Of babas and deras


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IN the second week of December 2007 three Sikh organizations met in Chandigarh to deliberate on the challenges confronting the Sikh community and the state of Punjab. They identified three social problems needing immediate attention of the community: drug addiction among youth, degradation of the environment, and discrimination against Dalits in rural areas.

Citing the findings of an NGO, it was reported that between 40 to 60 per cent of all youth in the state were addicted to one or the other drugs. Suicides by farmers and crisis of agriculture were a direct outcome of the rapid degradation of environment due to indiscriminate use of modern technology and chemical fertilizers. Similarly it was acknowledged that in some villages Dalits were being denied entry into gurdwaras and access to the Guru Granth Sahib for religious ceremonies such as anand karaj (marriage rituals) and antim ardas (prayer service for the departed). Given its potential to create a rift among the rural Sikh masses this needed to be stopped. It was underlined that ‘the Sikh Gurus were for a casteless and classless society.’1 

As a part of their action plan the organizations collectively decided to ‘declare war’ on these three ills. Though the three organizations carry a radical image in terms of their religious identity, they emphasized the need to work with others, particularly sants and babas headings deras in different parts of Punjab. The cooperation of ‘sants and deras… in ridding the state of social evils crippling society’ was important because they ‘were growing in popularity and had an appeal among the masses of Punjab.’ Their involvement would particularly ‘ensure assimilation of Dalits in rural areas into the mainstream.’

While there is nothing particularly new about the list of ‘social problems’ identified by the three Sikh organizations in their meeting, the plan to seek the cooperation of sants and deras would certainly surprise many. This is particularly so in the context of the conflict that Punjab recently witnessed between followers of a dera and those who claim to be true ‘mainstream’ Sikhs. Radical Sikh organizations have for long been decrying the dera culture and opposing babas who reportedly are more popular with those from Dalit and OBC caste groups.

It was in the month of May 2007 that the Akalis and several other Sikh organizations raised serious objections against the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda for appearing in an outfit that made him resemble the tenth Sikh Guru. The Sikhs consider any imitation of their Gurus blasphemous and demanded legal action against him. They called for bandhs, organized protests and demonstrations. There were also some violent confrontations between the Akali Sikhs and the Premis (followers of Dera Sacha Sauda). So forceful and loud was the Sikh opposition that many outside Punjab were reminded of the decade of the eighties and feared a return of Sikh militancy in the state.

Located in Sirsa, a town of Haryana close to the Malwa region of Punjab, the Dera Sacha Sauda attracts a fairly large number of devotees from the region. Though it is headed by a Jat of Rajasthani origin and its functionaries are mostly upper caste Hindu Punjabis, a large majority of its devotees apparently come from Dalit caste groups and the marginalized peasantry.

Political commentators attributed the strong reaction of the Akali Dal and Sikh organizations against the head of the dera to the directives he had issued to his followers to vote in favour of candidates contesting on Congress tickets in the recent elections to the Punjab assembly. Comprising nearly half of the geographical area of Punjab, Malwa has politically been an important region of the state and a stronghold of the Akali Dal. Much of the Akali leadership in the past forty odd years has come from here. The Akali leaders have also been big landowners with considerable local-level influence. Those who have dominated the Akali Dal have also been in control of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC).


While in the absence of an ethnographic study of elections it would be difficult to make a clear judgement, the performance of Akalis in the Malwa region was far below their expectations and the Congress Party did better than what political scientists had predicted. Some of the well-known Akali leaders of the region who had taken their victory for granted, lost. Credit for these changed political fortunes of the Akalis and the Congress candidates was attributed to the directives of the Dera Sacha Sauda.2 Some others saw the conflict as a case of caste war between Dalits, who had moved to the dera in search of a liberating sacred space and away from the Jat dominated Sikh gurdwaras and ‘mainstream’ Sikhism.3 


Babas, sants, gurus, peers and their deras have been an important part of the religious landscape of Punjab for a long time. As institutions of popular or folk religion outside the more organized structures such as mosques and temples, they represented the enchanted universe of pre-modern religiosity. It was perhaps through these rather loose and open structures of faith traditions that the Sikh Gurus were able to communicate their message to the wider society of the region.4 The inherent plurality of Sikh tradition, and of the times, is clearly reflected in the holy Granth compiled by the Sikh Gurus.

The religious geography of Punjab has seen many changes over the last century. It saw the emergence of new institutions of religious authority and crystallization and construction of newer boundaries across communities. The partition of Punjab in 1947 and its reorganization into a Sikh majority state in 1966 further sharpened the sense of difference, or even antagonism, across communities. However, notwithstanding this sharpening of religious and political identities, or well worked out academic formulations in terms of epistemic shifts, deras and babas have continued to survive and, some would venture to say, thrive in Punjab. Though many deras are old, not all of them are ancient. Newer deras and babas keep emerging even today.

There are considerable differences of form and substance among the different deras. A large majority of deras are simply Sikh gurdwaras being run by an individual baba/sant or have been built in memory of a baba/sant and run by his descendents and/or followers. Many of these deras adhere to the conventions of Sikh preaching as they have evolved over the years. The SGPC recognizes them as gurdwaras without any hesitation.5 Some of the prominent Sikh personalities of the recent past have come from these deras. Bhindranwale, who became a symbol of Sikh militancy during the 1980s, came from one such dera. Similarly Bibi Jagir Kaur, who was previously president of SGPC, heads a dera of her own.


In the second category would be those deras that continue to practice Sikhism but do not follow the model evolved by the SGPC in its entirety. They are closer to what has been called Sanatan Sikhism by historians of Sikh religion. A third category of deras would be those where the institution of a living Guru is still practised. Though invariably locating their origin in Sikh history, they can be described as having evolved into separate sects. These include the deras of the Namdhari Sikhs and Nirankaris. Some Dalit Sikhs also have separate deras of their own where centrality is given to the Guru Granth. For example, though Ravidasi Dalits are listed as Sikhs, they have their own separate deras. Ad-Dharmis and Ravidasis worship Guru Granth because it contains the writings of Ravidas. Finally, there are also deras which have nothing to do with Sikhism. These include Sufi shrines, many of which are managed by local Sikhs and/or Hindus. Similarly, some of the deras closely resemble Hindu temples and have Hindu gurus and managers running them.


Why do people go to the dera? Without undermining the spiritual value that a visit to a dera has for a devotee, some of the more mundane reasons too are by no means insignificant. The most frequently stated reason for going to the dera is the fact that it fulfils one’s mannat, literally meaning a wish or desire. ‘If you have pura vishwash (complete faith and trust), your wish will certainly be fulfilled.’ The most important of these mannats is the desire to have a male child. The patriarchal ethos of agrarian Punjab not only helps prenatal sex determination clinics to flourish, but also seems to sustain the babas and deras.

An equally important reason is the code of conduct that the gurus at deras insist upon for their followers, the most attractive of these being the insistence on giving up consumption of liquor and other drugs.6 It is invariably the women of the house who insist on visiting the dera and given the spiritual sanctity of the act, they manage to take their husbands and other male members of the family along. However, once they are sufficiently motivated, the men are encouraged to take naam from the guru. Taking of naam would require a pledge from the devotee to a life of discipline, which may include giving up consumption of alcohol and, in some cases, even caste identity. Incidentally, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the growing popularity of such babas has made any difference to the alcohol and drug culture of rural Punjab.


Apart from the mythic value and the personal charismatic appeal of the babas, the deras also offer a sense of security to their followers, a personal touch, something completely missing in the mainstream gurdwaras or temples where one feels anonymous, a part of the crowd. As Professor Jagroop Singh, a scholar who has been working on deras, mentioned: ‘Deras give their followers a sense of security and belonging. Once you are inside the dera you feel like you belong to the community. Somehow they feel that the dera is a secure space. It belongs to everyone. No one will bother us here. This is particularly important in the context of growing insecurity all around.’7

Deras are invariably non-sectarian in nature. Even when they have acquired the status of a sect, they do not insist on being part of an exclusive normative system for the adherents. Dera identity has traditionally been more like an ‘add-on’ identity. One continues to be a Sikh or a Hindu or a Muslim and still gets blessings or naam from the guru or the pir at the dera. Not only would a typical devotee of a dera continue to visit the more ‘mainstream’ shrines of their respective faith systems, s/he would invariably visit more than one dera and could in fact have multiple gurus.


Notwithstanding the spiritual self-image and identity of the babas and their deras, they are not free from more mundane concerns, such as land, money and power. Some of the deras own substantial amounts of land. One of the deras I visited in a village called Dhianpur in Gurdaspur district owned nearly 600 acres of land, the entire land of the village. Local cultivators were all tenants of the dera. Another dera in the same district reportedly owned nearly 4000 acres of land. One of the residents there said, ‘This dera is like a mini empire. All the land that you can see from here belongs to the dera. Land was given to us first by some Mughal rulers and later by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.’ Bigger deras such as the Radhasoamis and Sacha Sauda would have even more land. The land ceiling laws do not apply on dera lands.8 The Radhasoami Dera actually has a land acquisition officer. And given their spread across the country, these assets are indeed substantial.

Apart from the fixed assets, deras also get regular income in the form of offerings and contributions from visitors. ‘Once a dera acquires a name, money comes without much effort. Though the followers are invariably poor, the deras are mostly rich’, reported Professor Sohal, a historian at the Guru Nanak Dev University. Even a relatively unknown dera could attract substantial donations. Devinder Kaur, a student of political science at the Guru Nanak Dev University who is writing her dissertation on one such dera of a sufi pir called Dera Baba Shekh Phatta, estimated that the daily remuneration of the dera is around one lakh rupees. The dera is being managed by a group of local entrepreneurs who pay an annual sum of Rs 80 lakh to the Wakf Board as contract money. The right to manage the dera is auctioned every year by the Wakf Board and the highest bidder gets the contract.

Given their material resources and persuasive power, deras have begun to influence the political process in the state as well. Bhupinder Singh Thakur, another scholar working on the deras in Gurdaspur district reported that, ‘Though most of them do not openly support any political party, they indeed convey their preferences to their followers.’ It has become almost mandatory for the political elite of the state to visit prominent deras at regular intervals and seek ‘blessings’ from the babas. This obviously gives the babas a sense of power and influence.

It is this growing influence of the babas that worries the mainstream Sikh leadership which identifies with the SGPC.


The rise of the Singh Sabha movement during the late nineteenth century and the gurdwara reform movement in the 1920s marked an important turning point in the religious history of Sikhs and contemporary Punjab. The formation of SGPC not only brought the historic gurdwaras of the region under the control of one body, it also codified what it meant to be a Sikh. In his well-known, though controversial book, The Construction of Religious Boundaries, Harjot Oberoi describes this as an epistemic shift.9


The new Sikh elite that emerged under colonial patronage transformed a rather loose faith tradition into a well-structured religious system and rewrote the social grammar of Sikhism. The peasants and common people in Punjab practised an ‘inherently contaminated and plural’ way of life which was undermined and a new identity emerged where the Sikhs began to see themselves as a religious community endowed with their specific history, sign, space and tradition. Through different sets of activities, this elite succeeded in injecting a new definition into ‘the everyday life of the faithful.’

Oberoi’s book was widely criticised for presenting an exaggerated view on the historical shift during the colonial period.10 Some took it as an insult to the faith and Sikh sensibilities and criticized Oberoi for being anti-Sikh.11

How does one look at the contemporary reality of popular religiosity in Punjab in the context of the rather impressionistic ethnography of the babas and the deras that I have presented above? Does one see it as a reality that always existed? Were the historians wrong in their formulation about the change in religious geography of Punjab during the colonial period? Did the pluralistic traditions disappear or even decline substantially? Or should we look at the current popularity of the babas and deras as reflecting a resurgence of popular religiosity in post-modern times, where deras become attractive and fashionable in a context where community life is fast disintegrating? Should we look at deras as open and casteless spaces where Dalits and the marginalized peasantry experience a sense of security and relief, away from the hostile realities of caste violence and agrarian crisis?


The secular institutions and social movements that once articulated the discontent and aspirations of the marginals have simply disappeared from the soil of Punjab. The civil society of Punjab has still not come out of the deleterious effects of the Khalistan movement of the 1980s and the state’s violent response to it. There are virtually no civil society organizations or NGOs active anywhere in Punjab! It is possible that some or all of these processes have been in operation to produce the current state of affairs.

In the absence of any serious engagement with ground realities, these formulations remain at best loose hypotheses. The attempt of the three Sikh organizations to reach out to the people of Punjab through cooperation of the sants, babas and the deras certainly reflects a growing recognition of the plural and complex religiosity of the common people of contemporary Punjab. However, without the backing of serious anthropological engagements with everyday religion and the rapidly changing cultural life, such activist posturing could end up becoming mere sloganeering and sermonizing.



1. The Tribune, Chandigarh, 14 December 2007.

2. Ashutosh Kumar, ‘Punjab Elections: Exploring the Verdict’, Economic and Political Weekly 42(22), 2007, 2043-47.

3. Ronki Ram, ‘Social Exclusion, Resistance and Deras: Exploring the Myth of Casteless Sikh Society in Punjab’, Economic and Political Weekly 42(40), 2007, pp. 4066-74; Meeta and Rajivlochan, ‘Caste and Religion in Punjab: Case of the Bhaniarawala Phenomenon’, Economic and Political Weekly 42(21), 26 May, 1 June 2007, pp. 1909-13; Lionel Baixas, ‘The Dera Sacha Sauda Controversy and Beyond’, Economic and Political Weekly 42(40), 6 October-12 October 2007, pp. 4059-64.

4. H.W. Macleod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1978; Joginder Singh, Sikh Leadership, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, 1999.

5. The SGPC controls only a small number of historic gurdwaras. Some of these deras specialize in doing kar seva.

6. Not all deras insist on this but the more popular ones such as those part of the Radhasoamis and Sacha Sauda sect do.

7. As told by Professor Jagroop Singh.

8. The following statement of my taxi driver who took me to visit some deras in the Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts of Punjab is instructive.

‘I am a Scheduled Caste fellow. I do not own any land. Most of our people own no land. Everyone should have some land. If not more, at least two acres for each family. It would give people a sense of security and dignity. Look at these deras. They own so much land; some even more than a thousand acres. There should be some law to limit the amount of land that a baba keeps and the rest should be distributed among people like us.’

My driver Buta Singh did not mean any disrespect to the babas. He not only paid obeisance to all the deras we visited, but was upset that I did not show sufficient reverence for the babas we visited. He firmly believed in their supernatural powers and ability to do good.

9. Harjot Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1994.

10. J.S. Grewal, Historical Perspectives on Sikh Identity, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1997; J.S. Grewal, Contesting Interpretations of the Sikh Tradition, Manohar, Delhi, 1998.

11. Tony Ballantyne, ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Historiography of Sikhism’, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 4(1), June 2002, pp. 5-29.