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Mainstream, VOL LV No 42 New Delhi October 7, 2017

Beyond Social Norms?

Monday 9 October 2017

by Mahendra Ved

Description: Gurmeet Ram Rahim.

He is not Gurmeet, a supposedly Sikh, nor Ram, a Hindu, nor Rahim, a Muslim. He has blemished the three faiths to masquerade his misdeeds. But how do ‘godmen’ like him get away with what they do without scrutiny? Are they beyond the society’s normative systems of accountability and responsibility?

The unfortunate story still developing sensationally in India is that he has fooled millions of people into believing him as a saint and a godman and worst, ‘baba’ and ‘pitaji’, a father. He has misused their unsuspecting devotion to amass riches. He was worshipped despite being a murder and rape accused for 15 long years.

India is a strange nation where obscurantism thrives because the society at large, including those educated and resourceful, approves of it. And the political class promotes it for its own gains. Law lies in a slumber and the state acts at the terminal stage. By the time it wakes up and acts, immense damage is done.

It remains silent even as those who oppose and fight obscurantism are threatened—the new phenomenon is being trolled on the social media —and then done to death, for expressing their views. Like journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh was gunned down in Bengaluru.

More unfortunate is the fact that Gurmeet Ram Rahim is one of the many. And while he has met his nemesis after long years, others are still thriving and fooling the masses, ready to flex their muscles to perpetuate their power and riches. To name those who have been convicted, Asaram Bapu and Mohammed Shahabuddin, both in prison, and Rampal, who is out, are among those who represent both the state’s failure and its delayed, confused, almost reluctant, fightback.

The self-proclaimed godmen also act as a conduit between politicians and their rich followers, using their smart networking system to help all. In fact the deras and satsangs are great places for networking.

If the credulity of followers of these char-latans, not a new phenomenon across India or even across South Asia, has defied any rational thinking, the culpability of the state and political class has also come out in the open. If Gurmeet Ram Rahim is caught, that is only because the long arm of the law has caught up with him, after years of delay and machinations involving politicians and policemen alike. Which raises the basic question: How can a modern state allow such depredations to take place on its watch?

Across South Asia where such godmen abound, such accountability remains scarce. A godman can do no wrong, and assuming he does, there are strong arms to cut the finger pointed at him.

More questions arise. Why have people across South Asia become so tolerant, even supportive, of holymen, whether of the spiritual or political kind? Why are those who aspire to power so successful in using religion to motivate their electorates?

The case of Gurmeet Ram Rahim indicates that a rather anomalous situation has prevailed that needs rectification by introducing a measure of accountability in the shape of a code of conduct. A deviant clergy from the Christian or Sikh fold can be taken to task by the collective authority of the church or gurudwara. Why not others?

Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who was ostracised by the Akal Takht, sought to wriggle out of the control of any single faith. He even professed to establish a new faith of his own. In the process, he also managed to get out of the reach of just everyone, including the state.

Given the way the state handled—and mishandle—him, it is a bizarre case of who would assume responsibility and seek to correct Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s numerous deviations.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim did not rise in a single day—neither have the other Babas. Flocking around them are the marginalised sections of the society who seek spiritual relief from their daily miseries.

Those frantically looking for a peg to hang their faith on are as much the victims of their own need as of the wiles of conmen. These sections find no easy entrance in places of worship and help from the established faiths corrupted by immense power and resources at their disposal.

India, being home to the world’s largest population of illiterates and a sizable population below the poverty line, doesn’t help either. Being part of a cult or Dera gives a false sense of meaning and purpose to people who have no other hope.

To focus on the Indian story, even if varying in degrees, things have always been so since independence: those who profess secularism kowtow to obscurantist forces as individuals, if not as political parties or as governments. Books, plays and movies are banned to “protect” public order. Out of power, they leave the field open to those with no real faith in secularism. Their protest sound hypocritical.

Whatever the political colour, the damage to society is immense and irreparable when a professedly secular state colludes or condones it “in the name of faith”. It has left a train of mishandled crises and loss of lives and property.

This explains how and why separatism was nurtured in Punjab, laws and court judgments were amended to please the conservative sections, rath yatra was conducted and the Babri Masjid was demolished. These are but a few instances that have left lasting impact on Indian society.

Religion in politics produces a highly toxic, explosive mix.

With erosion of democratic values and corruption of individuals and institutions, politicisation has seeped into every aspect of public discourse. Mutual name-calling on Gurmeet or Gauri Lankesh is bound to continue —without any resolution or redemption. There has to be a way forward.

(Courtesy: The New Strait Times)

The author is the New Delhi correspondent of The New Strait Times (Malaysia). He is also the President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62