The stories of the goings-on at the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) just keep getting more sinister. After Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim was sentenced to 20 years in prison on August 28th for raping two of his female devotees, investigators first found a sex cave and mass graves at the DSS headquarters in Sirsa. Soon after his arrest, his adopted daughter Honeypreet Singh’s ex-husband also alleged that he and Honeypreet had a sexual relationship.
Now, in a new development, it’s come to light that two of Rahim’s top aides have had their testicles removed. Both are being medically examined (they were being investigated on charges of inciting violence after Rahim’s sentencing), but available evidence indicates that they subjected themselves to the procedure voluntarily, at their guru’s behest.
This isn’t the first we’re hearing of castrations at the Dera. This newest discovery has only added fodder to an ongoing CBI investigation into incredible claims made in 2014 by Hansraj Chauhan, a former Dera follower, who alleged that the godman had brainwashed him and 400 others into having their testicles removed, saying it would bring them closer to god.
Still, it’s much easier said than done – a request to remove your testicles is a tall ask from anyone, even a godman. Castration is a permanent procedure, and when performed on adults, results in infertility and decreased or a total loss of sex drive. Considering how squeamish men can get over even, say, vasectomies, and the huge cultural significance and baggage associated with male genitalia, it’s hard to imagine what could have convinced Rahim’s followers to do something so drastic.
Chauhan was 13 when he joined the DSS, and was a sound chief there. He was introduced to the sect by his own parents, who had been Dera followers for over five decades. In 2000, aged 17, he was told he needed to “sacrifice” something for Rahim in order to “become closer to god”. He didn’t know that the sacrifice meant he was going to be surgically castrated at the DSS hospital in Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan, by “surgeons under the spell of baba”, until he woke up in excruciating pain after the procedure.
In the course of the still-open investigation into mass forced castrations, many other followers have come forward and told the court that they underwent the procedure consensually, and supplied the media with reasons why: some apparently told India Today it was an accident, while others said that they did it based on “an Italian theory” that castration gives you a sweeter voice.
Chauhan has alleged that those who underwent the procedure at the Dera were offered a “licence to kill”, and that he himself had been offered a licensed weapon that he was “educated enough to refuse”. He says others weren’t so lucky and fell into a life of crime. Of the 166 other castrated followers whose details Chauhan had presented in his case, three have been jailed for the murder of Ram Chander Chhatrapati, the journalist who first published the letter accusing Ram Rahim of rape in 2014.
Perhaps part of the reason it’s making us clutch our heads is how uncommon something like this is today. There doesn’t seem to be any other modern-day religious organisation that advocates, centers, rewards or glorifies castration, although, as Devdutt Pattanaik wrote recently, “a section of Indian transgenders, as part of accepting their feminine essence, castrate themselves in the name of the rooster-riding Bahucharji-mata”.
Bhavdeep Kang, journalist and author of Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas, points out that while castration might be unheard of as an advocated practice in any purely religious sect today, celibacy is a practice many religious orders promote. She thinks the Dera’s idea of advocating castration amongst ardent devotees is an extreme extension of that belief – that the spiritual pursuit involves rising above worldly desires, including sex, in favour of a purer path. She jokes that Rahim’s message was, “With that swinging free in the way, you’ll never be able to sublimate your baser selves and reach god!”
Kang, who met several Dera followers while researching her book, still finds it hard to truly understand the nature of their belief in Rahim. She thinks their faith comes from a lot of places: illnesses they believe he’s cured, his ‘miraculous’ rehabilitation of youngsters addicted to drugs, his charitable work (he holds 19 world records, including for the largest blood donation camp in 2003), the ‘truth’ they find in his teachings, his foresight in reaching out to youth through his popular movies with morals – they all contribute to his larger than life personality and help maintain the illusion of his godliness, which he himself exaggerated in every way he could.
Academician Santosh K Singh, who is currently writing a book about deras in Punjab and has spent the last seven years visiting different ones, says that he always found something different and strange about Rahim and the DSS: it didn’t function like other deras, and was more Rahim’s personal entrepreneurial venture than a spiritual home.
“The DSS was heavily into a sort of masculine content. In other deras, the leaders are called ‘santji’, but Rahim’s followers called him ‘pitaji’ (father). I could never understand why he was the only visible figure in this dera, unlike others, which have images of several figures, like Ambedkar, Gorakhnath and Balaknath. It was only Rahim on all the posters and merchandise DSS sold. I remember, they used to even sell a dodgy-looking “vitality tonic” that promised increased masculinity to his followers, who would come from far and wide just for his trusted advice, ‘cures’ and ‘medicines’,” says Singh.
Most godmen work hard to take over every aspect of their followers’ lives, adds Kang. They teach you that all they ask for is complete obedience, and they will take care of everything else. “In return for blind faith, the burden of your spiritual conduct goes to baba,” she says. Devotees feel a sense of relief that comes from surrendering their moral responsibilities to a ‘wiser’ power, and receive a strong community and sense of belonging in the bargain.
In time, gurus become integral to every aspect of their followers’ lives, from guidance on spiritual matters to deciding whom to marry, to even sitting in on major business decisions. All this creates a cycle of fear and dependency, where devotees are ready to believe anything their baba says, and more importantly, to do whatever he instructs for fear of being cast out of the community and losing access to the guru.
This enables gurus to package their whims and fancies into wise-sounding platitudes, and command their followers to do… well, anything. Kang says that she’s seen similar unswerving devotion from followers of other gurus, but that Rahim seems like a unique character himself — a man with a marked hero complex and decidedly strange ideas about sex, the world and his place in it.
Singh also suspects that not all the castrations were voluntary. “Baba was always surrounded by his followers, and there must have been some that he found [power-hungry]. He was very insecure, and would keep records on his staff and advisors, even his trusted inner circle. If he ever got a whiff of anything happening around him [attempts to usurp his power], he could have easily forced them into doing this. I don’t know what he believes. It was in his nature to seek to be the alpha male. Maybe he thought castrating powerful people around him would make them less of a threat to him.”
Like Hansraj Chauhan, it seems likely that there were some followers who were tricked into castration, or as Singh suggests, those who were blackmailed or forced into it. It’s also undeniable that there were some who consensually volunteered themselves.
Will we ever truly understand what motivated them to do it? Paromita Vohra, a filmmaker and founder of Agents of Ishq, points out how easy it is for us to fall into classist and communalist stereotypes when trying to understand the reasons for people’s spiritual beliefs and practices from afar, especially when talking about a huge sect like the DSS. She says the nature of faith and belief also makes it nearly impossible to ever truly understand what motivates each believer without meeting them and having an experiential understanding of who they really are.
Still, there’s clearly something that sets Ram Rahim apart from other godmen: there don’t seem to be many others who have made such particular and extreme demands of their followers. DSS followers aren’t unique in their devotion, and several babas have the power to make their devotees do extreme things, but Rahim came up with his own unique kooky version.