Published On: Sun, Sep 3rd, 2017

Inside the dera

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Ankita Dwivedi Johri , SUKHBIR SIWACH

A heart-shaped multi-specialty hospital, a luxury resort housed in a ship-shaped structure, an international school with towers sculpted like aeroplanes — all in bright hues of orange, purple and green. For the over six crore premis (followers) of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, this 1,000-acre potpourri of colour, fantasy and adventure in Haryana’s Sirsa district is “heaven on earth”, conceptualised and designed by their “pitaji, Dr Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan”.

A day after the chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect was sentenced to 20 years in jail after he was found guilty of raping two women followers, the once flamboyant and bustling dera headquarters wears the look of an abandoned film set — the premis and sevadaars (people employed in the dera) have all but left, the 20-km stretch of roads inside the dera is lined with gun-wielding policemen, Army and paramilitary personnel, and the factories, schools and resorts are shut. Fluttering MSG flags and giant posters of Ram Rahim are all that remain. That, and the faith of the remaining employees — a few hundreds are still inside — who are certain their guru will “re-emerge” soon. Like one sevadaar says, “Woh insaan nahin hai, woh apni divya shakti se waapas aayenge aur sabko chauka denge (He isn’t human, he has magical powers and will return. Everyone will be stunned).”

Since his anointment at the age of 23 as the third of the Dera Sacha Sauda’s gurus — after Mastana Ji Maharaj and Shah Satnam Singh Ji Maharaj — Ram Rahim has attracted attention with his unconventional ways. At his satsangs, he is known to sing self-composed pop songs for hours and his outfits — suede pants, blingy jackets, spangled sleeveless T-shirts and a distinctive head gear, all which he apparently designed himself — have been been the subject of mirth for outsiders. But for his followers, mostly poor and unlettered Dalit and OBC families, the dera is a place that protects them and “gives them an identity” and their Baba is their universe, a man who they believe can do no wrong.

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A day after Ram Rahim’s sentencing on August 28, and three days after violent clashes in Panchkula and Sirsa left 39 dead, the sect’s Sirsa headquarters is a no-entry zone, manned by personnel of the Army, Haryana Police and the paramilitary. The MSG chowk, leading to the gigantic yellow arch on Sirsa’s Begu Road that marks the entry into the campus, is heavily barricaded. The narrow lanes on either side of the chowk have been blocked with red plastic chairs. “Go back,” warns an Army personnel, clutching his heavy machine gun.

But the vast expanse of the campus allows for more than one entry, and a 25-km detour through large swathes of aloe vera plantations and wet village lanes — all part of the dera campus – lands The Sunday Express in the heart of the headquarters. There are security checks every 100 metres, but a curfew pass, a few questions and thorough vehicle checks ensure an entry at 11 am.

This is the heart of the empire of the Dera Sacha Sauda, a sect which, under Ram Rahim, has ventured into various businesses — from hospitality and fine dining to at least 10 highway dhabas, from health and education, to entertainment, media and, now, its range of “swadeshi and organic food products” — all under the ‘MSG’ brand name, which comes from the initials of the sect’s three gurus.

Inside the Sirsa campus of the dera, past one of the many checkposts, is the MSG Battery Factory. Its large iron gates are bolted and a man stationed in the guard room snaps, “Who are you? How did you get here?”, before agreeing to talk. “The factory was set up six months ago. We made batteries for tractors and inverters here. There has been no electricity for the past four days and workers have been calling to enquire when can they return to work,” he says.

The next few kilometres are lined with factories — Sach Herbotech for the dera’s ayurvedic products, MSG apparels for clothes, cosmetics and toiletries, and Sach Cattle Healthcare that manufactures animal care products.

“We have nearly 20,000 workers employed in these factories, and they have now been rendered jobless. With no electricity and water, there is little we can do. There are just five-seven guards left at each factory now,” says Gajendra Singh, head of human resources for MSG Factories, over the phone. “Our factories won’t shut though, we will begin operations soon,” he claims.

Since the violence in Panchkula, electricity and water supply to the dera have been cut and a curfew has been imposed. Most establishments in the dera now run on generators, but, Singh says, these too may run out of fuel soon.

The products manufactured in the dera’s many factories are sold to the families of its employees and followers who visit the dera. While the dera openly enjoys political patronage, its publicity pamphlets and website claim Ram Rahim does not accept donations, “not even a penny”, and that “volunteers themselves work hard to meet the expenses of the organisation”. The employees mostly work for free, with the dera ensuring their food and shelter, and education for their children. Over the last three days, 30,000 of these employees and their relatives have vacated the dera.

After another checkpoint — where security personnel are cooped up under plastic sheets against the heavy rain — is the heart-shaped Shah Satnamji Speciality Hospital, a 400-bed facility inaugurated in 2014 that boasts of doctors from the country’s top medical institutions, including Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

Today, it’s closed, and Anokha Ram, the hospital supervisor, is at the gates. Inside his small cubicle is a poster of Ram Rahim dressed in a grey tracksuit, his trademark No. 1 gold chain around his neck. The 45-year-old almost breaks down while talking about his guru.

“There is a saying, ‘Tu kaun, mai khamakhaan (Who are you? Why should I care about you)’. Only we and Babaji know the truth. Woh jald hi prakat honge (He will make a divine appearance soon),” he says, holding back tears. “This hospital had nearly 200 patients, but now there are just five-seven of them inside, and even they have been asked to leave. We had a staff of about 300, but now most of them have left. But we are not worried,” he says. “What is the future of this hospital after Baba, you ask, but let me tell you, there is no ‘after Baba’. He is with us,” he declares.

A few metres from the hospital, Mahi Cinema, which plays only Ram Rahim’s films through the year, lies deserted. There are no queues outside the ‘Box Office’ counter and the attached food court is empty. Hoardings and posters of the Dera chief’s latest film, Jattu Engineer, released in May and which highlights the Prime Minister’s Swachch Bharat Mission, among other things, are splashed across the walls.

Over the last three years, Ram Rahim has written, directed, composed for and starred in five films — MSG: The Messenger, MSG-2 The Messenger, MSG: The Warrior Lion Heart, Hind Ka Napak ko Jawab: MSG Lion Heart 2 and Jattu Engineer — the last three of which have been co-directed by “FD” or “Father-Daughter Duo” of Ram Rahim and his adopted daughter Honeypreet Insan, who has now been issued a look-out notice. All the productions — shot on sets erected inside the dera, and designed by the man himself — revolve around themes of poverty, unemployment and drug abuse, and has its lead star, Ram Rahim, coming to people’s rescue. His songs, daredevil stunts and long sermons during the climax scenes are known to draw large audiences and delirious standing ovations. Most of these films were made on a budget of Rs 30-40 crore each but, according to the dera, made over Rs 100 crore.

A few lanes from another chowk, Bar Singh, 54, a member of the dera’s Green S Welfare Force Wing, a disaster relief team set up by Ram Rahim in 2001, is helping followers evacuate the campus. The Green Wing, he says, has nearly “70,000 people”, including “doctors, engineers, trained rescuers, paramedics, electricians, masons and reconstruction workers”.

“Baba understood us, gave us a sense of purpose, vouched for us. People from all religions are welcome here and we are trained by the Baba himself. Where would downtrodden people like us be without him? We helped during the tsunami and the Odisha cyclone. Do you think all this work can be done by a dishonest man?… Our children have grown up listening to his sermons,” says Singh, who hails from Bawdah Arjan Shah, a village in Punjab’s Firozpur district, and came to the dera 20 years ago with his family.

A Rai Sikh from the OBC community, Singh says he won’t leave the dera and will wait till his guru is released. “Aaj paisa pradhaan hai, aur vipaksh ke logon ne paise se gawahee khareed li hai (Today money is everything, and Opposition leaders have bought the witnesses). But they are not aware of the Baba’s powers. They will all suffer,” he says, sitting on the pavement of a road near the cinema hall. “They are saying there is violence inside the dera, there are guns… Look around, there is no one. Some people from outside Sirsa were responsible for all the violence. In fact, I am inspecting every part of the dera and will ensure that all the miscreants are thrown out,” he says, making his way towards a group of young boys, whom he claims he doesn’t recognise.

A few metres away, a 19-year-old sevadaar from Etawah in UP is waiting for a vehicle to take him and his three brothers out of the dera. They worked as security guards on the campus. “We have been living here for five years. We have never gone to school, but guruji took us under his wings. Bhakti aur shakti dono yahan hamein mili (We experienced both devotion and power here). TV channels have humiliated all of us,” he says, standing to next to his luggage — four jute and plastic bags packed with “clothes and a few other essentials”. “We didn’t own much; we didn’t need to. We got food, shelter and a job here. We got a little money too, but we didn’t need it,” he says.

On August 28, when television channels beamed news of their guru breaking down after being handed his 20-year rigorous imprisonment, millions of the dera’s followers were left shattered. Among them was the “media-in-charge” of the sect, who does not want to be named.

Today, he sits in his office inside the campus, taking notes as 20 small screens broadcast news from different channels. “This is all lies,” he says, pointing to the screens. “Our guru was an extraordinary man. When you go for the satsang of ordinary babas, you write your questions on a chit and hand it to them. At our satsang, Babaji would guess the questions of his followers and respond to them. There is nothing that he can’t do. He will show his miracles in jail too… Even Kabir was thrown before an elephant… Yeh duniya santo ki leela nahin samajh sakti (This world cannot understand the powers of a saint),” he says.

A few minutes later, a sevadaar emerges with bowls of aloo-soyabean sabzi, daal, achaar and chappatis. The daily langar has been discontinued for nearly a week and the sevadaars now get their food from a canteen. Soon, the group gets down to lunch.

Ram Rahim’s mansion, which houses the infamous ‘gufa (cave)’, which has been portrayed as a den of dark secrets, where he allegedly lured and sexually exploited women, is only a few metres from the media centre. Today, it is “completely out of bounds for the media”. Its pink walls — with paintings of blue dolphins, waterfalls, lakes and clouds — can be seen from a distance.

“Yeh gufa, gufa kya laga rakha hai (Why is everyone talking about a ‘cave’)? There is no such thing. The mansion is just an enclosure for a large ground. The Baba lives in a two-room house inside. And that’s what people have been calling the gufa…,” says Krishn, a follower, who lives with his family on campus. Like the others, he too blames the “opposition parties” for “framing” his guru.

At the Satsang Pandal, a ground that can accommodate nearly five lakh followers during a single sitting, 19-year-old Sukhpreet is holding the fort at Gate No. 5, the entry for men. The women enter through Gate No. 3, at the opposite end. Before answering any questions, he insists on a check with a hand-held metal detector, and then flips through the pages of our notebooks.

A resident of a village in Punjab, Sukhpreet has been working as a security guard at the dera since he was 16, staying in a one-room quarter on campus. “We are not letting any outsiders inside, see what you can from here,” he says. The Pandal, he says, has seen better days, when lakhs of followers would throng to the venue to see their guru sing, dance and preach. “Look there,” he says, pointing to a food stall. “We would make all the food here and serve them. No one asked for any money,” he says. Pointing towards a wooden stage a little further away, he says, “That is where the guruji sat… Now we can’t trust anyone, not even the police, so I am standing guard here. Guruji will return soon and resume his work. Come then, you will see how this place looks so festive,” he says, shutting the gate of the entrance.

Beyond the Pandal, past roads nestled in cotton and paddy plantations, are Ram Rahim’s other ventures — an empty railway ticket reservation counter, schools (all shut), a luxury resort where room prices go up to Rs 1 lakh a night, and a private colony with scores of upmarket kothis (bungalows). Ram Rahim’s family — wife Harjeet Kaur and son Jasmeet — lived in one such kothi. They have since moved out of the campus. All of the other bungalows have been vacated too. “These kothis are mostly owned by well-off followers who visit the dera once or twice a year,” says a sevadaar.

Further away from the bungalows are eight colonies for the employees, divided into three-, two- and one-room accommodations. There are also two villages in the compound, each with its own panchayat.

In one corner of the campus is the complex that houses the ‘Sach Ajooba Washing Machine’ which, insiders claim, can wash 10,000 clothes in one round. They claim the machine, “designed” by Ram Rahim, has found its way into the Asia Book of Records. Earlier this year, Ram Rahim also inaugurated the MSG Bharatiya Khel Gaon to “train athletes for the Olympics”. Spread over 23 acres, the complex has a cricket stadium, a clay and synthetic court for lawn tennis, grounds for hockey and football, a roller-skating rink, and courts for volleyball, basketball and handball.

“Guruji trained students here himself. He is a champion. He can play all games. This facility is usually filled with sportspersons and huge crowds of people who come here to watch the games,” says the man standing outside the locked gates of Khel Gaon. With him for company is a life-size poster of Ram Rahim, his hand raised in a pose of blessing.

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Outside the dera campus is Phulka, one of the many villages that surround the 1,000-acre world that Ram Rahim had built for himself and his followers. This is the village that witnessed violent scenes ahead of the dera chief’s sentencing.

Manjit, 30, the sarpanch of the village, says not everybody supports the dera chief — at least she doesn’t. She and a few other women have got together this rainy evening for tea. “Paap ka ghada bhar gaya tha (His crimes were too many, it had to come out). I don’t think those people are really his devotees; they just wanted jobs and food. He was no god. There are only two gods for us — Krishna and gau mata. Ye naachne, gaane wale bhagwan nahin hote (These singing-dancing types are not God),” says Manjit.

The other women nod in agreement. “Kya pata kya kya karta tha andar (God knows what he did inside)? We never visited the dera,” says Sukhi, who is in her fifties. “Maybe once for a langar,” she says as an afterthought.

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