Both Sikhism and Hinduism advocate the direction given by a Guru to reach the almighty. Sikhism is even a step ahead where it believes in existence of a Guru in the form of knowledge, compiled in Guru Granth Sahib ji, often regarded as the eleventh Guru. Sikhism forbids beliefs in a human guru, but this has not deterred sprouting up of Dera(s), which are a congregation of people across the state. How many these are real Gurus or those earning in name of religion; it is matter of one’s faith. But no one can refute the claim that among all the states in India, Punjab has the maximum number of Deras. People follow them; and since during elections, it is the people who are the king, the politicians and parties leave no stone unturned to seek their blessings.
Like many promise that our beloved politicians make during elections, seeking blessings of Dera heads is another farce that they commit. Because seeking their blessings means influencing a whole set of voters, who will readily vote for any candidate/party on a single command by their sect. There is no official figure, but going by the estimates, there are nearly 9000 small and big Deras in the region. Besides them, the Punjabis are influenced even by those in Haryana and Rajasthan. The Deras may claim that they do not directly take part in politics, yet indirectly they influence their follower’s choices. A look at some of these prominent names in Punjab:
The prominent name that influences the politics of Malwa region (region beyond river Satluj) is Dera Sacha Sauda. Located in Sirsa district of Haryana, the sect has a considerable number of followers in Punjab. Their followers are in the districts of Patiala, Sangrur, Mansa, Bathinda, Faridkot and Muktsar. Headed by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the Dera plays an active role in the politics of both Haryana and Punjab. He has been on the target of many religious Sikh organisations after his controversial sammelan in 2007, where he dressed up as Guru Gobind Singh ji. Tensions are up again the Malwa region after he has been granted mercy by SGPC-led Akal Takht. It will be important to see as to how the Dera will play the role in helping the candidates to win.
Besides this, others include Baba Mastram Jattana in Khamanon village (Ludhiana), Baba Rumi Sahib in Bhatinda and Dera Hansali in Fatehgarh Sahib. Sant Ranjit Singh Dhadrianwale from Nirvair Khalsa Dal in Patiala also commands respect throughout the state.
The Doaba region (region between rivers Beas and Satluj) have the maximum number of Deras. Covering the districts of Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Phagwara and Kapurthala, the many Deras have their own set of followers. The prominent name is that of Dera Sachkhand Ballan. Headed by Sant Niranjan Dass, the Dera has its followers in Ravidassia community. Other Deras include Divya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan in Nurmahal, Baba Murad Shah in Nakodar and Dera Begowal in Kapurthala. Though they do not directly affect the winning of a party or candidates, still influence voters.
The biggest Dera in this region (region beyond river Beas) is Dera Radha Soami Beas. Headed by Baba Gurinder Singh, the Dera has always maintained its apolitical stand. But it has not stopped the top leadership to visit the Dera to seek blessings of the Dera chief. Damdami Taksal, headed by Harnaam Singh Dhumma is the main Dera among all the Taksali or the radical Deras. It is the same Dera which became the centre point of Khalistan movement, started by its then chief, Baba Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in 1975. Besides this, the Namdhari and Nirankari sect of Sikhism also have a strong force in the form of their followers in districts of Amritsar, Pathankot and Gurdaspur. Though they may have some differences with regular Sikh organisations, yet they have stayed generally apolitical.
The biggest reason for rising number of Deras in Punjab is due to neglect of the lower castes among Sikhs and Hindus. Going by the number of followers, the biggest chunk is that of the Dalits. Neither have they been treated fairly by the governments nor has the power being shared with them equally. In the politics of Punjab dominated by the Jatt Sikhs, these communities are seen as a vote bank, which can be shifted in their favour by winning the trust of the Deras they believe in.
In 2017 Punjab Assembly elections, these Deras will play an important factor in tilting the scales in favour of a party or a candidate.