A dera is a type of socio-religious organization in northern India. Jacob Copeman defines the deras as “monasteries or the extended residential sites of religious leaders; frequently just glossed as sect”.The word Dera derives from the Persian word Derah or Dirah, which literally means a camp, abode, monastery or convent.
The phenomenon of Dera, as sectarian institution, is not new in Punjab and it is much older than the Sikh faith and Panth. Punjab has been witness to the emergence of a large number of Deras due to the continued social exclusion and pervading inequality in the social and economic order that refuses to go away despite the rise of Sikhism which in normative terms is opposed to caste based discrimination and glorifies manual labor. A study conducted by the Desh Sewak, a Punjabi newspaper published from Chandigarh, gives figures that there are more than 9000 Sikh as well as non-Sikh Deras in the 12,000 villages of Punjab. Many of the dera movements started as reform movements in Sikhism but with passage of time they became anti-Sikh and started believing in bodily form of gurus.
Several deras started out as non-orthodox Sikh sects, and many of them are now centres of distinct non-Sikh religious movements. Many Deras have attracted a large number of outcast Dalits, who earlier embraced Sikhism to escape the Hindu casteism, but felt socially excluded by the Jat Sikh-dominated clerical establishment.
Deras before the Sikh faith, belonged to Sufi Pirs, Yogi Naths, and Sants of Bhakti movement. In Punjab, the popularity of Sufi Pirs/Sants or their Shrines can be seen through their veneration across the communities such as Hindu, Sikh and Muslim. Shrines of Sufis were known as khanqahs. The major function of khanqah was to provide relief to people of all communities, particularly the lower strata of different communities. Several khanqahs were built and facilities were provided to lower castes of Hindu populace in rural areas. Khanqahs with modest hospitality and generosity offered spiritual guidance, psychological support and counseling that was free and open to all people. By doing so, khanqahs challenged the establishment of stratified social structure either Hindu or Muslim societies. Soon, khanqahs became epicenters of socio-cultural and theological activities of people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds and genders. Sufi shrines of Sakhi Sarvar Sultan, Sheikh Farid, Bulhe Shah, Sheikh Fattha, Khwaja Khizr, and Five Pirs (Panj Pir) were the manifestation of the shared devoutness of Punjabis.
During the lifetime of the Sikh Gurus, several deras had been established, many of them by the rival claimants to the “Guru” title. These deras included those of the Udasis, the Minas, the Dhirmalias, the Ramraiyas, the Handalis, and the Massandis. During the consolidation of the Sikh religion, several more deras cropped up. These included the deras of Bandei Khalsa (Bandapanthis), Nanakpanthis, Sewapanthis, Bhaktpanthi, Suthrashahi, Gulabdasi, Nirmalas and the Nihangs.
19th century onwards, several more deras came into being. The distinguishing characteristic of these new deras was that they acted as centres of Dalit mobilization. The majority of the followers of these deras were people of Dalit background, who had embraced Sikhism to escape the casteist Hindu varna system. However, they continued to experience social exclusion in the caste hierarchy of the Sikh society, which pushed them towards the deras and other organizations that promise social equality. The increasing politicization of the Sikh institutions – the Akal Takht and the SGPC – and their domination by Jat Sikhs has driven a large number of people to the Deras as well. The affluent Dalits among the Punjabi diaspora have also contributed to the growth of the deras.
According to a 2006-2007 study, there were more than 9,000 Sikh and non-Sikh deras in the rural areas of Punjab. A number of deras are also located in the neighbouring states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
The Sikh deras strictly observe the Rehat Maryada (Sikh code of conduct). The majority of their followers and leaders are from the Jat Sikh community. The leaders of these deras are rarely non-Jat, and never a Dalit. However, there are several Dalit sewadars, granthis, ragis, and kirtan performers in these deras. Some of the prominent Sikh deras include those of:-
1• Damdami Taksal-led Sant Samaj
2• Dera Nanaksar
3• Sant Ajit Singh Hansali at Hansali sahib
4• Sant Daya Singh Sursingh Wale
5• Sant Sewa Singh Rampur Khera
6• Parmeshwar Dwar Gurmat Prachar Sewa Mission
7• Dera Baba Rumi Wala (Bhucho Kalan)
Some of the major non-Sikh deras include:
The non-Sikh deras do not abide by the Sikh Rehyat Maryada. Along with the Sikh gurbani, they also recite non-Sikh texts, and some of them also indulge in idol worship. Unlike the Sikh deras, where the holy book Guru Granth Sahib is considered as the only current guru, the non-Sikh deras practice devotion towards a contemporary human guru.
- Sant Nirankari Mission (Nakli Nirankari)– The Sant Nirankari Mandal is a heretic cult headquartered in Delhi, India and most of its followers are excommunicated from Sikhism. It sect has no relationship with the Sikhs, but the Sant Nirankari Mandal (group) tries to use the holy Sikh scriptures for attracting followers and collecting funds, without believing in Sikhism. In fact this group is anti-Sikh and anti-religion.
Their third leader Gurbachan Singh wrote and published a text named ‘Avtar Bani’ in which he made many outrageous, ridiculous claims. For instance he claimed was that his wife Buda was ‘Jagat Mata’ (mother of the world), his daughter-in-law Kulwant Kour was ‘Raj Mata’ (queen mother) and he himself was the Avtar of the Formless Almighty.
With increasing encouragement from government in 1978 nirankari sect head Gurbachan Singh imitated Guru Gobind Singh ji and said that Guru Gobind Singh had made only Panj Pyare (Five Beloved) and that he would make ‘Saat Sitaare’ (seven stars). He had even dared to place his foot upon Guru Granth Sahib Ji.On 13 th April 1978 Nirankaris took out a procession in Amritsar and held a big congregation ,In this procession anti Sikh slogans were shouted and in the congregation inflammatory remarks were made to protest this A group of unarmed Sikhs went to the site of the congregation .But Nirankari saint in collusion with police had armed people who attacked these unarmed Sikhs leading to death of 13 Sikhs and many more injured .
The present leader of this dera is Hardev Singh. At present this sect has got atleast 15 branches in different cities of Punjab.
- Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB)is one of the most powerful branch of Radha Saomi group and believe in bodily form of guru/spiritual teacher .They advocate strict vegetarian diet .Their leader gives some talisman/mantra to his followers who are told not to share it with any one else. They use Gurbani/Guru Granth sahib ji’s teachings to propagate their own group/aim by misinterpreting Gurbani in many ways according to their convenience mainly to vein Sikhs away from Gurbani and make them followers of their own sect.
- Namdhaari also known as Kukas: Namdharis are not accepted as Sikhs by the main Sikh population, right from the start. The Namdharis do, however, consider themselves as Sikhs, but not Khalsa. The Namdharis were founded by their Guru—Balak Singh (1797-1862) in north-west Punjab. Naamdharis believe that Guru Gobind Singh went into seclusion after surviving the attempt on his life and passed the Guruship on to other human Gurus to this day.
They have many non-Sikh traditions like the worshiping of fire (havan), which is more akin to Hinduism than Sikhism. They maintain their own Gurdwaras (houses of worship) and practice strict vegetarianism. They do not marry outside the sect, and they use fire in their marriage rituals.
- Dera Sacha Sauda, Sirsa– The Dera Sacha Sauda had been established in 1948. At the beginning it was a branch of the Dera Radhasoami (Beas) In May 2011, the dera head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, performed a ceremony called Jaam-e-Insa. Imitating the Khalsa Formation cermony by Guru Gobind Singh ji, this anti-Sikh cult asked seven of his followers to drink an elixir called Jaam and to renounce their caste name for the term insa (short for insaniyat or humanity). This ceremony was held at its main branch in Punjab situated at Salabatpura village in Bathinda district, the heartland of the Malwa region.
- Divya Jyoti Jagaran Sansthan, NoorMahal
Noormahal was the second cult to have physical clash with the Sikhs after Narakdharis. The cult was started by a Bihari “bhaeeya” named Ashutosh who has beeb clinically dead from last few monthbut his followers have been naming it as his Samadhi “.The Noormahal based dera has been involved in carrying out anti-Sikh activities in the past several years.
- Dera Sachkhand Ballan– A primarily lower caste dera situated in village Ballan in Jalandhar with a dedicated Scheduled Caste following, Dera Sachkhand is a sect devoted to the teachings of Guru Ravidas — a 15th century saint associated with the Bhakti Movement, whose devotional poetry is included in the Guru Granth Sahib. This dera shot to limelight in 2009 after head Sant Niranjan Das was attacked by some Sikh hardliners in Vienna. While he survived, his deputy Sant Ramanand Dass died in the attack. Angered, the dera followers, returned the Sikh holy book Guru Grantha Sahib to the SGPC as a mark of protest. This death of the Guru had triggered riots in Punjab. The Ravidas Deras of Ballan and Chak Hakim near Pathankot shot to fame during the Adh Dharam. The Dera does not openly show any political preference, though after the violence of 2009, the dera was not too sympathetic towards the Akali Dal. In 2010, it broke away from Sikhism and began calling themselves Ravidasia Dharam.
This is a very tiny list of the most prominent deras established state-wide in Punjab, there are thousands of smaller unknown deras established in Punjab these days to attract the attention of various politicians. In the long run the nexus formed by these self serving groups are only causing harm to the true religious communities in Punjab, namely the Sikhs.
- BHAINIARWALA DERA: Based in Ropar district, dera head Baba Piara Singh Bhaniarwala has been on the hit list of radical Sikhs since 2001 after he was said to have asked his followers to stop praying from Guru Granth Sahib. He was arrested in 2001 for hurting religious sentiments after he published the Bhavsagar Granth. The controversy over the granth refuses to die down. Founded in the 1990’s and headed by Bhaniarawala — a Class IV employee of the Punjab horticulture department — who claims to be spiritually enlightened baba. Bhaniarawala is acclaimed among his followers as a “miracle healer”. While post 2001, he did not favour of any leader, former home minister and Governor Bihar Buta Singh was once considered to be his followers. The followers of this dera are not likely to vote for the Akali candidates whom they consider as Panthic candidates.
- Dera Baba Murad Shah, Nakodar
- Dera Begowal
- Dera Baba Mast Ram Ji. Jattan
The deras are seen as a challenge to the mainstream Sikhism represented by the Khalsa Sikh identity. The total number of the followers of the various deras far exceeds the number of followers of the Golden Temple-based clerical establishment (the Akal Takht).The tensions between the Dalits and the Jats have manifested in form of conflicts involving the Deras. Some of these incidents include. Sikh–Nirankari clashes . In 1978, the orthodox Sikhs denounced the Sant Nirankaris as false Sikhs, and demanded closure of all the Nirankari centres. In 1978, some Sikhs tried to forcibly shut down the annual Nirankari convention in Amritsar. In the ensuing clash, 12 Sikhs and 3 Nirankaris were killed. In 1980, the Nirankari leader Gurbachan Singh was shot dead.
The dera leader Piara Singh Bhaniara imitated Guru Gobind Singh, and launched a new holy book Bhavsagar Granth, after his followers were disallowed from carrying the Sikh holy book Guru Granth Sahib. This led to violent clashes between the Khalsa Sikhs and the followers of Bhaniara.
In the Meham village, the Ad Dharmi Dalits had been maintaining the Udasi dera of Baba Khazan Singh for six decades. They offered liquor as prasad at the dera, and also distributed it among the devotees. In 2003, the Sikhs placed a copy of Guru Granth Sahib at the dera, and later objected to the liquor offering, arguing that it was against the Sikh Rehat Maryada. In 2006, they forcibly took control of the dera, and replaced all Udasi symbols with the Khalsa symbols. This led to a clash between the two communities. However, the timely police intervention prevented escalations. The dera was placed under a government official, and the dispute was referred to the court.
On 25 May 2007, six orthodox Sikhs attacked the Ravidassia members of Dera Sach Khand with a gun and knives, at a gurdwara in Vienna, Austria. The Dera leader Niranjan Das, who was visiting the gurdwara built by the Dera members, was seriously wounded in the attack. Two people died in the attack, including Das’ deputy Rama Nand. The incident led to clashes in India as well, and prompted the Ravidassias to explicitly declare their religion as separate from Sikhism.
In 2007, the Dera Sacha Sauda leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was accused of imitating the Sikh Guru Gobind Singh. The resulting controversy escalated to civil unrest in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. Several people were killed in the clashes, and in 2008, there was an attempt to assassinate the Dera leader.
Various political parties, including the Shiromani Akali Dal, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Indian National Congress, have patronized the deras to attract the Dalit vote bank. During the election season, several political leaders and candidates visit the Deras, seeking support from the leaders of the various deras. This trend first became visible during the 1997 Punjab Legislative Assembly elections.
The Akali Dal has openly sought electoral support from the Sikh deras. The Sant Samaj deras have openly supported Akali Dal.
Among the non-Sikh deras, the Dera Sacha Sauda is influential in the Malwa region, and has a political wing. It has supported multiple political parties in various elections. The Dera Sach Khand asked its Dalit followers to vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party in 2012 Punjab elections, which was responsible for the dismal performance of the Congress in the Doaba region. The Bhaniarwala Dera has not openly supported any political party, but disfavours the Akali Dal candidates. The Dera Beas (Radha Soami) has not openly supported any particular party either, but in the past it used to tilt towards the Congress. In the 2012 Punjab elections, it favoured the Akali Dal, after daughter of a former Dera chief married an Akali Dal leader.