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Deras and the Ecclesiastical Anarchy among Sikhs!!!!

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Deras and the Ecclesiastical Anarchy among Sikhs

Dr. Kharak Singh*

* 959, Phase IV, SAS Nagar. 160059. Founder-Member of Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh.

Guru Nanak (1469-1539 CE) gave a new religious philosophy, and preached and practised a new way of life. Nine successors nourished the movement which culminated in the creation of the Khalsa in 1699 CE, imbued with spirit of service and sacrifice, and a strong belief in the Creator and equality and freedom of His creation, the mankind. Inspired by the teachings and example of the Gurus, humble people from low castes who had been meekly submitting to social injustice under the demeaning caste system, and brutalities from foreign invaders for centuries, rose in revolt against the prevailing set-up. The Gurus had in fact engineered an unprecedented revolution that turned ‘sparrows into hawks.’ The struggle continued after Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708). Banda Singh Bahadur succeeded in setting-up a Sikh government in Punjab. But the success was short-lived. Banda Singh was captured and executed after torture along with hundreds of his companions.

Unprecedented repression followed. Sikhs were outlawed and the Mughal government declared a policy of genocide which was followed vigorously. Sikhs had to flee their homes and sought shelter in the desert of Bikaner or forests of the hilly areas. This did not affect their high spirits or their deep-rooted faith in their ultimate destiny. They switched over to guerilla warfare, and took full advantage of the fluid political situation as well as the invasions of Ahmed Shah Abdali which had considerably weakened the authority of Delhi. By 1765, the Sikhs had returned and were dominating large parts of Punjab under misl chiefs. By 1799, Ranjit Singh had established himself as ruler of the Punjab and as symbol of the people’s victory and sovereignty of the Khalsa.

Present Malaise: The above brief account would appear irrelevant to the subject of ‘deras’. This background, however, has been recalled to raise the question: Has the philosophy of Guru Nanak which changed the course of history, and brought about the above revolution, become inadequate to satisfy the spiritual or temporal needs of the people today? The question arises from the present influx of the people to the babas and their deras. What draws them to these deras? Do the babas dispense a superior spiritual philosophy or spiritual peace not available in the mainstream Sikhism or at the Gurdwaras? When somebody visits a dera, does it amount to conversion from his earlier faith to a new religion?

These questions are important, and the problems arising from the dera phenomenon are serious and are assuming gross dimensions. The dera of ‘Baba’ Ashutosh at Nurmahal is very much in the news. His activities are a serious threat to peace and tranquility of the state. Thoughtless utterances and provocative statements issuing from his dera or his congregations elsewhere are an open invitation to trouble.

What happened at Malout recently is a warning that cannot be ignored. The ‘baba’ appears determined to follow in the footsteps of his counterpart in the Nirankari sect, who in arrogance and with ill-advised patronage of the government, insisted on holding congregations in inhospitable localities denigrating the Sikh Gurus and playing with the sentiments of their followers. Memory of the massacre of 13 Sikhs at Amritsar in 1978, and the subsequent assassination of the ‘Baba’ Gurbachan Singh, which gave impetus to the later Bhindranwale phenomenon, and caused so much bitterness, is still fresh in our minds. No responsible government or individual, regardless of religious affiliation, can afford the repetition of that nightmare.

Unfortunately, Nirankaris and Nurmahalias are not the only deras vitiating the peaceful atmosphere in the state. Only a short while earlier ‘Baba’ Bhaniarawala and his followers earned notoriety by desecrating the holy birs of Guru Granth Sahib, the eternal Guru of the Sikhs. The anguish caused by the outrage might appear dormant at the moment, but it will no doubt flare up, if the culprits are allowed to get away with it.

Dens of Immortality: There is no count of the rapidly mushrooming deras for ‘spiritual rejuvenation’ of their followers. Among hundreds of other deras mention must be made of the deras at Daudhar and Sacha Sauda for the significant crowds they attract. Custodians of two such deras, one at Nawanshehar and the other at Ludhiana, are currently behind the bars on charges of rape of unsuspecting victims. There are complaints of such activities at many other deras. In fact, some of them appear to have been started to clandestinely provide a place for the influential to indulge in debaucheries, and have become dens of crime and immorality. An intelligence report will expose the truth about these deras. A recent dangerous trend is the revival of long abandoned graves and marhis associated with imaginary pirs and shahids. Clever people have taken over these mazars or samadhis, and their trade is flourishing.

These are certain features common to all deras. They insist on the need for a ‘guru’ in flesh and blood, for fulfilment of spiritual aspirations as well as profane desires, as did the Brahmins earlier to emphasize their indispensability in the life of the common man. In the Punjab they all exploit people’s faith in gurbani and Guru Granth Sahib. They insist on akhnad paths even at the graves to mislead people. They misinterpret the gurbani and quote verses that praise the ‘guru’, carefully concealing the fact that the term in Gurbani refers to Sabad and for God and not the physical mortal frame of a deradar. They also ignore the fact that Guru Gobind Singh forever vested the guruship in Granth Sahib, the embodiment of the Sabad revealed to Guru Nanak and his successors, and ruled out any corporeal guru after him.

Further, all successful deras practise their cult as a trade and employ modern media for sales promotion. They hire agents who go about in public attributing ‘miracles’ to the ‘baba’ and stories of boons conferred on faithful devotees. The local administration gets involved in the course of time, since the officials see obvious advantages in the partnership. The politicians, in their lust for power and pursuit of votes, cannot afford to ignore the growing popularity of a dera, and, therefore, do not lag behind in seeking blessings of the ‘babas’. When they go to make their obeisance, their visits are fully exploited. The Bhaniarawala’s so-called granth is profusely adorned with colour pictures of politicians, including ministers, and senior state officials standing with folded hands in prayer before the ‘baba’. It is a real shame that the leaders should so debase themselves for the sake of doubtful gains.

It must be pointed out that when people go to deras it is no indication that they are unhappy with the mainstream religious faith. For, nobody has ever explained it to them. Nor do they know anything about cults preached at the deras. Thus, in fact, no conversion is involved. It is only the mundane objectives and ignorance that drive the illiterate masses, particularly in the rural areas, to the deras. Politicians and state officials are also frequently not aware of the spiritual aspects involved. They, however, understand the game, but seeing obvious advantage in the partnership, often join the exploitation.

The state of affairs is indeed very disturbing. More disturbing, however, is the fact that those who are supposed to deal with it, are not conscious of the gravity of the problem. Who is responsible for it? Can we blame the ‘babas’ for doing what suits their interests? It is a fashion to blame the government for everything that appears to be wrong. One frequently hears that the deras have appeared at the instance of the government and enjoy its patronage. It is a responsibility of the leaders of the mainstream religious thought to educate the masses through intensive missionary work on the basic principles and the lofty ideals of the founders of our great religion. In the case of the mainstream Sikhism, SGPC has to accept this responsibility. Our leaders have so far been content with the management of religious places and the revenues accruing from them. The masses have been left at the mercy of the ‘babas’ to be exploited and preyed upon by these vultures in human form and garb of sants.

Awareness: Blame game and evasion of responsibility will not help. The leaders must appropriate the blame to themselves, and launch an intensive missionary campaign to create an awareness against the rampant exploitation, to wage a war on superstition and to carry the message of love, service and sacrifice, and the Guru’s motto - Naam japo; dharam di kirt karo; vand chhako - to every home. Then no demonstrations, or entreaties to the government to intervene will be necessary. With masses awakened, the deras will collapse.

The truth appears to be dawning. The SGPC has made a beginning to move in this direction. Recruitment of new qualified parcharaks and training programmers recently announced for the agencies involved, make a happy augury for freedom from ‘babas’ and their deras. Side by side, the government also owes a responsibility. The antecedents of the emerging sects must be checked and a close watch kept on their activities to save the innocent people from exploitation.

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