As I keep track of the coverage, in newspapers and on television, of the Dera Sacha Sauda controversy, there are a few things that strike me as strange.
Firstly, the Dera has been described as a 'Sikh sect' in certain sections of the news media, whereas it has nothing to do with Sikhism (or any other religious faith, as for that matter).
Secondly, something that has been part of conversations in urban drawing-rooms and rural baithhaks in Punjab i.e. the Dera head issued an edict to his followers to vote for Congress (I) in the recent state assembly elections, only because that party offered to help 'dispose off' the criminal cases filed against the Baba and his followers (the charges include murder and sexual abuse), in case it was able to form the government, does not appear to have been mentioned in any newspaper or on any television channel.
Thirdly, most media reports seem to imply that the Sikhs have been outraged merely by the fact that the Baba appeared dressed like Guru Gobind Singh, whereas, the truth is that he not only dressed like the Guru, but also attempted to replicate, to a large extent, what the Guru did on the day of the foundation of the Khalsa (in spite of the counter-claims made in the latest press statement put out by the Dera). He tried to do a 'role play', in which he put himself in the place of the Tenth Master.
I have had an inkling that the Baba harboured such ambitions, for a long time. For several years now, the Dera has been publishing calenders with photographs of his, in which he can be seen on a white horse or in other poses imitating the way, in which Guru Gobind Singh has often been depicted in paintings. Perhaps others, too, have noticed all that and at least some of what has happened over the past few days has been the culmination of events that have taken place over the past few years.
I think, however, that the media is right about the Shromani Akali Dal (the ruling party) versus Congress (I) angle to the violence. The hukam-naama calling for complete boycott of the Dera and its followers, in my opinion, would have put the message across clearly enough and the violence was unnecessary. Incidentally, though, the violence began when the Dera's supporters attacked a bunch of peaceful Akali protestors on May 14.
On a more personal note, the whole episode brought back memories of my own connection with the Dera.
Even as news media have been reporting that the Dera's followers comprise Sikhs mainly from the so-called backward castes (I believe they are among some of the most privileged people in Punjab today, but that is another story altogether.), there are some who are Jatt Sikhs also, as in the case of one such unfortunate example from my family. My paternal great-grandfather had five brothers, the youngest of whom became an ardent follower of the Dera Sacha Sauda. A few years later, the elder of his two sons followed in his footsteps. He, in fact, went a few steps farther than his father in terms of his devotion to the cult and got involved with its management and administration. Hard-working and honest as he was, he soon rose among the ranks and was widely billed as a likely candidate for a high-ranking position in the Dera hierarchy (Some of my elders tell me that he was expected to be made the head of the Dera, although I am not absolutely sure about this.).
Then, one day, while he was at the Dera premises, he was poisoned and his corpse delivered home in a tractor-trolley on the next. The father, the devout follower that he was, refused to file a case of murder with the police and also forbade the rest of the family from doing so.
This happened many years ago (in the early 1980's), much before Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim took over as chief, but has been proof enough, at least for me, that sleaze has always been an integral part of this cult.
I wonder if there have been other cases, as well, when unnatural deaths at the Dera have gone unreported.