Sant Niranjan Das looks kindly on his faithful. The 81-year-old is the head of Dera Sachkhand, Ballan, one of the largest religious centers in Jalandhar region. He sometimes lends an ear to those who seek his advice, but speaks little. Armed police on dera premises keep watch and hymn singers recite verses by Guru Ravidass, a 14th-century mystic and social reformer. “You should eat food from langar (community kitchen) first,” he says, as his assistant introduces the seer to us. The day before, Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi had spent the night at the dera, which attracts his supporters prominently among the Dalit community. The chief minister chose to sleep on the floor of the Sant Niranjan Das bedroom.
Followers of the teachings of Guru Ravidass are known as Ravidassias. The Electoral Commission (EC) had postponed the assembly polls in the state for a week, so that Ravidassias could travel to Varanasi to attend the celebrations of Guru Ravidass Jayanti on February 16. It was mainly at Channi’s insistence that the EC took this decision. . Every year, the Ravidassias board a special train, the Begumpura Express, bound for Varanasi for the Jayanti. The guru of Sant Niranjan Das, Sant Sarwan Das, built the pilgrimage center at Seer Goverdhanpur, the birthplace of Guru Ravidass in Varanasi.
During the election season, political leaders of all shades visited Dera Sashkhand. The dera, which runs several schools and other charitable institutions, has become a symbol of Dalit affirmation in the state. “There are about 22 million Dalits in India,” said Sat Paul Virdi, secretary general of the Shri Guru Ravidass Janam Asthan Charitable Trust. “In Punjab, more than 35% of the population is Dalit. In the Doaba region [districts of Jalandhar, Nawanshahr, Hoshiarpur and Kapurthala]our population is over 42 percent.
The faithful from all over the region regularly visit the dera. On special occasions Dalits from Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka also come. The influence of this dera can be further understood from the fact that it declared Ravidassia a separate religion in 2010. In 2020 it had demanded a separate column of Ravidassia in the population census.
In 2009, Sant Niranjan Das and his deputy Sant Ramanand were attacked by Sikh radicals at a gurdwara in the Austrian capital, Vienna. Ramanand died in the attack, while Niranjan Das was shot and seriously injured. The tragic incident resulted in the separation of the community from Sikhism. “We replaced the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism, with Amritbani Satguru Ravidass Granth, which carried the hymns of Guru Ravidass,” Virdi said. “Now many gurdwaras belonging to Ravidassias have either Amritbani or both. And the head of Dera Sachkhand is like the pope to us.
Virdi added that after becoming a separate religion, the Ravidassias actively embraced their Dalit identity and began to take pride in it. Retired army officer Major Parshotam Thind, who runs the Dera Sachkhand library, said it has changed the community. “We gained confidence. Our youth have grown in pride,” he said.
All the top leaders of different parties including the Badals, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Captain Amarinder Singh and Arvind Kejriwal have found time to visit Dera Sachkhand over the past few months. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Sant Niranjan Das when the latter fell ill,” Virdi recalled.
Punjab is fertile ground for deras and sects. Led by living gurus, there are over 10,000 deras in the state. Some of the most prominent outside Dera Sachkhand include Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan (DJJS), Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) and Dera Baba Mast Ram. There are also the deras of the Namdhari sect. There are also many caste-based deras; they are often seen as close to one particular party or another. The now imprisoned Guru Guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s DSS had backed the Congress and later the BJP.
Most deras, however, try to remain politically neutral, as taking sides often comes at a cost. Punjab has also seen the rise of Christian deras in recent years.
While Dera Sachkhand is more like a gurdwara or a traditional temple, DJJS, founded by Ashutosh Maharaj, has a modern campus spread over 300 acres in Nurmahal, Jalandhar. Maharaj was declared “clinically dead” on January 29, 2014. However, his followers believe he is in samadhi, a deep meditative state, and will one day return. For eight years, his body has been kept in a freezer. Every year, doctors from the Chandigarh Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research inspect the body for any signs of decomposition, as ordered by the court.
Originally from Bihar, Maharaj made Punjab his home at the height of the separatist movement. At DJJS, preachers joined visitors for the first time to provide insight into Maharaj’s life and spirituality.
Pracharak Ram Niwas explained to us the various works carried out by the Sansthan, from courses for the blind, children and prisoners to programs promoting Ayurveda and organic agriculture. “We even run a bovine semen bank where we have 125 high quality bulls. Our gaushala, which has more than 900 Indian-bred cows, won an award,” he said.
As Ram Niwas attended to other VIP guests, preacher Abhinavanand joined us. He gave us a 30 minute lecture on the “spiritual journey” that would help to “experience and concretely realize God”.
He is one of the 10,000 preachers trained before Maharaj’s “samadhi”. “It is only when Maharaj returns from samadhi that new preachers will be ordained,” said Swami Girdharinand, who is part of the temple leadership at DJJS. “Maharaj ji used to talk about samadhi and how several saints took it and came back after several years. At that time we did not understand, but now we understand. He will come back.
DJJS claims to have over 32 lakh followers – from different religions and castes – in Punjab alone; the organization has 65 branches in the state. It is present in nearly 20 countries. Dera officials said several political leaders, including chief ministers, would visit the ashram during the election period.
Many of these deras had faced opposition from radical Sikhs at one time or another. Maharaj also encountered some issues as a result of which he received Z-plus security. What draws people to deras is the sense of community they provide. Unlike traditional temples or gurdwaras, living gurus are available to people. Many of these deras are syncretic – they primarily cater to marginalized sections among Hindus and Sikhs. Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) is a good example. In 2016, Rahul Gandhi spent a night at RSSB headquarters seeking support from the dera which attracts both Sikhs and Hindus. The Namdharis are another influential sect with a distinct identity. This community, which made stellar contributions to classical music and sports, believes that the line of Sikh gurus did not end with the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh; they recognize a continuous line of gurus.
Dera Baba Mast Ram of Jatana Uncha village is a place where spirituality meets spirits. This dera in Fatehgarh Sahib district distributes alcohol in the form of prasad.
“Babaji [Mast Ram], who lived in a small hut before his death in 1954, loved alcohol,” said dera volunteer Manjit Singh. “Thus, devotees used to offer him alcohol for the fulfillment of their wishes. This tradition continued until recently. Baba ji used to remain naked in his hut and covered himself only when women came to seek his blessings. Singh looks after the current guru, who is now confined to his bed, but is open to blessing devotees from a distance. Alcohol was banned inside dera premises after a gurdwara was built next door. Henceforth, those hoping to obtain alcoholic prasad would wait patiently outside the dera compound.
Devotees bring new clothes and blankets also as an offering to the dera. “Tradition dictates that we change Baba Mast Ram idol’s clothes every day at 4am after he is bathed in milk,” Singh said. “Thus, there will be a long queue of devotees waiting for their turn to offer Baba ji newly sewn clothes and blankets.”
When asked if politicians would come to the dera, Singh replied, “Oh, they come in droves, mostly asking for election victory. They come here quietly to offer prayers, because the dera can’t stand [any] a party.”