The Ugly Truth Behind the Rise of Ram Rahim

Social Commentary

The Ugly Truth Behind the Rise of Ram Rahim

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Platform Number 1 of the New Delhi Railway Station was eerily empty. On any other day, around 5 pm, it would be a bustle of bodies, waiting to board the 5.15 pm Shatabdi to Chandigarh. Today, however, the train had been cancelled and pensive men and women were retreating with their American Tourister bags.

I went up to the office of the station ionen-charge to confirm if the 7.15 pm train had also been cancelled and was joined by a harried Sikh gentleman. Inside the office there were three men seated in comfortable chairs, white towels covering their headrests. Before either of us could ask a question, a box of sweets was thrust in front of us.

“Inka birthday hai,” said one of the men pointing to the other.

Both the Sikh gentleman and I were dazed by this offering. Tear-gas shells were being lobbed in a state not far from here and we were being offered sugar bombs. To put the matter to rest, we quietly picked up a piece each. “7.15 waali bhi cancel ho sakti hai,” the station in-charge confirmed. “Babaji ki kripa hai,” added another, and all three burst into laughter.

The answer to this madness lies with our Gods. Because in India, even our Gods follow the caste system and are aware of class hierarchies.

I thought about the dismissiveness of the railway officials, as I left for the Ajmeri Gate exit, while looking at reports of the mob rioting and pillaging in Panchkula, Sirsa, and other parts of Haryana and Punjab. A friend from Panchkula had sent me a picture of the city, engulfed in smoke, shot from his roof. He was safe, he told me, and his society had a security gate which was preventing Dera Sacha Sauda supporters from entering. The houses facing the main road, though, were facing the heat and life had come to a standstill. Never in a million years, he said, did he think that a peaceful area like Panchkula would witness such mayhem.

Over the past few days, as we saw humongous crowds saunter into Panchkula right under the administration’s nose, my friends and I discussed why were these “premis” so in love with their “papaji”? It wasn’t their devotion, but the intensity of their devotion which baffled us. What made them leave their homes in such large numbers and camp out without food and shelter? Why did they travel such long distances, some of them on foot? It was easy to term these masses as mad and illiterate, as brute and uncivilised fools who have nothing better to do but follow their leader like sheep.

The answer to this madness lies with our Gods. Because in India, even our Gods follow the caste system and are aware of class hierarchies. The poor cannot afford the Gods of the rich, women aren’t allowed to worship the Gods of men, lower-caste folks have no access to the Gods of the upper caste.

In such a country, the chance to be equal – not better, not worse – than the upper castes is a tantalising prospect. Most followers of the many Deras stippling Punjab and Haryana are from backward castes. After the advent of Sikhism, several people from the lower castes converted to the supposedly caste-free religion, hoping for a shot at being raised out of the pit of discrimination. But in reality, they were merely served the same meal in another dish. These converts were looked down upon by upper-caste Khatri and Jat Sikhs. Their wells and houses had always been different – now their temples would be too.  

It isn’t the devotion of Ram Rahim Singh’s followers, but the intensity of their devotion which has baffled us.

Hindustan Times / Getty Images

This is the opportunity babas like Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh capitalised on. Dera Sacha Sauda’s originators saw a gap in the religious market and acted aggressively to fill it. Ram Rahim Singh promised his followers a society, which laid emphasis on equality, but it was not merely empty rhetoric that seduced his followers. The Dera provided people with subsidised food and medicines. It has, to date, launched over a hundred welfare projects. Through overt and covert means, it has also successfully tackled the greatest malaise Punjab suffers from – drug addiction – if the gloriously tuneless “Drug Naa Lena Re” is any indication. Their de-addiction centres are well known for their efficacy.

For a mother, whose son has been saved from the clutches of drugs, Ram Rahim Singh is nothing short of God. For “premis”, who have never known self-respect, Ram Rahim Singh is God. He has accorded them jobs, dignity, and a life purpose. This is not to condone the violence they have unleashed – this is just an attempt to understand life as experienced by “those people”. With Ram Rahim Singh’s conviction, their way of life appears to be under threat. They are afraid that they’ll slip back into the abyss they have barely just emerged from.

Ram Rahim Singh is not the first one to experience this sense of mass hysteria. In Tamil Nadu, MGR and Amma, with their schemes and sops, turned a whole state into their devotees. They transcended the mortal plane because they listened to people and actually made a difference to their lives and livelihoods. As Yogendra Yadav once pointed out – every mafia, every cult has to endear itself to the masses through welfare programmes and schemes. Every evil needs a good face.

With our netas inspiring no confidence among their vote bank, it is god-men like Ram Rahim who provide solace and security to the poor and the indigent.

Hindustan Times / Getty Images

Ram Rahim Singh has stepped in where successive state and central governments have failed at dragging people out of this morass. The BJP government came to power on the promise of good governance, but one only has to look at the handling of the situation in Panchkula to realise how good that governance has been. The administration simply looked the other way while the Dera supporters gathered in droves. Section 144 was applied, but not enforced.

In times of need, the poor and the indigent should logically be turning to their elected representatives, not to self-styled, megalomaniac god-men. With our netas inspiring no confidence among their vote bank, it is god-men who provide solace and security. For those of us at a distance, buffeted by education and privilege, Ram Rahim Singh’s rape conviction is a triumph of the judiciary and the country’s legal system. But for his followers, it’s an attack on the only belief system that has done them any good.

The violence might have subsided for now, but it might not be over yet, especially when Ram Rahim’s quantum of sentence is read out on Monday. Pillaging might ensue once again and the fires might rage on. But for a society as deeply rifted in class, such mobocracy should not come as a surprise.  What should, in fact, come as a surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.