Sambit Dash

No, not the father. This is about the Baba we are familiar with. And I mean it in a religion neutral and a gender neutral sense. Men, who go by fancy name, distanced from their original, and closer to the almighty, have since time immemorial tried to be the messengers of God. Oops, did I write MSG?

Though this piece is triggered by the tragic rioting that conviction of Gurmeet Singh, in a rape case had caused, it wishes to highlight the perils that many of his ilk, running their fiefdoms in Odisha pose. The politician-Baba nexus, the gullibility of people at large, the safety of informal institutions are reasons these sects and cults thrive and yet as seen in Haryana violence, the Frankenstein often comes back to bite the maker.

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The proliferation of Babas in Odisha is a noticeable phenomenon. That many of these have come up in and around Bhubaneswar is not a surprise. The pattern of prominence of these self-styled Godmen (I think this term is a misnomer) is far too common. Breaking away from a large sect, with a few followers in tow, finding a place for ‘pravachans’ and ‘bhajans’ and ‘pujas,’ inviting local leaders for functions, upping the scale of all of these and also probably appearing on TV is often the well beaten track that these people follow.

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Only when the number of followers is sizeable, they begin to possess large political capital. That is followed by acquiring land and buildings, essential to congregation or rather as it can be said covert activities. It must have been a surprise for many in Odisha to learn about a Dera Sacha Sauda ashram in Puri. While it appeared in news following early reports of disturbance post the conviction verdict, the connection between a cult in Punjab and faraway Odisha is the surprising bit. The spread of certain sects like malignancy is definitely a cause of concern.

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For a rational thinker, it is very perplexing to think how these men, often hideous, sexist, creepy find men and women following them and blindly. Though the psychological phenomenon behind allegiance to another human being who one thinks is superior, or a saviour, or one who can lend one an identity is beyond the scope of this column; it would suffice to state that a mixture of these phenomenon are at work, along with the modus operandi mentioned before for ‘success’ in an already competitive Baba business.

In a milieu of the economically disadvantaged or marginalized, in a state where healthcare is in poor condition, where there aren’t many avenues that encourage or promote rational thinking, and in a pitched political environment the rise of these conmen is natural.

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I have often heard a few friends and colleagues from Odisha telling me that nowadays so and so Baba is delivering fantastic ‘pravachans’ and a lot of people are following him. There is a subtle message in this matter of fact statement. It goes on to say how the complexity in understanding of messages in larger religious groups often leads to giving these power hungry men a window to reach to those ‘seeking’. And this process is a natural process.

While it is perfectly legal to run such Babadom, its finances which can run into thousands of crores of Rupees and its practices which can and has in the past been far from legal must be kept a watch on. Many of these build private militias and these non-state actors can create havoc, an example of which we currently witnessed. The Church and State have always had a tricky relation. A democratic nation, aspiring to hit that high growth trajectory cannot afford to have some sects and cults holding it to ransom.

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The solution lies in awareness and importantly in economic development. The more opportunities for education are provided, the more robust a healthcare system is, the more there are jobs, the more there are thriving social and cultural avenues, the lesser will people flock to these Babas. While spiritual development for an individual is essential and is a personal choice, the mixing of former with power, with politics, with corruption, with crime creates a nefarious ticking bomb.