The turmoil against the Dera Sacha Sauda is over, but one point was missed while the trouble lasted. Punjab’s Akali leaders denounced the Dera chief for dressing up like Guru Gobind Singh. How do they know how Guru Gobind Singh dressed? He lived some 150 years before photography developed, so there are no pictures of him that the Dera chief could have copied. The truth is that the Akali-stoked campaign against the Dera stemmed from an economic motive. The Akalis control the rich Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) that had a huge annual budget of Rs224 crore in fiscal 2004-05. So they are hostile to the emergence of any charismatic preacher who can attract Sikh masses and pose a future challenge to Akali dominance of the SGPC. The Dera, with its vast following, is not the only sect to attract Akali wrath. The Akalis have targeted the Nirankaris, too, and they mistrust the Radhasoami sect with its huge number of Sikh devotees.
Religion and politics feed each other in Akali politics. The Akalis are astute politicians. For decades they’ve successfully positioned themselves as the sole defenders of the Sikh faith. They may lose political power, but their control of the SGPC remains absolute, an SGPC with Sikh gurdwaras, Sikh schools and a patronage network lubricated by vast revenues. Control of the SGPC propels the Akalis to political power (intermittently) and political power perpetuates their control of the SGPC. Fortunately for the Akalis, two demographic realities favour them in Punjab. One, Punjab is a Sikh majority state with six Sikhs for every four Hindus. And two, Punjab has 80% of India’s 19.2 million Sikhs. If you add Haryana to Punjab, the two states have 86% of India’s Sikhs. So, the Akalis are fortunate to have a vast majority of their constituents concentrated in a small geographical area. In contrast, the strength of another religious-political parties such as the Indian Union Muslim League is dissipated due to Muslims being scattered from West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh to Kerala, Gujarat and Kashmir.
In a fast-changing age, however, religious fortunes can change rapidly. The Akalis are quick to realize this. Before modern TV entered homes, few Sikhs saw or heard of the Dera chief, forget about noticing his attire. But his sudden visibility on TV alarms Akalis who see him as one of many TV godmen whose reach into millions of homes is eroding the hold of traditional religious establishments. As a religion-based political party, the Akali alarm is justified. Along with the economy, religion is booming in India. So is a religious churning, however, as worshippers seek a more personal religious experience. Traditional temples, gurdwaras or churches cannot provide this. They have formal prayers, sermons or bhajans that devotees quietly listen to, while an air of celebration marks the congregations of a Dera Sacha Sauda or a Swami Ramdev. The congregations have a personal connect between the preacher and the audience. In short, India’s seeing a replay of the religious scene in America where TV evangelicals have founded powerful religious empires.
Religion-wise, India differs from the world’s white cultures in one respect. Rising incomes have made white cultures less religious and Indians more religious. A long-term decline in church-going has caused several thousand churches in England to close. Contrast that with India where hundreds of new temples (many illegal) keep coming up and they are thronged with worshippers within days of opening. The Church of England is so poor it has sold properties and paintings to raise cash and it negotiates with mobile phone companies to conceal masts and dishes in church towers. It also thinks of renting out church space for ATM machines.
India’s religious story is exactly the opposite. Mumbai’s Siddhi Vinayak temple’s income has tripled in the last six years. The Tirupati temple, with a colossal annual budget of Rs916 crore, is thinking of building its replicas in three-four other cities. In fact, India’s bigger houses of worship have become so rich that they met in Mumbai last year to discuss corporate governance in a seminar that was addressed by Deepak Parekh, one of India’s revered financial brains.
Alas for India’s established houses of worship, they cannot rest on their good fortune. An electronic age has given birth to formidable rivals in the form of TV godmen who have changed the religious landscape of India. They reach a hundred times more homes, thanks to a camera and a satellite beaming them everywhere. They are winning this unequal battle against established houses of worship because religion for the first time in India’s history has begun to become personality-based, not institution-based, much like in America where the rise of new evangelicals and new Christian denominations has decimated the old religious order. This is what the Akalis fear—a TV godman in future eroding their hold as champions and protectors of the Sikh religion.
Arvind Kala is a freelance writer which, he says, is a euphemism for being unemployed. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org