The sentencing of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the controversial leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, has raised questions about the functioning of deras in India.

A Dera is a social welfare and spiritual organisation with a leader at its head who commands the trust and devotion of their followers.

Singh, known by his moniker Ram Rahim, was sentenced on Monday to 20 years in prison for raping two female followers in 1999 at the sect's headquarters in the city of Sirsa in Haryana state.

Singh has led a flamboyant and opulent lifestyle. He has produced music albums and films that he has starred in.

Gory details of Singh sexual encounters with his followers, as well as the castration of hundreds, have come to light during his trial.

In recent years, many sect leaders, or babas as they are known in India, have come under scrutiny over allegations of sexual harassment and corruption.

At the same time, some deras have forged close ties to political parties. Under Singh, Dera Sacha Sauda has openly supported the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules at the federal level as well as in Haryana.

"I think where all these babas and deras go wrong is in getting enticed by the corrupting politician's allurements; or, in thinking that they can exploit the politician for their own use. No one - and, that means, no one - ever gets the better of the politician," wrote Harish Khare, editor-in-chief of the Tribune newspaper.

But not all deras are centres of corruption and exploitation.

There are about 10,000 deras with millions of followers in northern Punjab state alone. The majority of those who attend the deras come from the least privileged castes or classes, which make up one-third of the state's population.

Ronki Ram, a professor at Panjab University in Chandigarh, the capital of both Haryana and Punjab states, says people find equality at deras and do not face discrimination.

"In a society like India, which is hierarchical in terms of caste and religion, the people who belong to lower castes and class mostly go to deras. But some people from the upper or rich class and caste also go there. But the majority of people, nearly 80 percent, belong to the lower caste," Ram said.

"They also provide many services such as the free community kitchen or langar, subsidised items for the household. Deras also run schools and colleges providing good education at cheaper rates."

READ MORE: Who is Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh?

The proliferation of deras

According to Ram, deras were started by Sufis in the 11th century in what is now Pakistan.

"The word Dera comes from Persian; it means a place where a dervish lives," he said, explaining that the Punjab region, including Pakistani Punjab, has long been home to vibrant socio-religious movements. 

"Punjab has remained a centre of the Indian bhakti [religious] movement," Ram said, referring to the precursors of contemporary religious orders. Even today, he added, "there are cities in Pakistan named as Dera Baba Ghazi Khan or Dera Ismail Khan".

In India, the proliferation of deras began after the advent of the Green Revolution in the early 1970s, which marked the introduction of high-yielding seeds and chemical fertilisers to boost crop production.

The agricultural boom was accompanied by the rising prosperity of the least privileged castes and Dalits, the former "untouchables", who continued to face discrimination from the more privileged caste groups belonging to both Hinduism and Sikhism.

Deras emerged as places that offered a sense of equality to these discriminated groups.

"Primarily after the advent of globalisation and the neoliberal economic regime [in the 1990s], the state withdrew from welfare activities. Education and hospitals have mostly been privatised," Ram said.

"The state is there only to look after law and order. So, in this situation, those who were already poor and did not have much resources, found this new system of [the] neoliberal economy a lot more difficult. This can be the one reason they go to dera," he said.

M Rajivlochan, writing in the New Delhi-based Indian Express newspaper, said: "Dignity, social support, medical help, and food security. These are precisely the things that the modern Indian state - at least in its Haryana/Punjab version - refuses to offer to the people."

He continued: "The deras here seem to go beyond providing people with mental succour and start providing those services that should have been given by the state."

Some people believe that babas, or gurus, will help them reach God and many hope their mannats, or wishes, will be fulfilled with the grace of the babas. For the followers, sect leaders carry psychological and spiritual solace.

But as deras grew rapidly in the past two decades, political parties started to make the rounds of these communities to gain electoral support.

Political science professor Jagroop Singh Sekhon, from Guru Nanak Dev University, has called deras the "ATMs of vote banks".

"Once babas become powerful they attracted [a] large number of people, who are not only followers, they are also voters, and that brought politicians to babas," Ram said.

Source: Al Jazeera News