CHENNAI: In the city of Sirsa in Haryana is the sprawling 1000 acre headquarters of the Dera Sacha Sauda, the cult that is the center of the storm that broke out over north India after its leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, was pronounced guilty of rape of two women followers back in 2002. The sect is one of many, all called deras, that dot the landscape of Punjab and Haryana with affiliates in several other states in the north.
Founded in 1948, Dera Sacha Sauda, meaning the ashram of honest deals, has over the decades spread as far as Australia and the United States. The dera's website claims that its followers number 60 million, each committed to the principles of humanitarianism and selfless service to create a better world.
While the precepts of the Dera Sacha Sauda are not radically from those professed by similar other religious groups, the cult has attracted attention for the bizarre practices of its present leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. In 2015, for instance, a case was registered against him for castrating nearly 400 men supposedly to bring them 'closer' to God. The men were told that if only they submitted themselves to castration, they would be able to meet god.
Bizarre to outsiders, hero to followers
Once initiated into the cult, Dera Sacha Sauda followers are expected to shun their caste or family identity and instead be known simply as 'Insaan' which means human. The Dera promotes a notion of equality among its followers, a reason why it appeals to many, especially those from socially and economically underprivileged social groups. In fact, an egalitarian society is one of the many professed aims of the cult.
Psychologists around the world have studied cult followers for years and many have concluded that most of them have undergone some kind of oppression or discrimination at some point in their lives. In the case of the Dera Sacha Sauda, most of its followers are Dalit Sikhs who have been subjected to social domination by the upper caste Jat Sikhs. To them, therefore, Gurmeet Ram Rahim is a hero, a man who has achieved what many of them could only dream of. The gaudy attire Ram Rahim wears and the flamboyant life he leads are a careful construct aimed at eliciting the faith of dispossessed people. In other words, the Baba of Bling embodies their dreams.
Like any other cult leader, Ram Rahim's persona is unabashedly narcissistic, which makes him charismatic in the eyes of his followers. The films he makes show him doing stunts such as flying in the air, breaking the testicles of bad guys and transforming the lives of innocent people. How different are they from what Shah Rukh Khan or Akshay Kumar do and are worshipped for?
For his followers, associating with the cult is a shot at success and glory, which may be unattainable by other 'normal' means. Moreover, the confines of the Dera camps offer a soothing alternative to the harsh reality of the world outside, which is tainted by several systems of discrimination.
A follower of the cult told the newspaper Tribune that “different communities and castes have their own temples and gurdwaras in Punjab and Haryana, but in our Dera all are equal. We may be Hindu, Sikh or anything else, but we have failed to end caste divisions in society. In the Dera, these divisions are erased.” Nothing sums up the mindset and motivation of a Dera follower better than this.
According to Arthur Deikman, professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, people join cults because it satisfies their need to be taken care of by a guardian entity, in this case, Gurmeet Ram Rahim. “Cults form and thrive not because people are crazy, but because they have two kinds of wishes. They want a meaningful life, to serve god or humanity; and they want to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure, to find a home. The first motives may be laudable and constructive, but the latter exert a corrupting effect, enabling the cult leaders to elicit behavior directly opposite to the idealistic vision with which members entered the group,” says Diekman.
Certain statements made by Dera Sacha Sauda followers validate Diekman's theory that cult followers desire to “be taken care of” by a patron. “Guru is god for us. We cannot do anything without him,” said a female devotee. “Babaji helped me when my life was in financial turmoil. My entire family is indebted to him,” another devotee told the Indian Express. “If something wrong is announced, I will sacrifice my life for Babaji. Enough of peace!” he added.
Gurmeet knows that his band of devotees will defend him. That gives him political influence, and by extension, a sense of empowerment. “The chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana and many central ministers come and touch my feet. I can get your family members removed from their jobs and get them killed if you protest,’ he is reported to have told one of the women he allegedly raped.
Such behaviour by cult leaders we call godmen fits well with Diekman's proposition about the corruptive effect a large crowd of blind followers has on cult leaders. In her complaint to the police the woman wrote: He told me that since I, a sadhvi, had dedicated my mind and body to the ‘seva‘ (service) of the guru (Ram Rahim), he wanted to claim his due. When I protested, he told me that I should have no doubt he indeed was god.”
Further, the fervent protests and violent resistance by Ram Rahim’s supporters say one thing: to them, the arrest of their guru is an assault on their guardian who shielded them from the malaise of a caste-dominated society and offered them a path to upliftment. Not surprisingly, many consider it a conspiracy hatched by upper-class sections.
So then are there any parallels between Gurmeet Ram Rahim and Donald Trump's supporters? Imagine what would have happened had Trump been arrested while campaigning for president. His supporters would have deemed it as a slap in their face by the establishment and would have marched on Washington DC in protest. The worldview of the Dera supporters is colored by similar perceptions.