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The Dera Culture of Punjab

The Dera Culture of Punjab

By Tishara Garg

Edited by Madhavi Roy

If you amble  through  the countryside of Punjab, you’ll hardly find any village whose outskirts are not sprawling with one dera or the other, an establishment where you’ll find people huddling, mostly the poor and Dalits, eating in community langars, or taking turns to see their gurus whose “naam” or discipleship they have taken, and seeking remedies to their problems.

In Punjab alone, there are more than 9000 deras, more than the number of villages it has. These have become institutions of popular or folk religion, most of them outside the ambit of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which manages the Gurudwaras in the state. The main reason why these deras are mushrooming unabated is their ability to cash on the divide between the Dalits and the “mainstream” Sikhs in Punjab.

The Guru Granth Sahib preaches oneness of all and prohibits any kind of discrimination based on caste. But despite that, the Dalit Sikhs in Punjab were singled out, kept aloof from many Gurudwaras, let alone allowed any say in the management. Humiliated to the core and in search of dignity, emancipation and equal status, they took to such deras where they discovered the long lost sense of security and belongingness.

These deras have always been in conflict in Punjab, their main adversary being SGPC and the “mainstream” Sikhs. Many gurus at these deras impersonate Sikh gurus in the way they dress, their mannerisms and teachings, which is not acceptable to many Sikhs who regard the Guru Granth Sahib as their sole guide and guru, and consider any idolatry sacrilegious.

In May 2007, the head of the Dera Sachha Sauda (based in Sirsa, Haryana) adorned attire resembling that of Guru Gobind Singh, which evoked outrage among the Sikhs and led to widespread violence on the streets of Punjab. Similarly, Baba Piara Singh of the Ropar-based-Bhaniarewala-sect was accused of claiming himself to be the incarnation of the tenth Guru, and burning “birs” of Guru Granth Sahib.

These deras are also infamous for their thousands of crores of wealth and political affiliations. This was evident in the recent unmasking of Satlok Ashram’s wealth, which was estimated at a whooping 100 crores (a probable underestimation).  These deras are mostly exempt from land ceiling laws. They also have quid pro quo arrangements with many political parties, whereby they are secured police and law security (which they direly need in the face of the incriminating charges that they face), in exchange for the political support that they muster from their crores of followers. Having all the persuasive power and material resources to affect the political scene of a state, it’s not peculiar to see these ‘Sant Mahatmas’ being wooed by political candidates before every election.

But the picture is not as dirty as it looks. There are many deras who have an absolutely clean record and have done a lot of social service, from running charitable schools, hospitals, community cleanliness drives to free marriages for girls, and so on. Almost all the deras are non-sectarian, preaching secularism and catering to Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs alike. The espousal of social issues by many deras like the fight against dowry, female infanticide, and the culture of drugs and liquor has popularised them a great deal.

Some deras like Radha Soami at Beas, the biggest in Punjab in terms of followers, assiduously refrain from declaring support for any political party. It is also believed that the SGPC and the Sikh clergy dissuade people from going to these deras because they are secretly worried about losing on large chunks of donations to them.

By now, it’s quite preordained that these deras have seeped in to the religious landscape of the state and have become inevitable part of it, irrespective of all the ire and outrage. What’s requisite is to recognize the plurality and complex religiosity of the common people and use it as a modus operandi to assist in the task of assimilation of the unprivileged lot into the mainstream.


 Tishara Gargis a freelance writer pursuing her bachelors in Economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce.  She’s been writing for Yamuna and Renaissance for past one year on subjects like Indian history, politics and culture. Currently, she is the Chief Coordinator of The History and Political Science Society. An avid quizzer and a civil services aspirant, she also heads the quizzing wing and UPSC Cell of her college. She loves to travel and has a knack for ending things on a funny note but fails.

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