Ronki Ram is the Shaheed Bhagat Singh professor at the Department of Political Science at Panjab University and has written extensively on the deras of Punjab – religious centres with living gurus.

In this interview, he talks to about how deras have become the nucleus of Dalit assertion, on the growing significance of deras in Punjab’s socio-political landscape and the challenges that the rise of new religions pose to the established faiths in Punjab.


What is the etymology of the word dera?
The word dera today has a different connotation than before. You might have heard of Dera Ghazi Khan and Dera Ismail Khan, which are in Pakistan today. In this context, dera means a space where people reside.

Later on, dera came to imply a space where Sufis, or spiritual men, would gather. It was also called a majlis, where food was provided, accommodation was given to visiting strangers and esoteric matters were discussed – for instance, how to better one’s life or aspects of the unknown. The origin of dera is most likely Persian.

A place of worship has certain architectural features that make us identify it as a gurudwara or temple or mosque or church. Do deras have such features?
Deras have their own unique architectural features. It would, to begin with, not have a formal structure. It could simply be a thatched hut. Or it may have just a boundary wall with a kuttcha roof (or canopy). It could also have brick-mortar rooms and halls with modern amenities – for instance, Dera Sacha Sauda or Dera Ballan.

Deras may also have structures that combine elements of the architectural style of temples and gurudwaras. Deras consciously want to distinguish themselves from both. Deras seek to establish that they are alternative religious sites. To become potent sites, deras need to have their own structures.

A religion usually has a holy book, or books, and forms of worship. What are the socio-philosophical principles around which deras are organised?
A dera is organised around the holy person who heads it. He – whether a baba or guru – epitomises the dera. The guru professes some philosophy and scriptural bani [utterances and writings of gurus]. His bani often contain portions from different scriptures already in existence.

In that sense, deras are syncretic.
Yes, they are syncretic. This is because followers of a dera need not leave the religion to which they belong. A dera could be headed by a Sikh, a Muslim, a Christian or a Buddhist.

However, over the years, gradually, some deras identify themselves as separate faiths. An example of this is Dera Sachkhand Ballan. It has adopted a religion called the Ravidassia dharam. It started as a syncretic movement, but has gone on to carve out its own path.

It involved Ravidassias declaring themselves as belonging to a separate faith, didn’t it?
Yes, but what I wish to underline is that deras are in the process of becoming new religions (or forms of a new religion). The Dera Sachkhand Ballan represents this trend.

In a 2007 essay, you wrote that Punjab has many as 9,000 deras.
It is definitely more now, over 10,000 perhaps.

In one of your essays, you distinguish between Sikh deras and non-Sikh deras. Among the non-Sikh deras you include those of the Radha Soamis, Sacha Sauda, Nirankaris, Namdharis, Bhaniar­awala and Ravidassias. What is the basis of this categorisation?
The Sikh deras primarily follow the Sikh code of conduct. Although they are run by spiritual men, it is the Guru Granth Sahib that is in the forefront. The spiritual presence in these deras is that of the Guru Granth Sahib, not of the babas. The baba is only the coordinator, the caretaker of the holy place, even though it is named after him. He does not constitute the spirit of his own dera.

What about the Nirankaris and the Namdharis? They are popularly perceived to be Sikhs but you have categorised their deras as non-Sikh.
The Nirankaris and the Namdharis consider their babas as living gods and gurus. In the Sikh tradition, the line of gurus came to an end with the tenth guru (Guru Gobind Singh). Thereafter, the Guru Granth Sahib became the eleventh or eternal guru. But the Nirankaris and the Namdharis continued with the tradition of gurus. What’s more, they consider a living human being as a guru. It is not that the Guru Granth Sahib is unacceptable to them. But their tradition of having a living guru is in contravention of the Sikh tradition.

Wasn’t it the idea of a living guru that led to the attack on Sant Niranjan Dass, head of the Dera Sachkhand Ballan and his deputy, Sant Ramanand, in Vienna in 2009 – and in which the latter died?
Yes, the assailants and their supporters argued about why Sant Niranjan Dass should consider himself to be a living guru and not accept the Guru Granth Sahib [as the eternal guru]. Their questions were: Why isn’t Sant Dass merely acting as chief coordinator or sarsanghchalak? Why isn’t he accepting [the supremacy of] the Guru Granth Sahib? Why have they compiled their separate bani called Amrit Bani Guru Ravidass?

Wasn’t it after the attack of 2009 that the Dera Sachkhand Ballan declared itself as a separate religion?
Yes, because of the attack in Vienna, the Ravidassias declared in 2010 that theirs is a separate religion.

But before 2010, would they have been considered Sikh?
No. They did sport long hair, but some of them were also clean-shaven. They wore long kurtas and their iconography resembled that of the Sikhs, but they never considered themselves as belonging to the Sikh faith. They called themselves Ravidassias.

But others considered them to be Sikhs. In my ethnographic studies I tried to clarify that they may look like Sikhs, but they are not so. After all, long hair is in the Hindu tradition as well. Didn’t some Hindu Mahatmas keep their hair long? They would also cover their heads with a cloth. Being a Sikh is not just about wearing the turban.

So what you are saying is that people erroneously think a person is Sikh only because he happens to wear the turban. The definition of who is a Sikh is far wider than that.
Let me explain it through a parallel. All the white people in North America think that those who have a beard and sport a turban are Taliban. In America, Sikhs are mistaken for Taliban. In India, some people are mistaken for Sikhs because they look like them.

In several of your essays you have linked the proliferation of deras to Dalit assertion. Why has Dalit assertion been through deras? What kind of socio-psychological needs do deras satisfy?
If you study any social or political movement in India, you will find it has some links to religion at the time of its launch. For example, the Indian Renaissance movement of Raja Ram Mohun Roy gradually led to the national movement constructing the idea of Bharat Mata, who was projected as a goddess. This goddess was linked to Shakti. That Shakti had emerged from lord Shiva. The people of India immediately accepted it.

People from subaltern social groups sought social mobility by converting to Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. But even after their conversion, they realised their social status still remained the same and untouchability still prevailed.

They, therefore, asked themselves: What should we do to enhance our social status? They thought mobility could be achieved through the social agency of a new religion. Its initial form was the dera. However, a dera is not a place where they merely go to perform religious ceremonies. It’s also a venue of social gathering where nobody discriminates against them. They consider it as a place that is their own.

Isn’t the dera also a symbol of protest against social discrimination practiced in gurudwaras?
I see it as an attempt by subaltern social groups to carve out a separate space for themselves, to create an identity for themselves. For centuries, they were denied an independent identity. They are now creating a separate identity through the dera. This effort is often understood as protest.

During which period did the proliferation of deras begin?
It began with the rise of the Green Revolution, the migration of Dalits to European, North American and Arab countries, and with the maturation of the reservation policy. It provided them money to live comfortably. But they also realised that despite being in government jobs and business or in professions, they were not given importance because they happened to be from lower castes. They continued to live in separate colonies. Entry to public places was still denied to them.

They decided that they will not seek entry, for instance, into temples, which they thought as a strategy, adopted both by Ambedkar and Gandhi, was an old one, a failed one. Despite their efforts, temples still denied entry to lower castes. Now economically empowered, they said something to the effect of: “Keep your temples. We don’t need them. We will have our own temples and churches. If you can flaunt your temple to create your identity, we can also flaunt our temples to create our identity.”

They, therefore, purchased 25 kg of gold and turned it into a murti, or statue of Sant Ravidas and installed it in the temple at his birthplace in Goverdhanpur village, Varanasi, in 2008. Similarly, 25 kg of gold was turned into a murti and placed in Dera Ballan in 2008.

Why do the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and seminaries such as Damdami Taksal resent deras?
Because the deras are mushrooming and expanding and they’re also making the social boundaries increasingly porous. They are attracting not only Ravidassias, but others as well. Punjabis are not communal. They are essentially a syncretic people [because every foreign conqueror passed through Punjab]. People other than Ravidassias, too, started going to the deras.

Assume a place has two temples, two gurudwaras and a dera. Since some of those who were earlier going to temples or gurudwaras began visiting the dera, the political economy of religion was affected. Deras began to adversely affect the offerings at other places of worship.

Would it be correct to say that not only Ravidassias and other Dalit groups are going to deras, but also...
Even some of the upper castes have started going to the deras.

Do upper castes go to deras patronised by, say, Ravidassias, or do they have their own?
Deras revolve around a person considered holy. When his popularity rises, people are attracted to him, regardless of their caste.

I will give you an example. I come from Sahri village in Hoshiarpur. My grandfather had faith in a spiritual person who was considered holy. His name was Baba Mahan Das, who had a dera in the Dalit locality of my village. One day, my grandfather, after milking the cows, was returning home with a bucket of milk. When the dera people asked for some milk, he gave them the entire bucket.

It prompted someone to tell my grandfather, rather sarcastically, that if he was so enamoured of Baba Mahan Das, why didn’t he accept the holy man as his guru?

My grandfather replied, “I will do it.”

He immediately went to the dera with a tray. He asked Baba Mahan Das to place his feet on the tray. My grandfather washed his feet. To others, my grandfather said, “For you all, the baba is a Dalit, but for me he is a holy man.”

Mind you, my grandfather was not a Dalit. That should tell you how deras bridge the caste divide.

Has the growing popularity of deras led to rivalry and intense competition among places of worship of different faiths?
Yes, but it is not the followers of different faiths who fight each other. Those who manage the affairs at places of worship fear that the decrease in the number of their followers would lead to a dip in their business. However, once the faultlines emerge, communal clashes take place.

But aren’t the inter-group clashes linked to the fear of Jat Sikhs losing their power?
Punjab has the highest number of Dalits in the country [nearly 33%-34% as against the all-India average of 16%]. Yet, they are discriminated against in the economic realm. The Jat Sikhs are the landlords and Dalits are agricultural labourers. But even Dalits who have prospered realise they are denied equality in the religious realm. They have therefore taken to establishing their deras.

Yes, but doesn’t it arouse the jealousy of Jat Sikhs?
Naturally, deras do arouse the jealousy of Jat Sikhs. People over whom they ruled once are now competing with them. It has to trigger jealousy and rivalry.

Why is it that politicians make a beeline for deras?
Deras have a massive following. But these people are not just followers of babas. They are also husbands and wives, children and parents, businesspersons and employees. They are voters too. Besides being spiritual seekers, they are also looking for social mobility. It is this idea that most influences their voting decisions. When they feel that a particular party ensures them social mobility, they vote for it.

Do you think the trend of babas influencing the voting choices of their followers should be discouraged?
Deras are located in the society, not outside it. No society is apolitical. It is true that some deras have their own leanings and they are quite open about it. Politicians go to deras because it is their way of promising to promote social mobility for dera followers.

Have deras become a device to challenge the Akali Dal’s control over Sikh politics?
No. Non-Sikh deras seek to establish control over their followers as the Akali Dal has over the Sikhs. They are not challenging the Akali Dal. I will draw a parallel here – when Muslims begin to mobilise themselves, non-Muslims begin to feel threatened. It is not that Muslims mobilise against Hindus. Nevertheless, Hindus begin to wonder why Muslims are mobilising. It leads to non-Hindu counter-mobilisation.

This is precisely what is happening in Punjab, too, between non-Sikh deras and Sikh deras. When one group mobilises, other groups attempt the same because of the fear of losing out.

In other words, the proliferation of deras has enhanced political competition.
No doubt, the proliferation of deras has greatly intensified political competition. Deras are giving a voice to those who were not heard earlier in Punjab. These were the people who were taken for granted. But by coming to deras they have become assertive – and this has created a new form of political behaviour in the society. This competition could be conflictual or non-conflictual, depending upon the situation.

Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal has visited three deras over the last few months. Do you think, as some say, he is mixing politics with religion, something which he has refrained from so far?
Let us face it – deras can’t be ignored as they have a significant socio-political role. That said, very few deras ask their followers to vote for a particular party. Heads of deras mostly say it is not their business to have their followers support one party or the other.

Dera followers, however, think otherwise. [As citizens] they do discuss among themselves about which party suits them most. Also, dera followers are extremely united. So some kind of consensus emerges among them. This is why politicians make a beeline for deras.

However, it is a two-way process. When politicians visit deras for the blessings of their babas, they greatly enhance their importance. But it also makes them syncretic. This is because if the Badals visit a Dera, that doesn’t mean Captain Amrinder Singh or Kejriwal can’t. Then again, along with politicians, many others visit deras and partake of the langar food. It encourages mingling.

You have businesspersons who are at the forefront of several deras. They are rich but feel they do not have the requisite social status. A politician’s visit, in a way, encourages them. At the same time, it triggers fear among established religions that they might be challenged.

It is inevitable for a Badal or a Capt Amrinder or a Kejriwal to visit deras. Deras can’t be isolated from the system, from the government. Several of them are provided security. When Sant Ramanand was killed in Vienna, his body was brought back and cremated with full state honours.

It is also true the other way round – our political structures can’t be insulated from the deras.