In April 2007, an anonymous source approached the investigation team at Tehelka magazine. The source showed the magazine’s reporters a letter written in 2002 by a sadhvi of the religious cult Dera Sacha Sauda to the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. It levelled grave allegations of rape and murder against Gurmeet Singh, the spiritual leader of the Dera. The receipt of the letter marked the beginning of a decade-long investigation by the journalists Anurag Tripathi and Ethmad A Khan, who were working in Tehelka’s investigation team under the editor Harinder Baweja. Their investigation uncovered a vast and wild array of allegations against the Dera and its leader—including rape, murder, sexual exploitation, forced castrations, large-scale land grabbing, and illegal trade in arms and opium. In August 2017, Singh was convicted in two cases of rape, and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In April 2018, Tripathi published a book, “Dera Sacha Sauda and Gurmeet Ram Rahim,” which records the details of their investigation. In his foreword to the book, Hartosh Singh Bal, The Caravan’s political editor, writes that it is “also a sociological text on the now-infamous Dera Sacha Sauda.” In the following extract from the book, Tripathi expounds on the workings of the Qurbani Dasta, or Sacrifice Wing, of a private militia within the Dera. Its members, Tripathi writes, were “completely radicalised and ready to die or kill, spill blood on the streets, all at a single command from the Dera chief.”
As his wealth grew, Gurmeet knew he was close to realising his dream of building his own empire. To protect it, he knew he would need a private army.
In early 2000, the Dera chief discussed the idea with some Indian Army veterans who were Dera followers. A blueprint was made and recruitment for the purpose began.
The recruitment procedure for the Dera’s private army was loosely based on the process followed by the Indian Army. A jawan, once recruited, underwent rigorous physical training under the supervision of ex-army men. They were trained in the handling of small arms and other weapons.
The Dera’s militia had three wings. The inner wing was to closely guard Gurmeet, and was hand-picked by the trainers. This wing’s responsibility was to steer the chief away from the site during an eventuality.
The second wing was to provide external cover while the Dera chief was shifted to a safe base in case of a crisis. The outer wing was to monitor every corner of the Dera premises and not let anyone in during a crisis.
The ex-army men trained hand-picked followers in military tactics, such as the usage of petrol bombs. A war room equipped with CCTV cameras was built in both the old and new Dera campuses, and private army members were given walkie-talkies to communicate with.
It may be noted that in 2010, through its intelligence network, the Indian Army got a whiff of the fact that some ex-army men were imparting weapons training to the Dera followers. In an internal letter dated 13 December 2010, signed by Lt Col NS Bhatti, it was stated that “some exservice men are engaging themselves in imparting weapon training to activists of Dera Sacha Sauda at their HQ located in Sirsa.” The letter further stated that “reportedly, some serving personnel have been participating in activities of Dera Sacha Sauda, like blood donation camps.” The letter instructed that the directive to stay away from Dera Sacha Sauda should be intimated to everyone at unit and subunit levels for strict compliance.
One wing that the Dera chief, with the help of his ex-army followers, had been gradually building since early 2000, and which would prove to be the Dera’s most dreaded force, was one that perhaps no other religious sect in India had ever thought of. It was called the Qurbani Dasta (Sacrifice Wing).
In effect, the Qurbani Dasta was not very different from suicide bombers in any terrorist organisation—completely radicalised and ready to die or kill, spill blood on the streets, all at a single command from the Dera chief.
The first time the existence of this wing was noted was on 2 July 2007, when a Dera follower, Jaswant Singh, in broad daylight, poured kerosene on his clothes and set himself ablaze in front of the Sirsa District Court. He was protesting the registration of the case against Gurmeet Ram Rahim for attempting to impersonate Guru Gobind Singh. While immolating himself, he was shouting, “Mere jaise lakho hain jo babaji ke liye marne maarne ko tayyaar hain”—Like me, there are lakhs who are ready to die or kill for “Gurmeet Singh. He was close to a spot where 25 other Dera followers were observing a hunger strike. With 80 percent burns, Jaswant was rushed to the government hospital where, a few weeks later, he succumbed to his injuries. The local intelligence later learnt that Jaswant was part of the Qurbani Dasta raised by Dera Sacha Sauda.
The second time the Qurbani Dasta’s existence was noticed was in September 2017, after Gurmeet Ram Rahim was convicted in two rape cases by a CBI court. The wing reportedly issued threatening letters to journalists, Haryana Police officers, former Dera followers, and witnesses who deposed against Gurmeet Singh. The letter was sent to several media houses that covered the proceedings of Gurmeet’s conviction and carried reports of his misdeeds. The letter said that 200 youths were ready to sacrifice their lives for Gurmeet. In a chilling reminder of the Dera’s tactics of threats and intimidation, the letter went on to say that this band was looking for the family members of those maligning the Dera chief and would kill them systematically.
“We are already like living corpses, but now we will kill those who have been making false propaganda against the Dera along with their family members,” the letter said. Its heading was, “Teesri Adalat Ka Faisala Sazaye Maut”— Death Sentence by the Third Court.
A journalist friend with whom I had worked in 2003, and who had shifted to Chandigarh almost ten years ago, helped fix up a meeting with a former follower who had been selected for the Qurbani Dasta but who later ran away from the Dera as he was not ready to either die or kill. The meeting was held in Greater Noida, where he lived in a one-room apartment while working at a factory manufacturing auto parts.
“I moved to Greater Noida in 2008, immediately after I left the Dera. I had studied some basic mechanical stuff at the Dera and it helped me get a job here,” he said, a medium-built man in his mid-thirties. “I am happy that finally that monster is in jail; I wish he never comes out of it now.”
He said he used to live in Phoolkan village in Sirsa district. He was just eight when he lost his father, an alcoholic, to liver cirrhosis. His mother died a year later. At the age of nine, he was sent to the Dera by his relatives. It was around the time when Gurmeet took over the Dera. He remembers the first few years as being fairly decent. “We were encouraged to study in the school within the Dera premises. Orphans were given special care, with Dera followers providing us with clothes, books and stationery. It was quite a disciplined life,” he recalls.
Things started changing for him in 2004, when he was summoned by Gurmeet to his gufa. “It was very unusual for a regular Dera follower to be called by baba inside the gufa. I was nervous.”
Once he entered the gufa, he saw Gurmeet standing with two Dera premis who were popularly called “Faujis.” No one knew their real names. Gurmeet told him that he was a divine soul who had been chosen for a special purpose. To fulfil it, henceforth he must only speak to and listen to the Faujis. He would not be staying in the orphanage hall anymore and would be provided special accommodation.
Indeed, he was shifted to rooms located on the outer periphery of the Dera, abutting dense vegetation. There, he met more than three hundred other young men of his age. “We were handed a schedule that outlined a daily regime with specific timings for waking up, running, physical exercise, spiritual training, and so on.”
At 4.30 am sharp, they were woken up and after a glass of milk and a banana, were made to run 5 to 6 kilometres. After a short break, they were given physical combat training. “In the afternoon, we had long spiritual classes where most of the time, the emphasis was on the fact that life is ephemeral and we were born for a higher purpose,” he recalled. “Our minds were conditioned to give up all worldly things and think of death as the ultimate sacrifice.”
After basic training, they graduated to training in batches, supervised by the Faujis, to handle small arms like revolvers and automatic pistols. They were trained to assemble petrol bombs, how to create a panic in a large crowd and get away without being noticed. He said that, like him, most of the others had no idea why this kind of training was being imparted to them. To help them catch up on their studies, teachers would come to them—they were not allowed to go to the school and mingle with their old friends.
“This was all very suspicious and scary, but no one opened their mouth,” he said. During his stay at this camp, he learnt that most of the other participants were either orphans like him or had been abandoned by their parents and were at the mercy of the Dera. He learnt another secret that shocked him to the core—that some of the boys had been castrated.
“One fine day, the Faujis brought us sweets and new clothes and announced that we were now ready to be part of a divine team,” he said. “They said that we were the elite members of the Dera’s Qurbani Dasta, one of the most revered and feared wings of the Dera, which was willing to die or kill for the chief.” He was stunned. “All my life, I hadn’t even killed a bird. Killing a man was beyond my imagination. It felt so repulsive. I wanted to run away from the Dera then and there.”
Unlike him, most of the boys welcomed their newfound status. They were all then allowed to resume their normal life at the Dera with the express instruction not to divulge a single detail of their training to anyone and to keep the identity of their wing secret. They were told that they would be called for assignments as and when required.
He continued with his studies and also learnt basic mechanics at a skill training centre at the Dera. In June 2007, he heard about Jaswant Singh’s self-immolation. “Jaswant Singh was trained along with us. Now my only wish was to escape the Dera at the earliest possible opportunity.”
In 2008, he was assigned to go to Sirsa city to bring spare parts for vehicles used within the Dera. “I was handed the cash. It was enough for me to escape Sirsa,” he said. Once in the city, he boarded a bus to Delhi. Someone on the bus told him that there were factories in Greater Noida where he could get a mechanical job, and that was how he landed up here.
This is an excerpt from Anurag Tripathi’s book “Dera Sacha Sauda and Gurmeet Ram Rahim,” published by Penguin Books in April 2018. The extract has been condensed.
Anurag Tripathi is an investigative journalist with sixteen years of experience spanning print, electronic and digital media.