Train travellers in North India would have noticed that as the train moves from bigger cities like Delhi towards smaller towns, just before it pulls into each station, the bare brick walls of hutments that line the railway track or those that demarcate empty plots sport crude graffiti: “Is your husband or wife, having an affair? Are you sterile? Are you being haunted by djinns, apparitions? If yes, come seek divine guidance from Tantrik Bangali Baba, solver of all problems. ALL CONFIDENTIAL.”

Similarly, all along the country’s highways, from Kuttanad in Kerala to Haridwar in Uttarakhand, Delhi to Ranchi in Jharkhand, enormous hoardings with larger-than-life visages of self-declared gurus or sadhvis beam down on travellers, offering religious discourses of various kinds, and mass feasts – langars or bhandaras. The venues for these doses of food and spirituality range from the local town hall to their ashrams.

Deras emerge

Centuries ago, Mahavira and Buddha, both of whom were born princes, had seen the dangers inherent in building centres of worldly power that unfailingly create future nodes for trouble. Both sternly ordered their disciples to be ever mobile and keep away from setting up a comfort zone.

However, later, as the number of their followers grew and Jainism and Buddhism received royal patronage, elaborate viharas and sangharams (temples and monasteries) were constructed over the centuries, and donations from kings and rich traders followed. Even as Buddhism withered away, the viharas remained the template for all future sects and their mutts, akhadas and deras.

In the 12th century, when the area we now know as Bihar fell to the troops of Qutubuddin’s general Muhammad Bakhtiyar, the general was curious to know what the vast libraries at Nalanda, Odantapuri and Sarnath, abandoned by fleeing monks, contained. The local folk professed ignorance. They had long swapped Buddhism for other, more householder friendly, religious traditions. So Nalanda, Odantpuri, Sarnath were razed and their indecipherable libraries consigned to flames. Then the militant Nath sadhus and various other deviant sects took over religious akhadas.

By the 19th century, when the Mughal Sultanate declined, the deras of sadhus had armed themselves and offered their services for a price mostly to princes in the northern plains, who were forever settling scores with each other. One such Dera was the famous Hanumangarhi of Ayodhya, where the armed Bairagi sadhus held sway. One of their expelled sadhus spread rumours in Lucknow about a coup being planned against the Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah. This led to slogan-shouting mobs of armed loyalists, led by a person called Amir Ali, rushing towards Hanumangarhi. At this point the hapless Nawab sought help from the British. They quelled the unrest but used the occasion to declare the Nawab incapable of handling law, and usurped power in Awadh.

The rest is history.

Today, according to research carried out by Punjab University’s Department of Contemporary History, there are some 3,000 deras in North West India alone, among which Dera Sacha Sauda of the cult leader Ram Rahim, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for rape on Monday, is rated as one among the 10 most powerful.

All deras offer spiritual guidance, miraculous healing and discourses by the dera chief. They receive enormous amounts of donations from the rich farming community, businessmen and builders in the area, and run educational institutions, hospitals, de-addiction centres and mass kitchens to feed the needy.

Today, as in the 12th century, the dera is seen not just as a place of worship. It is a parallel state, a haven against all storms for a mélange of people – poor householders, widows, abandoned wives, orphans, scoundrels, dacoits and history sheeters. Loyalties are fierce and the Dera chief’s word is law. Any imposition of the state’s authority against the dera chief brings that Dera’s followers out in massive numbers and then fighting breaks out in the streets.

At several such religious gatherings, I have asked attendees what the residential quarters of these gurus and permanent ashram dwellers are like? What do they do when they are away from the public eye? What are they going to speak on? Nobody knows. But all say they were called, and so have gathered. The call could not have come without a reason. They are sure everything will be made clear if they only have faith and wait patiently.

State and Deras

Following Ram Rahim’s conviction on Friday, the chaos in Haryana’s Panchkula and Sirsa, where the headquarters of the Dera Sacha Sauda stand, made it clear how a dual authority – that of the deras and the ruling party – co-exists with one supporting the other.

Why does this happen?

In the 12th century, two deviant non-mainstream sects – the Naths and the Siddhas – had armed sadhus in the deras to meet the challenge of Islam and defy forced conversions. Today the Indian state is a secular democracy but its political leaders, looking for large captive vote banks, cleverly twist history, re-invoke old fears, and simultaneously offer liberal patronage to a few cult leaders while allowing them to create little republics of fear and debauchery and raise armed militias. The bottom line is that during elections, the followers of these cult leaders must be made to vote for the patron party’s candidates and all shall be forgiven – the law and order machinery will look the other way if complaints are ever filed.

Thus, together, many of the Deras and the state can be seen promoting and strengthening the Hindu way of life: banning beef, lynching cattle traders, or pronouncing as anti-national all those who refuse to do the yoga sequence known as the Surya Namaskar or sing Vande Mataram.

But I have found not all who go to deras or ashrams are driven by profound questions of ideology. They go because over the decades many swamis and sadhvis have become astute fixers of deals between the rich and the state. The devotees seek help related to transfers and postings, lucrative contracts for infrastructure work, primetime slotting for their TV serials, and even seats in the legislature for their candidates. In blessing a political leader publicly, gurus send an immediate signal to their devotees: “Here is the party I support, and so must you!” Come election time and most chiefs of locally influential ashrams will rise and shine like rock stars. One would think religious gurus of both sexes have never had it so good.

That may be right. But that may also be wrong.

Several of India’s famous religious gurus have died suddenly of mysterious ailments. After their deaths, their once-docile disciples almost invariably break into the most worldly and uncontrollable squabbling over the ashram’s land and legacy. Many swamis, babajis and self-styled messengers of God are also in jail today, charged with grave crimes ranging from murder to rape, sexual trafficking and funding bomb blasts. Spiritual life and politics, it seems are full of sudden reversals of fortune. A party and its favoured babaji at the top today may suddenly be sitting at the bottom another day.

When violence broke out across Haryana on Friday following Ram Rahim’s conviction, Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Smriti Irani was quick to deflect the blame from the actual perpetrators. In a tweet, she implied that the media was to blame for the rioting and killings by choosing to publicise the matter of Ram Rahim’s arrest and the violence that broke out, instead of acting responsibly and maintaining silence over a sensitive matter.

But by then the images of violence in Haryana had gone viral and the damage control began. After the Punjab and Haryana High Court severely indicted Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar and the state administration, came the statement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi that “violence in the name of faith will not be tolerated” and that “no one had the right to take the law into one’s own hands”. Enquiries have been ordered, a deputy commissioner of police was suspended. Now that Ram Rahim has been handed his 20-year sentence, political leaders can board flights to Oslo, China or Paris to carry peace and goodwill to all.