Ram Rahim’s ‘vision’, presence still looms large over Dera

first_img(From left) Shah Satnam Ji Speciality Hospital inside the Dera has seen a drop in the number of patients and staff members since August 2017. Shah Satnam Ji Girls School, like other educational institutions inside the premises, reopened on September 18, 2017, after the 22-day curfew was lifted on September 13, 2017. (Right) Mahi Cinema and Mall.  Footfall of devoteesAs opposed to thousands and lakhs of people who used to visit on weekdays and Sundays respectively, the number has reduced to a couple of hundreds and thousands.Inside the main Dera where ‘Pitaji’ used to give sermons, an old woman wearing a light grey suit sits on a chair next to the loudspeaker broadcasting a message recorded by him.Lost in her own world, the presence of a few hundreds others does not bother her. A middle-aged woman sitting on the floor says, “Auntiji comes every day and sits here for hours even though the naam charcha is only for one hour in the afternoon.”Only a couple of hundred more people attend the session now. Staff members in the meditation hall claim the number used to increase to 15,000 to 20,000 on Sundays because ‘Guruji’ used to deliver a sermon every Sunday.“For few months after August 25, people stopped coming. Those who still have faith have started coming back,” says a 36-year-old at the checking counter, who makes sure no one enters with a phone, camera, weapon or recording device.As the sun starts to set and streets of the Dera look abandoned, there are “loyalists” who still put up in the residential area.“Why will we go leaving our ‘Guru’ behind?” says a 71-year-old resident of Shah Satnam Pura, a residential colony mostly inhabited by staff members of commercial units in the Dera.A resident of Rajasthan, he recalls being asked whether ‘people still live there [in the Dera]?’Disappointed and annoyed at the question, the man responded in the affirmative. “People think the Dera has shut down completely and no one lives here anymore. But we will never leave even though we were practically forced to do it by the Army and the police in the last week of August,” he says.‘Supplies cut’There were no food supplies, water or electricity for nearly a month during curfew, recalls the 71-year-old’s wife. “No one was allowed to come inside and go out. The temperatures were soaring and we all used to sleep in the lawns outside. Neighbours helped each other with food and water. It was a very difficult time but no one budged,” she says, adding that it is business as usual now.“The police still come and harass people, question them and pick them up,” alleges the couple.Pointing at the photograph of Mr. Singh, the residents end the conversation at, “We don’t care about anything. Earlier he used to bless us from Sirsa. Now he blesses us from Rohtak”.  Impact on businessThe impact of ‘Guruji’s’ incarceration can be seen outside the hospital, schools, colleges and shops. In place of the scores of autorickshaws parked to ferry people inside and outside the Dera premises earlier, barely a handful remain. The autorickshaw drivers were among the worst hit after the August incident.Ankit, an autorickshaw driver who claims he is not a devotee, says his monthly income has dipped from ₹2,000 to ₹500 per day.“There used to be lakhs of visitors before he was arrested and hundreds of autorickshaws. Now you will only find 20-30 in the area because there is no work,” he says.Shopkeepers and restaurant managers on the premises have similar tales to tell.Sitting inside his empty shop, 39-year-old Naresh who sells watches in ‘Sach Market’, says the shop remained closed for three months after the incident and his earning have been meagre ever since.“The streets used to be full of people then. Now you hardly see 10-15 of them on a daily basis,” he says.The manager of a medical shop, however, says his business is recovering. “For the first few months, the income per month was a couple of thousands but it is better now,” says 29-year-old Kuldeep.Manager of Kashish Restaurant, 44-year-old Ramesh says he was forced to lay off nearly 10 people because of the meagre sum the revolving restaurant has been making over the past three months since it opened.However, all shopkeepers claim they are not paying rent to the Dera management. “The entire area belongs to the Dera. We used to pay rent but now that there is no income we are not paying rent. They have not asked for rent either,” says Mr. Naresh.All of them unanimously claim that they are holding on because “business will come back to normal and will become even better once he is back. That’s what we all hope will happen”.Mr. Singh’s arrest has had a visible impact on the number of devotees who used to visit the Dera religiously to attend the sessions they call ‘naam charcha’. Over six months have passed since Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was sentenced to jail on charges of rape. The once deserted streets of Dera Sacha Sauda are slowly limping back to life. On a sunny afternoon, students, staffers and shopkeepers can be seen making their way inside slowly.Wearing light brown suits with white dupattas, girls walk out of Shah Satnam Ji Girls School after writing an exam. They are followed by teachers.“We were told in the first week of September that the school will reopen soon. Our parents were scared initially as it was the middle of the session but everything is fine now,” says a Class XII student.Educational institutions inside the Dera premises reopened on September 18, 2017, after the 22-day curfew was lifted on September 13, 2017.Though ‘Pitaji’ is still in jail, his “vision and preaching” continue to find a place inside Dera’s schools and colleges. Mr. Singh’s life-size posters with “Papa Coach #1” written on them are hard to miss.Talking about the image of two airplanes on the glass façade of the school, Saint MSG Glorious International School Principal Poonam Insan calls them “Guruji’s vision”.“He never wanted brain drain. He wanted to give the children the same educational standard as students are given abroad,” says the 35-year-old.Ms. Insan, who has been a Dera devotee since childhood, claims “the powers of Guruji saved her life once”.center_img  Hospital hitWhile educational institutions remain largely untouched by accusations against Mr. Singh save for approximately 10%-20% students dropping out because of “societal pressure and fear”, the hospital inside the Dera premises has been affected adversely.With plush green lawns on both sides of the entrance and a rather small reception, the hospital wears a deserted look. Doctors have quit due to non-payment of salaries and very few patients come in these days, making it difficult for the hospital to run.Over 1,000 patients would come in daily at Shah Satnam Ji Speciality Hospital before August 2017. Now, the hospital gets barely 100-150 patients.A staff member says most patients at the hospital comprised outstation devotees and labourers who lived here. “The labourers left the Dera due to lack of work and many devotees either stopped coming here due to fear or because they no longer have faith,” he said.Acting Chief Medical Officer Gaurav Aggarwal claims to have taken a 75% pay cut because the accounts are seized and the only source of cash flow is the money paid by patients.“We had a staff of 50 doctors. It has reduced to 20 now. Some left because any association with the hospital would not look nice on their CV and the others because of salaries,” he says, adding that for the first three months after August 2017, doctors and staffers were not paid a penny.He adds that the number of staffers has come down from around 500 to about 200. The hospital can admit just 50 patients at present as opposed to 300 earlier because of lack of funds.A woman staff member claims she earned ₹10,000 per month for maintaining a doctor’s ledger but now her salary has come down to ₹7,000. However, she does not want to leave because of her “faith”.“I have been living here for the past 10 years. I support my two sisters, a brother and mother. I am satisfied with whatever little I get. Once Pitaji is back, everything will be back to normal,” she says.The teaching staff too has taken a pay cut. In fact, some of them are not being paid at all. A teacher said, “The teaching and non-teaching staff of the educational institute have all taken a pay cut. Some of them have also volunteered to work without pay.”Most people working for the commercial units of the Dera are being paid in cash because the accounts are seized.“At the hospital, schools and colleges, the staff members are paid in cash with the help of accountants in each commercial unit,” says a hospital staff member.  The principal and 10 others went for sightseeing in the hills above Manali when their vehicle met with an accident. ‘Pitaji’ was in the hotel at the time of the incident. She claims “a stone prevented the vehicle from rolling down the valley”.“All of us escaped unhurt. No one could believe it. How should we not treat him like our god?” she says.Ms. Insan’s colleague Vipin, who is sitting next to her, recalls a play based on a similar incident enacted by students a couple of months agoMr. Vipin claims the protagonist was a man diagnosed with blood cancer and that “city doctors had given up on him a few years ago”. He says, “The man approached Guruji, who gave him prasad. A few days later, his blood group changed and he is absolutely fine now.”Claiming that students have the freedom to believe or not believe in ‘Guruji’, the Principal adds, “We have a lot of teachers and students who are not devotees of Guruji. For instance, if we celebrate Gandhi Jayanti, it does not mean we ask students to become Mahatma Gandhi. It is their choice.”At the exit, where phones and cameras of “outsiders” are confiscated, a worried parent asks the security guard if police vehicles are doing the rounds.“Sab theek hai na? Koi darne wali baat to nahi hai [Is everything all right? Is there anything to be scared of?],” says a mother who has come to drop off her daughter’s belongings at the school.last_img

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