Last month, Ashutosh Maharaj, the head of the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan, completed two years in a freezer.
Doctors declared Maharaj clinically dead after he collapsed following complaints of severe chest pains on January 28, 2014. But Maharaj’s followers insist that he is actually in a deep state of meditation in a freezer set up to simulate Himalayan conditions, and will wake up soon.
With its headquarters in a large ashram in Nurmahal village in Jalandhar district, the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan is one of Punjab's biggest Deras, or religious sects. It is perhaps the fourth-most popular sect in the state, after the Dera Sacha Sauda, the Dera Beas and the Nirankaris. The Sanstha runs 36 centres in Punjab and 109 elsewhere, including some abroad.
In December 2014, the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed the state government to cremate Ashutosh Maharaj’s body within 15 days. But last September, it decided that the courts should not interfere in religious issues and left it to the Dera management to decide how it wanted to dispose of the body. The management has not yet filed a reply. The case comes up for hearing again on February 24.
Deras a touchy subject
There are some 300-odd Deras in Punjab and adjoining Haryana, each with lakhs of followers, crores of rupees in assets and leaders who project themselves as being larger than life. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the flamboyant head of the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda, is one of the better-known gurus, thanks to his starring role in two self-produced films.
Conservative Sikhs believe that Deras violate the tenets of Sikhism laid down by the religion's ten gurus. They believe that the last guru, Gobind Singh, passed on the mantle to the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, which now serves as the Sikh community’s permanent spiritual guide.
Deras are seen as controversial because they revolve around living gurus and because they interpret the Guru Granth Sahib differently, or even add to it.
The majority of Dera followers belong to the Dalit community, which constitutes 32% of Punjab’s population and wields considerable influence.
It is no wonder then the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party state government in Punjab has tiptoed around the Ashutosh Maharaj case and other controversies related to Deras.
In fact, after the chief of the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan was declared clinically dead, the state government strengthened security around the Dera, allowing his followers decide who was to be granted access. The media was banned and only those cleared by a control room set up by Dera staff were permitted to enter.
Set up in 1983 by Ashutosh Maharaj, the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan runs spiritual programmes and several social welfare projects, including programmes for the blind and physically disabled, for convicts and drug addicts.
Since many Sikhs objected to the idea of living guru, Maharaj had to be provided with heavy security. After militants issued death threats against him, he was banned from holding public programmes.
Weeks after Maharaj died, a resident of Bihar, Dalip Kumar Jha, claimed he was the Dera chief’s son and said he should be allowed to perform Maharaj’s last rites. He claimed that Maharaj was a resident of Bihar who had deserted his family before founding the Dera. The court is yet to take a decision on his plea which is being hotly contested by the Dera management. At stake is property worth crores of rupees.