In the last 15 years, novelist and writer Desraj Kali has seen Punjab undergo some striking changes. But none is as striking as its gradual religious revolution.

A growing number of people in the predominantly Sikh state, he says, are now visiting Hindu temples. Not those of principal deities like Vishnu, Shiva and Rama, but of Shani, the elder brother of the god of death Yama, who is notorious for his malefic influence on life.

More than ever before, Kali says, people are visiting the gurudwara of Baba Deep Singh in Amritsar. According to legend, Deep Singh, a Sikh warrior, was decapitated while battling the forces of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the king of Afghanistan. In a niche in the perimeter of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, there is a painting depicting the storied aftermath: Deep Singh, holding his severed head with his left hand and swinging a massive sword with his right, continued to fight, and died only after reaching the Golden Temple.

There are more, says Kali. People in increasing numbers are placing chadars at Pirs’ mazaars. There is a “thousand-fold” increase in the number of tantrik ads in the local media. Even orthodox Sikhs – Amritdhaaris, who carry the sacred dagger called kirpan – have begun visiting “non-traditional deras”, religious centres with living gurus, though Sikhism expressly forbids worship of individuals.

Baba Deep Singh's gurudwara in Amritsar. Credit: M Rajshekhar

The rise of uncertainty

What explains these sweeping changes in Punjab’s religious milieu? It is the rising uncertainty in people’s lives.

For decades now, the economic engines that pushed Punjab’s growth have been slowing. Farm growth, which peaked at around 5%-6% annually in the early 1980s, has slowed to around 1%-2% now.

Agriculture in Punjab, says Abhijit Sen, a former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, depended on two factors: “A state committed to running agriculture (like funding agricultural research and providing water), and a tradition of bequeathing all land to the firstborn, so that landholdings did not get smaller and smaller.”

Over the years, this architecture has corroded. The state ran out of new land to bring under farming; between sustained mono-cropping and high use of chemical inputs, its agricultural soil weakened; the state withdrew from extension work and farm research; monsoon patterns began to change; and legal norms (finally) allowing daughters to inherit property contributed to the fragmentation of landholdings.

Industry, similarly, went into a tail-spin. At the time of Independence, Punjab was industrialised and local demand for its products was thriving. Thanks to migration, the state tapped into markets beyond its boundaries. “Industry in the state was relatively small-scale, but was able to sell outside Punjab,” said Sen.

In recent years, however, as reported earlier in this series, industry has tanked, with predictable impacts on businesspeople in the state. “Only about 40% of the companies here are surviving,” said Amarjit Singh, proprietor of the Ludhiana-based real estate company Bhumi Solutions. “Another 30% have sublet their premises to other businesses. And about 30% have shut down.” Much of this decay happened, he says, in the last four years.

As you travel through Punjab, you see first-hand just how fragile most household budgets are. Take a farmer with two acres. In a good year, he will make about Rs 90,000. If he spends Rs 3,000 a month on running the house (Rs 36,000 annually) and another Rs 15,000 each on preparing for his kharif and rabi crops (Rs 30,000), he is left with just Rs 24,000. Of that, if Rs 12,000 goes into the school or college fees of his two children (assuming a minimal Rs 500 per month per child), he is left with just Rs 12,000 to meet all other expenses.

Even conservative arithmetic leaves no margin for acts of man or god. If there is an illness in the family, if the crop sells at lower rates than expected, if the rains are less than ideal – in the last decade, Punjab has seen six weak monsoons, resulting in only one of the two crops doing well – households go into debt.

“In Punjab, people who earn Rs 10,000 but have their own home live at subsistence levels,” said Sucha Singh Gill, director-general of Chandigarh’s Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development. “Those making Rs 10,000 but living in a rented house live at semi-starvation levels.”

A loss of control

Synchronous with the decline of agriculture and industry is the unravelling of the social milieu. “Before militancy, there was a certain Nehruvian idealism in the state – a desire to make Punjab something,” said Sumail Singh Sidhu, former professor at Delhi University’s Khalsa College and former state convenor for the Aam Aadmi Party. There was also the ethos absorbed from progressive left movements. The Sikh movements themselves had left, centrist and right wing schools.

All that was crushed, partly by the sectarian Sikhs as the Khalistan movement took shape, and partly by the state government. One visible outcome of it today is the loss of local leadership. “The traditional activist is gone,” said human rights activist and advocate RS Bains. “In terms of human character, they were the best of people. They were truth-speakers. They wanted to change society.”

In this vacuum, a new set of actors have emerged – like the extra-constitutional halka in-charge and other local elite, who have compensated for the power they lost due to, say, the Dalits’ economic independence by drawing close to the ruling political party. And alongside the rise of rapacious extra-constitutional power centres, gun culture has taken root in the state.

In the process, says Jagrup Singh Sekhon, a professor at Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University, the nature of Punjab’s villages has changed considerably. “Villages today are faction-ridden. You are either with the Akali Dal or you are not.”

Village life, as a result, is one of oppression and uncertainty. As the previous story in this series reported, justice can be elusive. “We cannot go to the police,” said Kishan Chand, a ghoda-gaadi wallah who lives in the poor quarters of Nurmahal town in Jalandhar. “I can complain, but the police might get tapped by the other side and register a case against me instead.”

How the state responded

The people of the state have responded in a number of ways. Addiction to drugs and alcohol is high. Migration is on the rise. The state, judging by its pop culture, is awash in nostalgia. Punjabi pop videos jive around memes of machismo and imperilled romance before the hero brandishes a gun, launches into fights, and sets things right.

“The songs have guns, big houses, open jeeps, Royal Enfields,” said novelist Kali. “Even as people struggle, caste ka ghamand liye ghoom rahein hain.” They are drawing arrogance from their caste.

Another response, says Ronki Ram, dean (faculty of arts) at Chandigarh’s Panjab University, is the increasing escape into religiosity. “In their understanding of causes, however, people are guided more by religion than rationality,” Ram said. “That is because the central logic running through the people is religion. Development is to be received through religion – not through technical means.”

The interesting development here, Kali notes, is that people are turning towards the new gurus and away from orthodox religion. This is similar to what noticed in Odisha as well, where there is a sharp rise in the number of religious gurus. “In the last ten years, more than 50 matths have opened in Bhubaneswar alone,” said Rama Ballav Pant, a former BJD leader. “They are all self-appointed babas.”

The rise of new religious complexes

For an observer from outside, the changing religious landscape of Punjab is bewildering. The state has old, historic gurudwaras run by the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, the apex body of the Sikhs. Then there are the new Gurudwaras which, while not under the SGPC, follow its norms and preach from the Guru Granth Sahib. And then there are the offshoots, and the breakaways from Sikhism.

Some, like the Ad Dharmis, are caste-specific breakaways. Some are sects like the Radhasaomis, which has a sprawling complex near Beas, a town between Jalandhar and Amritsar, and smaller campuses across Punjab’s hinterland. Then there are the growing number of living sants like Dera Sacha Sauda’s Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan (and, till he was declared clinically dead, Baba Ashutosh of Divya Jyoti Sansthan at Nurmahal).

These sants, says a former member of the SGPC, are different from the preachers who set up new gurudwaras. While the preachers preach from the Guru Granth Sahib, the new sants have their own holy books, their own accounts of how the world came into being.

A matter of demand and supply

The first reason people flock to these new sants is tactical. As Sekhon says, life in Punjab’s villages has become faction-ridden and hard. “In such a construct, who can save people from the police, the patwari, the village leaders? That is what takes people to the sants.”

These sants, with their mass following, form a protective buffer between the state and the individual, since local leaders listen to the sants.

Why? Because, as Laxmi Kanta Chawla, a former health minister and BJP member, says, the nature of political leaders in the state is changing. “These [leaders] are people who have not done anything to build a following of their own. So they have to pander to communities, leaders who can make them win.”

This influence over politicians is one reason why the number of sants is rising fast. “Someone might be working in another dera, but cannot become its leader or make a name of his own,” a businessman in Moga said, explaining the amoeba-like multiplication of sants and deras. “So he either splits the dera, or starts one of his own. The new leader usually gets someone – perhaps a follower of the original dera – to back him financially. They do a few functions to which local leaders are invited, and thus the forging of bonds begins.”

When people see local leaders visiting the new dera, they recognise it as a power centre and begin going there as well. “In a nearby village called Barauli, three or four new deras have come up,” said the businessman. “People are going there because they feel kaam ho jayega .” The work will get done.

Much of this, says Bains, is inevitable. “When formal institutions fail, informal ones come up,” he said. “Even in a dictatorship, informal channels will work. Society mein networking to hota hain.” And these informal institutions have always been put to instrumental use. As Sekhon says, “Every system has patronised the deras – be it the Centre, the militants or the state.”

What is relatively new is the open, symbiotic relationship with politicians and the capitalisation of the sants. The big ones are very well-funded. They market themselves aggressively. They run schools and health camps, and offer subsidised food. And at the new deras, canteens offer subsidised colas and chow mein, drawing in more people with the novelty.

Turning away from Sikhism

Novelty apart, many people feel, the main reason for the popularity of the new sants is the perception that orthodox Sikhism is failing them.

“When you are frustrated, you seek external help, advice,” said Sarabjit Singh Verka, an investigator with Punjab Human Rights Organisation. “And that is something the gurudwaras are not very good at – they refer you back to the Guru Granth Sahib. In contrast, in a dera, koi aapka kaam kara dega .” Someone will get your work done.

Kali agreed and drew a link between uncertainty and insecurity. “There is a hopelessness. And then a process to save yourself starts.”

The evening I met him in Jalandhar, Kali explained the move towards the deras with an example. “Ab main bimaar hoon. Ab main toot chuka hoon. Ab mera shabd se kuch nahin hoga. Ab mujhe deh ki zaroorat hain (I am ailing. I am broken. The book doesn’t give me solace. Is that book listening to me? Is it hearing me? I want a remedy for the specific things ailing me. I want a human to hear me and respond to me).”

This, he says, is pushing people towards the supernatural. Baba Deep Singh’s Gurudwara is a case in point. People go there because, he said, “Wahan ek shakti hain. Shaheed ki shakti (There is a force there. The force of a martyr).”

A view from the street of Baba Deep Singh's gurudwara. Credit: M Rajshekhar

Alternately, they go to the sants who prescribe remedies. “In these deras, the baba makes promises and prophecies,” said the Moga businessman. “The people for whom the predictions come true tell others. And the following grows.”

This is similar to what had heard in Odisha. “Physical poverty and distress has a psychological and social effect on people,” a person there had explained. “This belief in babas springs from there – be it Radhe Maa or Sarathi Baba. People live in the hope that the guru will change the condition of their lives – an illness they cannot cure on their own, lack of money, whatever.”

As Panjab University’s Ronki Ram said, “People go to the new deras because they find them offering a vital space for recognition and identity.”

The inevitable fallout

The flow of people towards deras and sants – at first a trickle, now a trend – is in turn giving rise to questions about the future direction of Sikhism.

In a sense, it is the continuation of an age-old process. Sikhism was an offshoot of Hinduism; the Jatt Sikhs and others had broken off from mainstream Hinduism over caste discrimination, and created for themselves a rational religion that was more of a manifesto for social transformation, one that spoke about gender and caste equality.

However, over time, little of those ideals converted into practice. Caste discrimination continued, resulting in Dalit groups like the Ad Dharmis splintering out of Sikhism, and eventually leaving it entirely.

Today, as a new set of marginalised people – the small farmers amongst Jatt Sikhs – foray beyond Sikhism, the perception that Sikhism could be under threat is again gaining ground among some.

Ronki Ram does not agree with this assessment. “People go to the new deras because they are rational. There is more to gain by going there. It is a strategic choice. But when the Sikh gurudwaras see this, they get desperate, thinking people are leaving us.”

According to him, what we are witnessing is not the decline of orthodox Sikhism but an increased, escalating religiosity across the state. The number of agencies propagating religion is going up. Some people are turning to Sikhism, others to the deras. Some read the Guru Granth Sahib, others pin their faith on books written by Valmiki. “Between them, dharam aagey badh raha hain (The state is getting more religious).” And all this, he says, is playing out in the absence of development.

Where is this trend leading the state? The answer is anyone’s guess, says Ram. “A rise in religiosity can give rise to new confrontations. People will get angry not because their survival is in danger, but because they think they are discriminated against due to their religion. Therefore, they reason, if they save their religion, they will save themselves.”

All this, in turn, can lead to a rise in militant defence of emerging religions, and a consequent escalation of social tensions.