In India, most people turn to religion for whatever reason, and many of them fall into the hands of fake gurus.
There is something ridiculous about the situation surrounding the conviction of cult chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim (GRR) Singh of Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) on Friday, which threw the incompetent government of Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar off kilter. The 20-year jail sentence handed down to GRR is more than justified, but it leaves many questions unanswered and several issues unresolved. The question that crops up is this — what do we do next? How do we clear the social debris? What are the lessons we carry from this breakdown of governance?
The simple rule that politicians and governments forget is that hobnobbing with religious gurus who appear to be popular but who lack norms of any kind could be dangerous because it becomes difficult to control when they turn out to be bad. Ultimately, the unruly individuals and social groups — whether they are underworld gangsters in Mumbai or rabid religious preachers in provincial India — will be brought under control by the strong arm of the State, but it causes avoidable disruption, destruction and trauma in the short run.
A few years from now no one will even remember GRR or DSS as no one remembers many of the vagabond gurus who roam the countryside, achieve popularity and vanish into thin air once their criminal antecedents get exposed. No one seems to recall the case of Rampal Baba of Hisar, who was arrested after much hullabaloo and resistance from his followers and his private army from Satlok Ashram at Barwala in Hisar in November 2014. Rampal faces justice too, and it could be pronounced any day in a Hisar court.
But while the cult chiefs last, it appears as if they are wildly successful and there is no way of checking them. Whatever Mr Khattar’s own predilections, he has no choice at the moment but to distance himself from GRR. Like people do, including the camp followers of DSS, politicians too will discover other religious charlatans who offer false charms and spells. The desire for instantaneous spiritual gratification, with all its dangers, remains irresistible for many people.
It is not realistic to expect that shady cults and their leaders will disappear any time soon, or that people and politicians will stop flocking to them. But what needs to be done is to keep the information about these cults and fake spiritual masters out in the open. Most of the time, the media either keeps a safe distance, unwilling to compromise their credibility, or they fall into the trap of being drawn in by their popularity of the moment, and turn the cult head into a celebrity. It would not do to blame the media either.
So, if we are to avoid blaming the scapegoats — the credulous followers, the opportunist politicians and the uncertain media — which is really taking the easy way out, we have to face up to the difficult question as to what this phenomenon of cults is all about? Is it peculiar to Haryana? Or northern India? Or is it something that will be found in other parts of the country as well. While dubious gurus will be found in all the nooks and corners of the country, it seems that in Haryana the gurus maintain private armies and their followers also turn violent when the government take action against the gurus in the dock.
In India, most people turn to religion for whatever reason, and many of them fall into the hands of fake gurus. Many of the vulnerable believers avoid the pitfalls of choosing a wrong religious guru when they move on to another guru if they find one to be unsatisfactory.
It is this religious dynamic of people experimenting with gurus and looking for the one who suits them that opens up the space for the emergence of many more claiming to be gurus. It is truly a free market situation. There are many sellers, but there are many more buyers. So, all the gurus manage to find their following, big and small.
For a long time, discussions about religion, its good and bad aspects, have not been held in the public domain, and it has not been discussed sufficiently critically. It is not the case that people, specially those who are believers, are not open to critical discussion on the issue of religion and religious teachers. The fact that they move from one guru to another, from one cult to another, shows that they keep an open mind on the issue.
The temptation to keep all the cults under state surveillance appears to be necessary at first sight, but this option needs to be avoided at all costs.
Civic freedoms cannot be compromised, even when it appears to be the right thing to do. But there is a need for all religious organisations to be registered societies under the law, so that deras in Haryana and Punjab are not able to evade government scrutiny.
What will keep the gurus in check is public opinion. If there is an open discussion about what the gurus are saying and doing, their arbitrary behaviour will be somewhat under check — once they are constantly in the public glare.
The death of journalist Ram Chander Chhatrapati, who had exposed GRR’s wrongdoings, could have been avoided if the rest of the media had kept a close watch on goings-on in the deras. It is the media that makes politicians accountable, and it is the media that will have to do the same thing in the case of religious gurus. Keep the gurus — the good, bad and the ugly — under scrutiny. These salesmen of religion should not be allowed to form a cultic underworld, operating according to their whims and committing crimes — whether psychological or physical — against innocent people.