Mobile religiosity: As old social structures change, deras offer a new sense of community

The new technology that brought Green Revolution also transformed social relations among the farmers, labouring classes and traders.

The conviction of Gurmeet Ram Rahim, head of the Dera Sacha Sauda at Sirsa in Haryana, and the violence that followed, raises a wide range of issues. One of these is the enigma of their popularity among a wide section of people. How do we make sense of it?

In 2008, I undertook a study of two villages of Haryana, which I had first studied during the late 1980s. The primary focus of my field-study was to revisit the changing nature of social dynamics of economic life in the two rural settlements. What had changed over the 20 years and what had remained the same?

I also looked at the patterns and processes of mobility and explored who had moved up and who had gone down in terms of their sense of social and economic well-being. I explored the changing nature of agrarian relations, the expanding non-farm economy, patterns of migrations, and shifts in local power structure. I looked at these processes primarily through the categories of caste and community.

These villages were part of the Karnal district, which had been one of the first districts of the region to experiment with the Green Revolution technology. As my first study had shown, the success of Green Revolution had brought about many radical changes in rural life. Besides significantly increasing productivity of the land and enabling farmers to expand area under cultivations, the new technology also transformed social relations among the farmers, the labouring classes and the traders. The value of older structures of jajmani ties that bound caste communities with each other had begun to crack.

This change in the emotional and social landscape of the rural life also manifested itself in other ways. Although I had not intended to explore the nature of religious life in the two rural settlements, it was simply not possible to ignore it.

Photo Credit: Facebook/Dera Sacha Sauda
Photo Credit: Facebook/Dera Sacha Sauda

A rise in religiosity

Religion had been a rather insignificant aspect of everyday life in rural Haryana during the late 1980s. Even though these villages had Hindu temples, they were not very popular with everyone in the villages, particularly those from locally dominant and “backward” castes. The only popular religious institution was a Sikh Gurdwara set up by the post-partition “refugees” in one of the two villages. For the rest, religion mattered only occasionally. During the late 1980s, not many of them went on any kind of pilgrimage, except when required for life-cycle rituals.

Only rarely did anyone mention about their Gurus outside the village. One of the villages had a widow, who very fondly and proudly spoke of her Guru, Shah Mastanji of Sirsa. However, she was the only one who had visited the Dera in Sirsa. In 2008-09, the number of individuals who identified with the Dera in Sirsa and the successor Guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, had swelled quite considerably. I was told that the village had nearly 500 committed followers of the Dera. Given its total population of around 3,800 residents (approximately 600 households), it was quite a substantial number. Besides these the two villages also had individuals and households who visited other Deras, including the Radha Soami Dera in Beas, Punjab.

Both these deras had local branches, and the villagers took a lot of interest in their workings. Most interestingly, the followers were from different caste groups, and a large majority of them were from the newly marginalised sections. Caste identity and boundaries were carefully protected and I did not find many poor Dalits to be actively involved with the Dera. A few did. What was clear, however, was that this mobile religiosity seemed to be producing a new sense of community among the members of these congregations. The most frequently mentioned sense of their participation was their travelling together from the village to either visit the Dera in Sirsa or to attend the weekly satsang (congregation).

Deras appeared to be a new consumptive religiosity, a response to the process of individuation set in motion by the larger processes of change.

Photo Credit: Facebook/Dera Sacha Sauda
Photo Credit: Facebook/Dera Sacha Sauda

Radical change

The 20-year period (1988 to 2008) had been a very significant time in the Indian economy. The introduction of neo-liberal economic reforms in the early 1990s significantly altered the economic priority of the developmental state. The rise of a neo-middle class that followed also changed the narrative of growth from national development, self-sustenance and food security to the promotion of private capital, trade liberalisation and hyper consumption.

Questions of rural lives and livelihoods had been relegated to the extreme margins. News of stagnating agriculture and growing incidence of suicides by cultivating farmers generated a sense of anxiety, with frequent talk of an ensuing crisis of agriculture. However, the fact that more than half of the rural households owned no agricultural lands and had diverse sources of livelihood was rarely talked about.

Despite the general perception about rural stagnation, the two villages had undergone quite a significant change over those 20 years in their economy and the social order of caste. They had become far more integrated into the regional economy and its market networks. Over the years the number of those engaged full time in agriculture had further declined. Those who were left with very small plots of lands were moving out of agriculture, leasing their lands out to a few enterprising farmers. But only a few among them could find viable sources of employment, even though many of them had acquired some amount of formal education and skill. The margins were clearly expanding, and quite rapidly, across castes and communities.

The social and emotional commons

Caste relations that had been considerably weakened by the Green Revolution had weakened further. The village experienced a significant fragmentation of social ties. Even though the rural landscapes continue to be physically very different from their urban counterparts, they were fast losing their sense of collective being, the social and emotional commons. As such, the caste divided Indian village never had a community in the sense in which the category is understood in the western social sciences, but there still was a sense of collective identity that the villagers shared. This sense of collectivity was always marked by hierarchies and exclusion, but it gave a sense of collective identity to the diverse communities and their relationships with each other. The disintegration of caste-based dependencies considerably weakened this sense of collective identity.

Local perspectives on these changes differed across sections of the village. For those on the margins, particularly the ex-untouchable Dalits, this had only been for the good. It had freed them from the oppressive normative order of caste and the traditional value frame of hierarchy. For the dominant and the upper castes, this had meant an end to their symbolic power and unquestioned privilege. Not surprisingly, they were the ones who complained the most about the change. Even when some of them continued to own substantial plots of land, their response was move out of the village. This was being pursued very actively by their younger generations and some of them had already done so. Many did not succeed and had to reluctantly stay back in the village. There were many more who were in between and felt far more disoriented and bewildered by these changes. Those who could afford it often found solace in drinking with other men, further accentuating the local cultures of masculinity.

In the absence of viable economic opportunities and social support structures, the process of social fragmentation had generated a new sense of anxiety, a kind of “ontological insecurity”, to use the term popularised by the sociologist, Anthony Giddens. It is here that the state and the political process needs to enter more actively than it is currently doing and provide a direction through institutionalising a system of economic security and articulating a new moral and political agenda of hope and a secure future for all, expanding the framework of citizenship.

Surinder Jodhka is Professor of Sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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