Come election season, and it’s time for deras to flex their political muscle in Punjab

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With ‘deras’ or religious sects enjoying considerable clout in Punjab, particularly among a section of Dalits, they play a gamechanger role in vote politics in every election — be it the parliamentary or the legislative assembly.

As per estimates, in the 117-member legislative Assembly at least six ‘deras’ have direct influence on at least 46 seats that fall largely in the Malwa region through an internal appeal by asking followers to vote for a particular political party.

Not just the Congress, almost every political party — the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — have been hobnobbing with sect heads to gain votes in their favour through consensus.

It is believed that out of the 2.12 crore electorate in Punjab, 53 lakh, or 25 per cent people, are directly associated with one sect or another. For them, an edict from the sect head, either delivered formally or informally, to vote for a particular party is sacrosanct.

Among the prominent ones is the ‘controversial’ but ‘influential’ Dera Sacha Sauda sect, based in Sirsa district of Haryana, whose chief and self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is undergoing a 20-year sentence for raping two disciples.

It has a huge fan following in Punjab’s Malwa region comprising Bathinda, Muktsar, Sangrur, Mansa, Patiala, Barnala, Faridkot, Moga, Ferozepur, Ludhiana and Mohali districts, say pollsters.

The other prominent ‘deras’ include the Radha Soami sect of Beas, located 45 km from Amritsar, and Dera Sachkhand sect of Ballan village near Jalandhar.

The Nurmahal-based Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan (Divine Light Awakening Mission), established in 1983, near Jalandhar is another prominent sect.

It was led by a long-dead spiritual guru Ashutosh Maharaj, whose body has been preserved in a commercial freezer by his followers and the sect management since January 2014 when he was declared “clinically dead” by doctors. His followers believe he is only meditating deeply, and will one day return to life.

The Chief Ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh were among the prominent leaders who visited the dera several times.

So is the Bhaniara Wala dera of the late self-styled godman Piara Singh Bhaniara Wala based in Dhamiana village in Ropar district.

In the electoral season, Radha Soami Dera, whose chief had a closed-door meeting with Congress leaders Amarinder Singh and Rahul Gandhi just weeks ahead of the February 4, 2017, assembly elections, is all-important in Punjab. It formed a separate political wing in 2006 to take a call on the elections.

Known as ‘premis’, its top functionaries this time have been maintaining a silence after its chief Ram Rahim was sentenced to 20 years in jail in August 2017.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the subsequent Haryana assembly polls, Dera Sacha Sauda, with the state’s prominent sect at Salabatpura in Bathinda, had issued a public appeal for people to vote for the BJP.

In the 2017 Punjab assembly polls, the sect, which claims to have 60 million followers pan-India of which 4 million are in Punjab alone, supported the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance, but the party lost to the Congress. However, the sect had supported Congress in the previous Punjab Assembly polls in 2012 and 2007.

With 84 campuses named ‘satsang ghars’ across Punjab, the Dera Sacha Sauda sect says it is not a religion but a humanitarian organisation.

Followers of Dera Sacha Sauda, if they follow the edict, hold the key to 35-40 seats in Malwa, the largest political region of Punjab with 69 seats out of the state’s 117.

Former Chief Ministers Parkash Singh Badal and Capt Amarinder Singh and incumbent Charanjit Singh Channi are from Malwa, the belt that was at the helm of the farmers movement against the three now revoked agricultural laws.

In a bid to woo Dalit voters, who constitute 32 per cent of the total vote bank, Charanjit Channi, the state’s first Dalit Chief Minister, on January 25 spent a night at Dera Sachkhand Ballan, a prominent Ravidassia community that has much influence in the Doaba region comprising Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr and Kapurthala districts.

The Radha Soami Satsang Beas is another prominent sect with its mass base in Amritsar, Jalandhar, Patiala, Muktsar, Kapurthala, Kotkapura and Fazilka districts. It has the maximum following in dollar-rich Doaba, also the stronghold of Dalit politics. This region sends 23 legislators.

It doesn’t come out openly, but it believes in an internal appeal to vote for a particular party. Its appeal leaves an impact on 10-12 seats.

Radha Soami Satsang Beas chief Gurinder Singh Dhillon called on Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi at his residence in December last.

After the meeting, the government in a statement said the dera head appreciated the pro-people initiatives of the government, including efforts in tackling the Covid-19 situation by motivating people for vaccination.

The head of Radha Soami Satsang Beas was in the eye of a storm when former promoter of Ranbaxy, Malvinder Singh, had filed a complaint against the dera head and others for allegedly siphoning off proceeds from the sale of Ranbaxy Laboratories.

Over the years, it has attracted millions of followers across the world and amassed properties in India, the US, Australia, and Europe.

The other big vote banks for political parties are the sects of Nirankaris, Namdharis and other smaller sects.

Several radical Sikh bodies have been opposing the sects, labelling them pseudo-sects primarily anti-Sikh. Recalling the edicts against these sects by the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikh religion, the radicals have been asking the parties to stay away from the sects.

Exposing the ‘holy alliance’ between the SAD and Dera Sacha Sauda, Justice Ranjit Singh (retd), who headed a commission to look into the alleged incidents of sacrilege of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the subsequent police firing on protesters in 2015 when the SAD-BJP alliance government was at the helm, in his recent book, ‘The Sacrilege’, wrote, “When Sukhbir Badal was sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister on January 26, 2009, there were two outstanding issues pending at that time relating to Dera Sacha Sauda.”

“One was the case registered against the Dera Sacha Sauda chief and the other was the boycott of the Dera. Harsimrat Kaur Badal made her debut in legislative politics by contesting from Bathinda which she won in 2009 and the Dera had then extended support to her.

“What can be assumed to be a confirmation of the retrospective tactical understanding between the Dera chief and the Akali Dal leadership emerged later.”

The book says, “Just five days before the assembly elections (January 27, 2012), Punjab Police had filed this cancellation report in the FIR (for allegedly hurting the religious sentiments of Sikhs) against the Dera chief.”

Pollsters told IANS as Punjab this time heads for a multi-cornered contest on February 20, where a small difference in the vote share can make a big difference, even smaller sects could upset many calculations.

So far no sect has issued a public appeal for people to vote for a particular party.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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