Frontline (Magazine of The Hindu), Volume 19 – Issue 26, December 21, 2002 – January 03, 2003
The the murder of a journalist and charges of sexual exploitation of women followers of the sect.
The death, on November 21, of Ram Chandra Chatrapati, the 53-year-old editor of Poora Sach (Complete Truth), an evening daily from Sirsa, Haryana, at the Apollo Hospital in New Delhi went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media. On the night of October 24, two men riding a motorcycle, claiming to be followers of a religious sect called Dera Sacha Sauda, had shot at him four times from point-blank range. The sect, headquartered in Sirsa, claims a following of more than one crore people and has branches in many States. The Master of the Dera is Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh Ji, popularly known as Maharaj.
The activities of the Dera attracted attention in May after an anonymous letter alleging sexual exploitation by Maharaj came to light. The issue was reported by several newspapers, and Chatrapati had consistently written about the Dera’s activities since then. The letter, written by a female disciple of Maharaj, or a sadhvi, was addressed to the Prime Minister and its copies had been marked to the Union Home Minister, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Haryana Chief Minister, the Sirsa Superintendent of Police, the National Human Rights Commission, newspapers and women’s and social organisations. It was alleged in the letter that several girls had been subject to exploitation.
The sadhvi stated that she was a graduate and had been in the Dera (spread over 700 acres, or 280 hectares) for the last five years. Her family, being very religious, had sent her there to serve as a sadhvi. She alleged that Gurmit Singh threatened to kill her if she reported the goings-on in the Dera to anyone. He also boasted, as stated in the letter, about the influence he wielded with politicians in Punjab and Haryana.
It is well known that leading politicians from both the States have visited the Dera to seek the blessings of Maharaj. Prominent among them are former Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala.
The letter alleged sexual exploitation of several girls, many of whom had post-graduate and even M.Phil degrees. They were “leading a life in hell due to the superstitious nature and dead faith of their family members”, it said, and added that many girls from Mansa, Ferozepur, Patiala and Ludhiana districts of Punjab had returned to their homes but kept quiet out of fear. The three-page letter in Hindi also detailed how a sadhvi from Bhatinda in Punjab, was beaten up by the rest of the sadhvis, when she tried to disclose the deeds of Maharaj. Some 45 girls were living in fear and insecurity but were ready to disclose everything in confidence, the letter stated.
On September 3, taking suo motu notice of the letter, the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed the District and Sessions Judge to conduct an inquiry. In his report, the District and Sessions Judge suggested that the matter be investigated by a Central agency. The High Court, taking cognisance of the recommendation and the serious nature of allegations, referred the matter to the CBI on September 24 and directed it to submit a report within six months.
The CBI is bound to take a close look at the statements given to the police by the two men who were caught and handed over to the police by the public for allegedly shooting Chatrapati. During questioning they reportedly said that they were Dera followers from Punjab and had been sent by Kishan Lal, a senior functionary of the Dera, to silence Chatrapati. Kishan Lal was also taken into custody.
Chatrapati battled for his life for 28 days, first at the Rohtak Medical College and then at the Apollo Hospital. In fact, several local journalists had received threats, but no one took serious note of them. However, Chatrapati did write to the Sirsa Superintendent of Police asking for protection.
Meanwhile, on November 3, the former sarpanch of Khanpur Koliyan in Kurukshetra district told newspersons that his son had been murdered by followers of the Dera because of the anonymous letter. The murder took place on July 10, he said, and claimed that when the police failed to nab the killers, he wrote to the Haryana Chief Minister for a CBI inquiry and sent copies of the letter to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and the State Home Secretary, among others. The CBI will investigate this case as well.
The motive for the boy’s murder and other activities of the Dera are the topics of discussion in Sirsa and surrounding districts. Chatrapati, also being a poet imbued with a reformist zeal, perhaps wrote a bit more consistently than the rest of his fraternity. By targeting him and also by attacking the office of Lekha Jokha, an evening newspaper published from Fatehabad, the Dera seemed to be sending a message to the journalistic fraternity. A total of 11 journalists have been given police protection. Political parties and journalist unions of all hues have condemned the actions of the Dera.
The Dera Sacha Sauda was set up in 1948 by Shah Mastana from Baluchistan. Conceived as a centre of spiritual inquiry and learning, the Dera stood as a symbol of disagreement with all established religions and orthodoxies. Its beginnings were rooted in a liberal and progressive theology that accepted into its fold many people. This naturally attracted several people. His successor, Shah Satnam, continued the good work and a lot of branches came up in other States as well. But since 1992, when Gurmit Singh took over, the Dera began to acquire a lot of agricultural land, much of it allegedly by coercion. One of the philosophies of the Dera is that it neither receives nor gives donation.
Today the Dera owns some 700 acres, which extend to the outskirts of Sirsa town, and its spokespersons claim that the main source of revenue is agriculture. A guide points to the Dera set up by the founder, and the girls hostel, which was reportedly built in record time using free labour. What is not shown is the petrol pump, the sophisticated supermarket and a revolving restaurant, to name a few of the entrepreneurial activities of the Dera. It runs a biscuit factory and an ice factory. All this information was gleaned locally and not from the Dera.
The Dera spokesperson, Dr. Aditya Arora, an ophthalmologist, preferred to highlight its boys’ school affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education, its degree college affiliated to Kurukshetra University and a 175-bed hospital in Rajasthan’s Ganganagar district. Ganganagar is also the birthplace of Gurmit Singh.
The Dera has 36 branches in 11 States, including Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujarat, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. According to R.K. Soni, a sevadaar or volunteer, there are 400 sadhus and 100 sadhvis living in the Dera. “They manage on their own,” said a sevadaar, rebutting the allegations of sexual exploitation.
The main mass of the Dera followers comprises peasants who claim to toil on Dera land for 18 hours a day. Dera followers claimed that the liquor mafia as well as followers of organised religion were working against Maharaj. They regretted the murder of Chatrapati but claimed that he “wrote all kinds of things”.
Arora claims that the Sessions Judge who conducted the inquiry did not meet any of the relevant persons in the Dera. Chatrapati had been writing unprovoked, false and baseless reports, he maintained. “There was a difference between a sex scandal and an anonymous letter. The media should have made the distinction clear as it involved the feelings of 1.25 crore people,” he said. Deputy Commissioner D. Suresh was requested to restrain Chatrapati, but nothing happened, he said. Suresh told Frontline that Dera representatives had indeed made such a request and that he had cautioned them not to take the law into their own hands. He added that his office had received several complaints against the Dera, alleging land-grabbing, drugs-peddling and tax evasion.
The Dera had done good work but all that was glossed over by the media, lamented Arora. “We don’t accept charity, we are totally anti-liquor and support de-addiction. We must have enraged the liquor lobby and organised religion,” he said. Arora claimed that the Dera was the premier disaster relief organisation in the country, having supported drought relief in Gujarat, flood relief in Sirsa and even in Orissa. “Please do not defame the Master,” requested the doctor, who had been trained at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
A popular movement against the Dera is taking shape, with all political parties demanding a thorough investigation into its activities. In a memorandum submitted to Haryana Governor Babu Parmanand, the Haryana Patrakar Sangh, the Haryana Union of Journalists, the Chandigarh Journalists Association, the Punjab Union of Journalists, the Himachal Pradesh Working Journalists Association and the Himachal Pradesh Union of Journalists demanded a CBI probe into the functioning of the Dera, including its sources of income and a review of the firearm licences issued to Dera inmates, and provision of security to the journalists who have received threats.