that, in November 2014, Haryana Police fought with his followers at his stockaded fortress and several were killed before he could be arrested.
The then Haryana director general of police, S.N. Vashisht, was quoted as saying that his “police had to deal with a hostile army of Rampal’s commandos”.
One thing that all deras or sects have in common is a personality cult. Run your eye westwards from Hisar and Sirsa of Haryana, and you will find the adjoining eight or so districts of Punjab have millions of followers of these two babas.
Further, their spiritual halo fades, but only because there are others. Not all as troublesome, but more colourful: In life as well as in death.
Not all are controversial
Punjab has the old Radha Soami and Nirankari sects. Both are large, spread in large parts of north India (including Delhi) and beyond. Radha Soamis have been non-controversial. The current head or babaji is ailing.
Please note that we prefer babaji or spiritual chief to the description ‘guru’ in Punjab as it is blasphemous for the Sikhs. The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, had declared himself to be the last, enshrining Sikhism’s holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, as their Guru forever.
The Radha Soami sect is headquartered near the Beas river, sort of midway between Jalandhar and Amritsar along the Grand Trunk Road. A hereditary successor is not available now. But a well-planned, amicable succession is in the works.
The man chosen to lead the Radha Soamis is Bhai Shivinder Mohan Singh, who most of us know as one of the two Ranbaxy/Religare/Fortis brothers – Malvinder Mohan Singh being the other of the duo sometimes called MMS and SMS in Lutyens’ upper circuit.
The Nirankaris have had a more eventful history. Their long-lasting head, Baba Gurbachan Singh, was assassinated by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s bands on the charge that he claimed to be a guru.
In fact, the Bhindranwale phenomenon rose when, on Baisakhi (13 April) 1978, his followers went to protest at the Nirankari congregation and were fired at by the baba’s supporters, resulting in 16 deaths.
The Sikh clergy at the Akal Takht at Golden Temple then issued a hukamnama (Sikhism’s equivalent of an ecclesiastical bull) prohibiting any social contact with the Nirankaris. Or, as is stated in a language as direct as Punjabi can be, “roti-beti ka sambandh”, a relationship where you eat together and inter-marry. Make note again, as we will return to this.
Then there are the Namdharis, the friendliest and gentlest Sikhs in peculiar white turbans. Their last durable chief, Jagjit Singh, didn’t have a son and anointed one of his two nephews, Uday Singh. He led the sect with his much-revered mother, ‘Baba’ Chand Kaur. She was assassinated by motorcycle-borne gunmen in Ludhiana on 4 April 2016 and both cousins blame each other.
Somewhat smaller but equally tight-knit is the cult of Bhaniara Baba at Nurpur Bedi in Punjab’s Rupnagar district.
His followers included former home minister and Congress leader Buta Singh, who believed his miracles cured his wife. But he fell afoul of devout Sikhs when he published, in 2001, a book, Bhavsagar Granth, listing his own miracles. He was declared a blasphemer and apostate, and stabbed by a Babbar Khalsa assassin while making a court appearance in Haryana.
And finally in this fascinating star-cast is the “Freezer Baba” (we promised we’ll return to refrigeration).
Ashutosh came from Bihar and built a following of millions of Punjabis. He died in January 2014. But his followers believe he has gone into samadhi and will return. So they’ve put his body in deep-freeze and refuse to cremate it.
The high court has been dealing with this for three years. A single-judge bench ordered cremation but a division bench set it aside. Meanwhile, the devotees throng to “Freezer Baba” and chant, en masse, “Ashu baba aayenge…”, waiting for him to wake up.
Why this region is so vulnerable to babas is a question for sociologists. I have heard many explanations, but one I take more seriously is that Sikhism is the world’s youngest major religion (just over 500 years old) and still evolving.
Seeking concessions from doctrine?
It’s also a religion of the book with a demanding doctrine. The babas do three things. One, they make its practice simpler, with fewer lifestyle restrictions. Second, since Sikh and Hindu practices overlap, the babas draw from both and offer a market-friendly hybrid product. And third, a holy book has much wisdom. But in times of distress, you sometimes need a human being to defer to, particularly if he has a godly reputation.
Which is a product of marketing genius. We all know about Ram Rahim’s films, songs, motorcycles, bling. Of all the babas, he became the most popular. That’s why, 35 years after their hukamnama against the Nirankaris, the Akal Takht issued another, forbidding Sikhs from having the “roti-beti” relationship with Ram Rahim’s followers.
Desperate for his votes, the Akali-BJP government leaned on the clergy to accept his “video apology”, and pardon him. This drew protests from the devout. The pardon was withdrawn. But it is widely believed that, mainly because he expected help with the CBI cases against him, he asked his supporters to vote Akali-BJP in the recent state elections. One of the same cases has now ended in his conviction.
This, the babas’ vote banks and the politicians’ greed for en bloc votes, is the curse of Punjab and Haryana. The Congress is the past master. The BJP has learnt the game. And the Akalis have happily two-timed their conservative “Panthic” constituency by patronising the deras.
If a brave journalist dares to pursue a rape charge, he ends up with bullets in his chest, as Ram Chander Chattarpati of Poora Sach did in Sirsa. The babas, as a result, think they are above the law. Until a brave CBI court judge called Jagdeep Singh changes the script.