Two disparate incidents last week in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana have brought the focus back on the influence of Ashrams or deras and the simmering social tensions they are generating. The Haryana government was forced to shut down a controversial Ashram in Rohtak after evacuating 3,000 followers of a self-styled Goldman, Sant Rampal, as he came in clash with Arya Samaj followers. The clash claimed three lives.
In the second incident, a local court ordered three years imprisonment for controversial Godman Baba Piara Singh Bhaniarawala for desecrating Sikh holy books, over a decade ago that even led the Sikh militant groups gunning for his head. His controversial book Bhavsagar Granth was banned in Punjab and he was arrested in 2001. His followers drawn from Dalit Sikhs, Bhaniarawala had his headquarters in Ropar in Punjab.
According to conservative estimates, there are over 8,000 deras in Punjab alone. These Ashrams have a living guru commanding several thousands followers from all communities like Sikh and Hindu. The dominant sects and dera have sprung in opposition to the mainstream upper castes. There are nearly 30 percent dalits in Punjab, making it the highest concentration in terms of population anywhere in the country. Dalits had tried to imbibe the teaching of the Sikh gurus as they preached casteless society, but as the upper castes continued to dominate temple and political affairs, Dalits saw emergence of their own leaders.
The deras are not just limited to the socially downtrodden who are trying to assert their identity, they also belong to the upper castes. The deras have sprung up in almost all cities, and many even have their own attached Gurdwaras where free langar (community meals) and darshan of the spiritual masters are held.
Its not only the ordinary followers and politicians who visit these deras. Even celebrities attendance has made many of such deras popularity graph soaring. Cricketers Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh are regulars to the dera of Baba Ajit Singh Hansliwale in Fatehgarh District of Punjab. Yuvraj even got his bats blessed by the aged spiritual guru during his world cup matches.
Most of these self-styled gurus have fleet of luxury cars, as in case of Baba Ram Rahim, who is even said to have bulletproofed his vehicles. Another holyman Mahant Chotu Nath of Baba Gorakhnath dera in Chandigarh, hit headlines in February last when he spent `10 lakh to buy the VIP number for his Audi Q7 SUV.