Tuesday, 5 August 2008

"Dera" Land

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh,

I came across an interesting article on the internet which just sums up what is happening in Punjab and even now in western countries as we see the increased campaign by these sects to spread the number of followers and riches. The source of the article is; http://forums.waheguroo.com/index.php?showtopic=19128

"At Kahna Dhesian near Jalandhar, Punjab, all roads lead to a brightly painted gurudwara, every inch of its walls covered in hues of turquoise, red, yellow and green.Though it houses the mandatory Guru Granth Sahib, it lies in a neglected room in a corner of the quadrangle. Pride of place instead is given to a throne-like gaddi where even in the absence of the resident baba, the faithful bow their heads and touch the seat in reverence and obeisance. But this gurudwara, called the dera, and thousands such across the state, are raising the hackles of the Sikh community. The recent violent clashes across Punjab between followers of the influential Dera Sacha Sauda and various Sikh groups reflect the community's growing fears that the 'dera culture' poses the most serious threat yet to their 500-year-old religion."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 or baba or sant," says Dr Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia, Sikh scholar and director of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation. "This is against the basic tenet of the faith which is steadily being eroded by a mushroom growth of deras in the last decade or so."

Analysts estimate that there are about 9,000-odd deras in Punjab today, servicing its 12,329 villages. And, they are patronised by about 80 per cent of the population in Punjab. Prof H.S. Dilgeer, formerly with the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), points out that "around 90 per cent of the religious offerings are being cornered by deras nowadays". But what is worrying the Sikh religious establishment more is the distortion of the faith, the growing apostasy and the huge following that deras command. At Jalandhar, Baba Kashmira Singh runs the lucrative Jan Sewa Trust where apart from doling out spiritual advice he also runs a multi-speciality hospital. He preaches unity of all religions and has set up little shrines representative of Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam on his dera's rooftop. In 1999, the baba, himself a Sikh, was summoned to the Akal Takht, the supreme spiritual body of the Sikhs, to explain why he should not be excommunicated from the faith for his 'heretical' activities. Kashmira Singh, known for his proximity to the Congress, told Outlook, "Sikhs are breaking away from gurudwaras and coming to deras like mine for spiritual guidance because of their disillusionment with Sikhism.I am not against Sikhs cutting their hair. I believe a religion should be flexible and change with the times." At Kirpal Sagar, a sprawling complex spread over 35 hectares in Rahon village of Nawanshahr district, the piece de resistance is a boat-shaped monument bearing different religious symbols situated in the centre of a rippling tank of water. Here the caretaker of the deceased baba's inheritance is Bibi Surinder Kaur who tells us that amrit in Punjab can only be found at two places. "One at the Golden Temple sarovar in Amritsar, and the other at our dera!" If this rankles the Sikh clergy, the allegedly blasphemous activities of some other deras is a source of frequent violence in the state.

Ashutosh: Followers of the controversial Divya Jyoti Jagaran Sansthan at Noormahal run by Ashutosh Maharaj have had several serious runins with Sikh groups who object to the 'samagams' held by the dera all over Punjab, where besides projecting himself as a reincarnation of the Sikh gurus, Ashutosh is allegedly also critical of mainstream Sikhism. In 1998, Baba Piara Bhaniarewala provoked Sikhs by writing his own granth, which he called the Bhavsagar Samundar Granth, and encouraged followers to burn copies of Sikh scriptures. He was excommunicated from the faith by the Akal Takht, but the resultant violence at his dera near Ropar forced the government to provide him a hefty security cover. Notwithstanding the opposition, both the deras have grown in strength and influence.

In the rising din against deras, the Sikh clergy, represented by the five Sikh head priests as well as the SGPC, is being squarely blamed for "letting down the faithful". "Our religious leadership has submitted to politicians, and devotes more time to politicking than propagating the religion. Their grip over the people has loosened, and deras and babas have just stepped in to fill the gap," says Prof Darshan Singh, professor emeritus, Guru Nanak Studies, Punjab University. In 2005, around 100 Sikh organisations gathered at the Akal Takht to find ways to check the rising dera cult in Punjab. But due to lack of unanimity over the deras against which action was being contemplated, the campaign fizzled out.

Faced with increasing criticism, the Sikh clergy is on the defensive. Recognising the deras as a "serious threat to Sikhism", Akal Takht jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti believes they are drawing people "because following a baba is easy. There is no need to study or understand the scriptures, or the 'bani' of gurus. All you have to do is hand over all your worries to the baba, and he takes care of everything. Unfortunately, people do not realise that this is not Sikhism. There is no place for miracle cures, rituals or godmen in our religion." Says SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar, "We are trying to bring such babas into our fold. But many are misusing the gurbani for their own commercial motives and we are directly in confrontation with them."The SGPC also claims to have held 'amrit chakho' camps in the last two years in which over a lakh Sikhs have been baptised. Alarmed over the growing number of 'apostates' in the faith, several Sikh missionary organisations too have stepped up their campaigns in rural Punjab, many of them sponsored by wealthy NRI Sikhs. But is it a losing battle? Already more than 80 per cent of Sikh men in rural Punjab do not sport 'kesh' or hair, the most visible symbol of Sikhism.

Have deras then sounded the death-knell of Sikhism as we have known it? The basic ethos is gone from it," notes Joginder Singh, editor of daily newspaper Spokesman, and an outspoken critic of the Sikh clergy, for which offence he has been excommunicated from the Sikh panth. Many believe that the sudden rise of deras in Punjab has much to do with the aftermath of militancy in Punjab when many gurudwaras were rebuilt through kar seva or voluntary effort. "This became a racket as many kar seva babas sprung up to take on contract work from the SGPC. They collected huge sums from the public and bought expensive cars for themselves, spending just a fraction of it on the project," says a disgusted Dr Ahluwalia. Many of the deras are now being run by these very kar seva babas who have assumed cult status as godmen of sorts. Their appeal also lies in their inclusive approach. With the caste system rearing its head in Punjab in recent years, its manifestation visible in separate gurudwaras for Dalits and other lower-caste Sikhs, the deras attract this segment with their egalitarianism.

It's not surprising that most major deras draw the low castes, the illiterate and the gullible.If Sikh scholars are alarmed by the growing influence and power of deras, it is because they have established close links with the political fraternity. In the recently concluded Punjab assembly elections, Dera Sacha Sauda came out openly in support of the Congress and constituted district-level political affairs wings. Much of the Congress' good showing in the Malwa belt of Punjab (where the dera has some 10 lakh followers) was to Sacha Sauda's credit, which managed to bring 12-odd seats into the Congress kitty. In return, the party reportedly promised to help out dera head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh with a CBI enquiry he is facing in the murder of a follower and a journalist, who spilled the beans about sexual exploitation of the dera's woman inmates. Significantly, soon after the polls, the CBI officer enquiring into these allegations was transferred.Politicians of all hues patronise the deras. "It's a vicious circle," says SGPC member Dr Kiranjot Kaur. "Drawn by their following, politicians go to deras for votes, and their presence grants the dera legitimacy, adding to its following." So it is with Baba Kashmira Singh or Ashutosh Maharaj: they enjoy considerable clout with political parties and use it for their own commercial ends. Currently, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, whose Akali Dal got a drubbing in its Malwa stronghold thanks to Sacha Sauda, is wooing select deras in the state."