A colossal business empire, worth an estimated Rs 2,100 crore and spread over 800 acres, has come to a virtual standstill. Its manufacturing plants — for aloe vera products, bottled water, car batteries, confectionery, oil-seed expellers, and atta (flour) — are shut down. The nearby newspaper office, resort, shopping mall, cinema, petrol pump, restaurant, and hotel are all closed. The streets, too, are empty.
When Hindustan Times visited late last month, there was a lot of gloom and quiet in Sirsa, Haryana at the headquarters of the Dera Sacha Sauda. It started on August 25 when a CBI court convicted the group’s leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, of raping two disciples.
The announcement was greeted with fury: more than 45 persons were reported killed and more than 300 injured in riots across north India. This passionate anger was followed by rapid desertion. Interviews with both followers of Dera and officials of agencies investigating the group confirmed that it is in dire straits.
There are some signs of life though. The group’s much smaller, old base has remained active. Last weekend, the main headquarters was opened to celebrate the birth anniversary of Dera’s founder, Shah Mastana Balochistani. Sirsa police officials estimated that 4,000 people attended.
In general, however, recent months have seen the headquarters empty and the sect’s finances come under serious threat. “Neither are there buyers anymore nor anyone to pitch in with monetary contributions,’’ said Mangat Singh, a Dera follower from Sirsa. Dharampal, who runs a shop that sells Dera products outside the group’s headquarters, was one of the few premis (disciples) seen around last month.
“I worked at a Dera manufacturing unit,” he said. “Since it is shut down now, I look after this shop for couple of hours in the morning and the evening.” Not so long ago, Dera brand shops were full of followers of the sect; when HT visited, most stores, including Dharampal’s, were empty.
‘No one to take a decision’
For those that remain at Sirsa, there is a lack of direction and a struggle to maintain business as usual.
With Ram Rahim in prison and a number of his close aides on the run, Dera lacks a leader. According to the Sirsa police, Vipassana Insan, the chairperson, was unwell for a few weeks. Jasmeet Insaan, Ram Rahim’s son, is reportedly not interested in taking over.
“There was no one to take a decision or run the place though Vipassana is back in action since Sunday,” said a senior Haryana police official familiar with Dera. “The post-verdict violence has done them a lot of damage. A number of cases have been registered against Dera managers. It seems everyone is playing safe right now.”
Hindustan Times was unable to reach any official representatives of Dera for comment, since many appear to be avoiding contact with the press and it is unclear who is currently authorised to speak on behalf of the group.
According to a Haryana intelligence official, the number of people inside the compound has dwindled from 10,000 to only around 800. “There are no followers and there is no one to give directions,’’ said one of the remaining sewadars (volunteers). “There is hardly anything for us to do. It is a strange situation.”
The compound’s hospital, colleges and schools are struggling to function. The intelligence official said that all these institutions are seeing a low turnout, of either students or patients, and have sought the permission of the Punjab and Haryana high court to operate their bank accounts in order to meet day-to-day expenses. These accounts are the subject of both Dera’s hopes and a grave threat against it. The Punjab and Haryana high court is attempting to quantify the damage caused by the riots and considering whether to hold Dera liable.
Meanwhile, on September 27, the high court directed the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department to investigate the personal accounts of Ram Rahim and his associates for possible money laundering.
Before it’s too late
Dera’s businesses have been closing, its followers have dwindled, and its savings are in doubt, but one important source of hope remains: politicians.
When the Haryana state assembly met last month, it made a point of paying homage to the Dera followers who were killed in the violence. The sympathetic representatives were from a wide range of political parties, including the BJP, the Congress, and the Indian National Lok Dal. Dera has been an important vote bank for parties for at least a decade.
The Congress received its support in the assembly polls of Punjab, in 2007, and Haryana, in 2009. Then, in Haryana in 2014, it was the BJP that received Dera’s support. In Punjab in 2012 and 2017, it was the Shiromani Akali Dal.
The diverse array of politicians who have depended on the group is the only indication of its strength. And now, it’s only hope.