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Deras as ‘Little Fiefdoms’

Understanding the Dera Sacha Sauda Phenomenon

Santosh K Singh ( teaches at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi.

The phenomenon of deras draws from the region’s social history and porosity of religious boundaries, where much of its reconfiguration and reconstitution has happened at the intersection of caste and religion.

The conviction and imprisonment of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS), in two 15-year-old rape cases unleashed a wave of violent protests and outrage by its followers in parts of Punjab and Haryana. However, as the can of worms spills over and skeletons continue to tumble out, it is the poignant images of hapless and poor women, men and children, being evacuated by the army from the Dera headquarters and other naam-charcha ghar or prayer halls of the Dera, that stay to haunt. How does one make sense of this tragic spectacle? The answer seemingly lies in the multiple sociocultural and economic narratives emanating from the region and the nest of rumours surrounding the DSS in Haryana.

The Dera Phenomenon and Caste

Deras, variously referred to as akharas or ashrams in other places, are ordinarily understood as offshoots of mainstream religious traditions.1 Their antiquity, however, is perhaps as long as that of the organised religions. In the largely fluid sacred geography of the region, the notion of an organised religion with fixed boundaries came as a Western import in this part of the world. Porosity and fluidity characterised the realm of religion here, where the notion of boundary had a distinct mistiness and pronounced permeability. The north–western provinces that include present-day Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have historically been a crucible of diverse ideas, traditions and cultural inter-permeability (Oberoi 1994; Madan 2003). This was most visible in the domain of religion; the land of faith had as much dynamic and parallel counter-faith cultures. For instance, Sikhism founded by Guru Nanak (1469–1539) had an immediate counterposition to it, spearheaded by none other than his own son, Sri Chand Maharaj, who founded a separate tradition called Udasi Dera.2 Unlike his father who emphasised “household” and “this world,” the Udasi Dera foregrounded the philosophy of renunciation.

Links between the institution of caste and the phenomenon of deras draw from the region’s social history and that porosity of religious boundaries, where much of the reconfiguration and reconstitution happened at the intersection of caste and religion. Hinduism’s hierarchical caste principles remained at the core of negotiation, both in the formation of the constitutive logic of new or alternative counter-discourses or in matters of navigation across faiths. The egalitarian spirit and the promise of an equal world were clearly the major pull factors of these alternative spaces. The lower castes and untouchables in the ritual hierarchy of Hinduism found these alternatives and their textual premises and promises emancipatory and gradually, gravitated towards them. Sikhism, for example, became the major refuge for the Jats, the middle caste, landed, agrarian gentry who populated this space, followed by a large segment of lower castes and untouchables (Grewal 1990; McLeod 1968).

This, however, is just one side of the story. Over the centuries, as Sikhism evolved into a more organised, structured and symbol-oriented religion, the materially dominant Jats progressively monopolised the tradition. Gradually, the caste imprints, instead of fading away, became more visible and inflicted upon daily in the region (Puri 2003; Ram 2007; Judge 2010). This began with the proliferation of separate gurdwaras and cremation grounds in the villages of Punjab. So, even though the people at the receiving end of the discriminatory practices did not immediately migrate to other faiths, the distinctions emerged, displaying signs of chinks in the much vaunted egalitarian claims.

It is the failure of not being able to annihilate such caste domination and discrimination that creeped into and thrived in these alternative religious spaces (which today have become mainstream) that is predominantly responsible for the mushrooming of deras of all denominations in the region. Much of the dera proliferation, early on, occurred because of differences in philosophy and codes or disgruntled claimants to leadership in various groups.3 However, gradually, towards the late 19th and 20th centuries when caste emerged as a marker of political identity, many of these deras invariably got intertwined and identified with the subaltern castes. Punjab’s distinction of having the highest population of Scheduled Castes (32%) in the country, with some of its pockets such as Jalandhar having a still higher share in the local demography, goes to show why Punjab remains a most fertile ground for the emergence of such deras.

It is not to say that there are only caste elements behind these deras. For example, one of the reasons why the deras are looked upon with suspicion and considered subversive by say the Sikh panthic bodies like the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) has got to do with non-caste factors as well. To illustrate the same, Sikhism does not believe in the idea of a living guru any more after the tenth guru, Guru Govind Singh, ended the system following which the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, came to be revered as the guru. Transgressing these norms, most of these deras, whether Sikh or non-Sikh, tend to tamper with such panthic prescriptions. For instance, Nirankari and Namdhari, even though they follow the Sikh maryada, still practise the concept of guru-like figures in their spaces, which the Sikh–Khalsa tradition does not approve of. That the deras typically appear to accommodate the diverse notions of religiosity makes them appear subversive to the mainstream.

Manufactured Halo of Syncretism

The DSS, headquartered at Sirsa, Haryana, came to prominence and hogged the national prime time for the first time when its chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was accused of blasphemy by the Sikhs. Before this, he was mired in other criminal cases of rape and murder, but they were still not so well-known outside Punjab. In an advertisement in local newspapers in 2007, he was shown as impersonating Guru Govind Singh. Furthermore, he was supposed to have mimicked the tradition of pahul, which included the ritual of sprinkling baptismal water, which he called Jamm-e-Insan (drink of humanity), on his followers, a tradition associated with the tenth Sikh guru. This infuriated the Sikhs leading to clashes between the followers of the dera, called premis (lovers), and the Sikhs in many parts of Punjab. Since then, the dera has a strained relationship with the Sikhs.

The DSS, however, existed since 1948, when a Sufi man from Baluchistan, Baba Beparwah Mastana, founded it as a social and spiritual organisation. In its six decade-long history, the dera has had three gurus—Baba Mastana followed by Baba Satnam Singh and then, Gurmeet Singh who was handed over the gaddi (command) of the dera at the young age of 23. Gurmeet Singh’s family, a landed Jat family, hailed from Ganganagar district of Rajasthan, and his parents were followers of the DSS. Till then, the dera had an insignificant localised presence. It is interesting to note that the dera borrows its name from a legend from Guru Nanak’s life,4 which goes to show how this dera too, like many others in the region, had a syncretic foundation with an organic propensity to accommodate and borrow from varied traditions. Relatedly, Gurmeet Singh later added Ram, Rahim and Insan to his name to brighten the halo around his syncretic claims, with an eye at perhaps broadening the base of his clientele from varied religious affiliations.

As caste identities became more and more pronounced in the democratic polity of India, many deras actively pursued identity-based mobilisation. Babu Mangu Ram’s movement in the 1920s, for a separate religious identity for the Dalits of the region, became successful in getting the Ad-Dharmi identity included in the caste census of 1931. That it got gradually co-opted within the larger pan-Indian movement led by B R Ambedkar and thus lost its own identity is a different issue. What is to be noted, however, is that Mangu Ram recognised the significance of religion in the Indian context and that the goal of a caste-less society was impossible within the existing order, like Ambedkar did (Juergensmeyer 1988; Jodhka 2016). The dera of village Ballan or Dera Sachkhand in Jalandhar is a great example of a politically aware and active dera which forefronts its Ravidassia Dalit identity. The dera’s premises, posters, publicity materials and pamphlets have more pictures of Ambedkar than its own sants. Babu Mangu Ram was a regular visitor of this dera, and one of its sants, Sant Sarwan Das was supposed to have met Ambedkar in Delhi sometime in 1948 (Singh 2011, 2017).

There are two relevant questions here: one, is it correct to present all deras as centres of Dalit mobilisation, just because all of them have a large Dalit base? And second, how is DSS, for example, different from the Dera Sachkhand of Ballan? The answer to this lies in the nuances and diversity in the world of the deras. It is a fact that most of the alternative traditions, including deras, have a large Dalit base. And the reason is that the mainstream religious traditions did not quite live up to the expectations of the new entrants, especially coming from the lower end of the caste hierarchy. So even though their official and formal affiliations, in many cases, have remained with the mainstream religion, in practice they were far more susceptible to these other traditions. For it is in these spaces that they felt more welcomed, at home and non-discriminated. In comparison to the mainstream, many of these deras have been less esoteric, more inclusive and have pitched their philosophies in terms and vocabularies that the followers, largely drawn from the poor, illiterate or semi-illiterate agri-gentry of the Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), found to be more approachable and comprehensible. The discourses, more often than not, will veer around the idea of sadachar (good conduct).5

Hence, it is far from the ground reality to project all these deras as centres of Dalit mobilisation. The DSS, for example, has nothing to do with the politics around Dalit identity. One would hardly ever find a single picture of Ambedkar or anything even remotely linked to other heroes of subaltern politics in the region, such as Kanshi Ram or Mangu Ram, in the samagams (congregations) of the dera where thousands assemble. The makeshift shops that spring up outside the DSS congregations will typically have pictures, calendars, videos and CDs of the gurus of the dera albeit very few of Mastana and Satnam Singh and most of Gurmeet Ram Rahim. Glittering and colourful pictures and lockets of Gurmeet Ram Rahim, depicting his various avatars—sportsman, actor, pop singer, astronaut, fighter—in photo frames would dot the stalls. Most calendars show Gurmeet Ram Rahim in fancy dresses riding all kinds of expansive and high-end cars and bikes. These samagams also have stalls of various beauty and medicinal products, sold under the dera brand, including male vitality enhancing tonics and other products, most showing bodybuilder, muscular men on their cover, evidently to cater to the masculine cultural fixation with pehalwani (wrestling traditions) of the region.

This is quite in contrast to the Ravidassia dera of Jalandhar, where Ambedkar is omnipresent and the sants are low profile with a more inclusive and easy demeanour. This is not to suggest that there are no internal power struggles within the Dera Ballan; however, they are morphologically far less flamboyant, more porous and historically rooted in the questions of Dalit political identity and issues as opposed to their contemporaries. Indeed, if hobnobbing with politicians makes a dera political, then all deras will be political, including the DSS. The deras wield tremendous influence on their followers, and politicians value this power of the dera gurus. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, for example, had a massive sway in the Malwa region and is believed to have significantly influenced elections in Punjab in the past.

A Messiah for His Followers

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s DSS represents a new phenomenon within the dera culture. Deras such as Sacha Sauda and Dera Satlok of Baba Rampal in Hisar, again from Haryana, and many others in the region, actually organise around a father figure with an inflated narcissistic streak. It is not without reason that Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh wanted his followers to call him pitaji. Drawing from the region’s attraction towards syncretic religious frameworks and the large mass of free-floating people, disillusioned and alienated with the mainstream, these deras create a kind of self-sufficient, insulated cocoons or “little fiefdoms,” borrowing from the British administrator Charles Metcalfe’s portrayal of India’s villages as little republics. They occupy large properties (the dera headquarters in Sirsa stands on a sprawling 700 acre property) on which they build their patriarchal fiefdoms, with many having their own armies and bodyguards. Rumours once suggested that the DSS had its own currency which circulated within the perimeter of the fiefdom. The dera headquarter apparently housed schools, hospitals, swimming pools, sprawling agricultural land for fresh food and vegetables, milching animals, and more importantly a vast army of poor people who worked on the dera premises as sevadaars (volunteers), in lieu of basic existential securities like free food, basic healthcare, free education, etc. Baba was, therefore, a messiah for his followers. His MSG films, videos and songs only added to his charismatic persona.

The dera’s popularity and expansion since the 1990s, under the leadership of Gurmeet Singh, coincided with the advent of the new economic environment with its altered focus on privatisation and gradual withdrawal of the state from various sectors. That most deras of the region have opened schools and colleges, hospitals and dispensaries in their area of influence goes to show how they filled the space of essential social services vacated by the state to attract a mass following among the poor and deprived segments of the region. Around the same time, the region was also beginning to reel from the fallouts of the much glorified green revolution; stories of farmer’s suicides, agrarian decline and the looming crisis in the countryside of the region, once hailed as the breadbasket of the whole country, could be heard.

It is not without reason that the DSS had one of its largest catchment areas in the poor pockets of the Malwa region of Punjab. Tellingly, two of the most highly publicised philanthropic activities of Gurmeet Singh include mass marriages of poor young couples and drug de-addiction camps. There could not have been better community outreach strategies than these in a region afflicted with female foeticide and drugs. In both Punjab and Haryana, because of the deficit of women as a result of rampant foeticide, there have been instances of polyandrous marriages and trafficking of women to the region from states of Assam, Bihar and even Kerala and Nepal. Thus, marriage became an issue in ordinary families in the region. Likewise, the region, especially its youth, has been under the grip of drug addiction and the menace spread its tentacles deep into the rural areas. Near to complete absence of specialised health infrastructural support for such cases in the countryside led many poor families to this dera. To be fair, innumerable families who got succour from the dera in reforming their young sons could never leave thereafter; they became premis forever. It is obvious that the dera had worked on the sociology of the region, especially its vulnerable pockets, well enough which explains its massive support base and following.


The dera chief has been convicted as per the law of the land for a crime that he committed. The little fiefdom that he built on the edifice of his extraordinary, and let’s not shy away from admitting it, religious entrepreneurial skills, perhaps forgot, under the stupor of power and proximity to the political heavyweights, that there is a larger republic within which his kingdom exists. Deras are part of a complex and often, conflict-ridden cultural history, operating as symbols of counter-narratives and a congenial habitat for alternative religious and cultural discourses. Hence, to paint all deras with the same brush would be unfair. As the conflicted stories of massive wealth, succession and its many claimants to chiefdom of the DSS unfold, it increasingly resembles a crumbling business house dogged by family feud. This is surprising since the dera had never followed the blood-link in succession before. But then, the DSS of today is worlds apart from the one established by the Sufi from Baluchistan. This is the dera of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan who was mastana (full of carefree fun) but not beparwah (without caution); he built an empire with great caution (parvah). Just that, in the end the Republic of India outwitted and got the better of his fiefdom; which is the most fulfilling takeaway from this exhilarating, and of course, colourful but sordid saga of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and his dera.


1 Deras represent religious congregations which are organised around a living guru. Those who follow the Sikh code of conduct are known as Sikh deras while those who follow other traditions or composite traditions, including the Sikh tradition, are considered non-Sikh deras. Conceptually, the institution of dera is considered blasphemous by the Sikh panthic bodies because of the presence of a living human guru. Sikh panthic tradition put a closure to the idea of a living guru after Guru Govind Singh, the tenth guru. Idol worship and devotion towards a human guru is quite common in these non-Sikh deras. It is, perhaps, this tendency to tamper with the panthic traditions that causes these non-Sikh deras to be viewed as potentially threatening by the mainstream.

2 Sri Chand Maharaj, also known as Baba Sri Chand, the elder son of Guru Nanak, is considered the founder of a separate ascetic sect called Udasis (literally meaning stoic, detached or indifferent) who believed in an austere life and extolled the virtues of asceticism and other worldliness. The sect’s dominant popular iconography portrays Baba Sri Chand Maharaj as an ascetic and renunciator with matted hair sitting in a meditative posture on a tiger’s skin.

3 During the period of the historic gurus, different deras of Udasis, Minas, Dhirmalias, Ramraiyas, Masandis and others mushroomed. All these formations, primarily, emerged as an outcome of the disgruntled and unsuccessful attempt of the “fake” claimants to Gurudom.

4 The legend around the word “Sacha Sauda” is that the father of Guru Nanak once gave some money to young Nanak, and asked him to go and do some business. Young Nanak went and bought food and clothes and distributed them among the poor and hungry people. When his father asked him what he did with the money, young Nanak told him what he did. This instance is hailed as a true (sacha) business (sauda).

5 A few years back in Delhi, in one of the samagams attended by the author, the dera chief spoke relentlessly for hours on issues related to family feuds, the lack of respect for elders and parents, rising animosity between brothers, loss of the old world where joint family values were adhered to, etc. Most of these sermons were relayed in the most mundane ways sans any grand philosophy.


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— (2017): “The Caste Question and Songs of Protest in Punjab,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 52, No 34, pp 33–37.

Updated On : 21st Sep, 2017


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