Unlike the first two Dera chiefs, Gurmeet’s philosophy was far from spiritual. It was oriented from the beginning towards the acquisition and accumulation of power. To this end, he clearly understood the importance of having the clout that would come with vast numbers of followers.

One of the first things on his agenda was to acquire as much land as he could around the two Dera campuses – legally or illegally. His former associate divulged that he wanted to build his own empire where he would be king and have his private army, his own currency, his own laws, and so on. When Gurmeet took over in 1990, the Dera owned some five acres of land on record. By 2017, his empire in Sirsa would extend to more than 700 acres of land, excluding many unaccounted-for “benami” (unnamed) properties belonging to the Dera.

In order to fund his grandiose plans, the Dera chief began manipulating the minds of his followers. He started telling them that if they desired to connect directly with the Supreme Power, they had to show a willingness to give away their worldly possessions to the Dera, including donating their lands. Many who fell prey to this blindly signed sales deeds in favour of the Dera at throwaway rates. The Dera, in turn, sold these lands at a premium and used the money to buy more land in Sirsa.

Farmers who had land adjoining the Dera’s in villages like Shahpur Begu, Khaja Khera, Phoolkan, Kanganpur, Bajekan, Ali Mohammad, Nejia, Arniyanwali and others were first asked to sell their land as per the price fixed by the Dera. Many farmers willingly sold their land to the Dera.

One of the reasons was that the influx of Dera followers in the area had become a nuisance for the local population and many wanted to relocate. Those who refused were arm-twisted into submission.

“We were asked to cut the barbed wire of an adjoining farm at night. After that we let animals loose, which trampled on the standing crop. This went on for days,” explained a former associate of the Dera. The harassed farmer would complain to the police. With the local police on the payroll of the Dera, it was the farmer who was reprimanded for making false allegations against the Dera. After being harassed mentally and economically in this way, the farmer would eventually give in and sell his land to the Dera at dirt-cheap rates.

In some cases, indirect intimidation was employed. Goons would gather in large numbers around the land to be acquired and camp there for several days. They would beat and abuse some random Dera follower mercilessly in front of the farmer to instil fear in him. This method too worked.

But the way that worked best to coerce people to sell their land was a brainchild of the Dera chief. He would organize congregations just a few paces away from the land he wished to acquire. Lakhs of followers would be asked to attend the congregation. They would then be asked to dump all the garbage that would accumulate on each day of the congregation on the said piece of land, and use it for defecation.

Within a week, the piece of land would turn into a garbage dump. The locals feared raising their voice before such a huge gathering, and those who resisted would often be roughed up.

Eventually, the farmer who owned the land would be contacted and offered a deal by the Dera, which, in most cases, he would accept.

These lands, acquired from farmers at throwaway prices, would, in turn, be leased at premium rates to followers who wished to settle with their families near the Dera premises. The hefty profit was pocketed by the Dera, and the land and its owner also became part of the Dera.

In early 2000, its land-grabbing got an impetus, with the Dera acquiring greater muscle power in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

The beginning of the agrarian crisis in Punjab and Haryana – both beneficiaries of the Green Revolution at one time – resulted in the slowing down of the economies of these states. With Sikh landlords diversifying into other businesses, the landless Dalits felt further marginalised as their wages dipped. This resulted in further friction between the landed and the landless. Looking for cheap labour, landowners in these states started employing labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Dalit farm workers were left to fend for themselves.

Simultaneously, there occurred a huge surge in the Dera’s following, with Dalits turning to the sect in large numbers to escape further deprivation and marginalisation. The Dera following grew manifold, with the youth forming a major portion of it. Most of them sought land to work on and a sect of their own where they were treated as equals.

As his wealth grew, Gurmeet knew he was close to realising his dream of building his own empire. To protect it, he knew he would need a private army.

In early 2000, the Dera chief discussed the idea with some Indian Army veterans who were Dera followers. A blueprint was made and recruitment for the purpose began.

The recruitment procedure for the Dera’s private army was loosely based on the process followed by the Indian Army. A jawan, once recruited, underwent rigorous physical training under the supervision of ex-army men. They were trained in the handling of small arms and other weapons.

The Dera’s militia had three wings. The inner wing was to closely guard Gurmeet, and was hand-picked by the trainers. This wing’s responsibility was to steer the chief away from the site during an eventuality.

The second wing was to provide external cover while the Dera chief was shifted to a safe base in case of a crisis. The outer wing was to monitor every corner of the Dera premises and not let anyone in during a crisis.

The ex-army men trained hand-picked followers in military tactics, such as the usage of petrol bombs. A war room equipped with CCTV cameras was built in both the old and new Dera campuses, and private army members were given walkie-talkies to communicate with.

It may be noted that in 2010, through its intelligence network, the Indian Army got a whiff of the fact that some ex-army men were imparting weapons’ training to the Dera followers. In an internal letter dated December 13, 2010, signed by Lt Col NS Bhatti, it was stated that “some ex-servicemen are engaging themselves in imparting weapon training to activists of Dera Sacha Sauda at their HQ located in Sirsa”. The letter further stated that “reportedly, some serving personnel have been participating in activities of Dera Sacha Sauda, like blood donation camps”. The letter instructed that the directive to stay away from Dera Sacha Sauda should be intimated to everyone at unit and subunit levels for strict compliance.

One wing that the Dera chief, with the help of his ex-army followers, had been gradually building since early 2000, and which would prove to be the Dera’s most dreaded force, was one that perhaps no other religious sect in India had ever thought of. It was called the Qurbani Dasta (Sacrifice Wing).

In effect, the Qurbani Dasta was not very different from suicide bombers in any terrorist organization – completely radicalised and ready to die or kill, spill blood on the streets, all at a single command from the Dera chief.

The first time the existence of this wing was noted was on July 2, 2007, when a Dera follower, Jaswant Singh, in broad daylight, poured kerosene on his clothes and set himself ablaze in front of the Sirsa District Court. He was protesting the registration of the case against Gurmeet Ram Rahim for attempting to impersonate Guru Gobind Singh. While immolating himself, he was shouting, “Mere jaise lakho hain jo babaji ke liye marne maarne ko tayyaar hain.” (Like me, there are lakhs who are ready to die or kill for Gurmeet Singh.) He was close to a spot where twenty-five other Dera followers were observing a hunger strike. With 80 per cent burns, Jaswant was rushed to the government hospital where, a few weeks later, he succumbed to his injuries. The local intelligence later learnt that Jaswant was part of the Qurbani Dasta raised by Dera Sacha Sauda.

The second time the Qurbani Dasta’s existence was noticed was in September 2017, after Gurmeet Ram Rahim was convicted in two rape cases by a CBI court. The wing reportedly issued threatening letters to journalists, Haryana Police officers, former Dera followers, and witnesses who deposed against Gurmeet Singh. The letter was sent to several media houses that covered the proceedings of Gurmeet’s conviction and carried reports of his misdeeds. The letter said that 200 youths were ready to sacrifice their lives for Gurmeet. In a chilling reminder of the Dera’s tactics of threats and intimidation, the letter went on to say that this band was looking for the family members of those maligning the Dera chief and would kill them systematically.

Excerpted with permission from Dera Sacha Sauda and Gurmeet Ram Rahim: A Decade-Long Investigation, Anurag Tripathi, Penguin Random House India.