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Inside the Radha Soami Satsang

ET Prime travelled to the sect’s Dera in Beas, exploring it beyond the themes of spirituality and religious belief. What we found was a mini city with well-laid houses, hostels, a shopping mall, an airstrip, and a hospital – managed by one of the largest landlords in the country.

(Economic Times, India, 27 Jul 2018 by N Sundaresha Subramanian)—Beas is a small town on the banks of the river by the same name, about 40 km from Amritsar. You can’t miss the brick red-cream combination paint on the walls as you get off the train.

The junction station, where the line to Tarn Taran branches out, does not have much of a crowd this Friday afternoon. When Baba Jaimal Singh stepped out of a train here in 1891, it would have been even more desolate. Legend has it that Singh, who was spiritually inclined from a young age, had found his guru in Agra-based Swami Shiv Dayal Singh, the founder of the Radha Soami sect. One of the fundamental teachings of the founder was that a satsangi should earn his own living by honest means and not live out of alms.

So, Baba Jaimal enrolled himself as a soldier in the British army.

After retiring, he alighted here to go to his village Kuman, about 30 km away. About 7 km from the station, not very far from the river, he found a quiet place to meditate in the middle of what was then a jungle.

That quiet place has now transformed into a sprawling 3,000-acre mini city called Dera Baba Jaimal Singh ji, developed and maintained by Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB). It has neatly laid houses, hostels, and halls that can accommodate nearly 18,000 people, several kilometres of black-topped roads, 24x7 water supply, an 80,000 sq ft shopping mall, a hospital, and its own sewage-disposal system.

Everything in Beas and its surroundings is connected to, if not influenced by, the Dera.

“This railway station has been chosen as the cleanest station in the country. It is due to the work of the Dera. The railways run one counter, we have seven. We maintain the toilets, we clean the platforms, and we have over 100 sewadars working here at any point,” says Ved Prakash Batra, the RSSB man in charge of the Dera facilities at the station. Last year, the station handled around 2.8 million passengers clocking earnings of over INR 38 crore.

In recent times, the peace that pervades Beas has been roiled by murmurs of RSSB’s connections to Malvinder and Shivinder Singh. The Singh brothers — former promoters of Ranbaxy, Religare, and Fortis Healthcare — and their financial advisor “Sunny” Godhwani trace their ties back to their association with RSSB. The brothers now believe that Godhwani made bad investment decisions. An ET Prime investigation showed that many of the investments were through companies owned by the family of the current patron saint of RSSB, Gurinder Singh Dhillon.

Since RSSB is central to the things that have gone around Singh brothers, ET Prime travelled to Beas and met officials to understand the Dera, its growth and its association, with the brothers.

It all began as a friendship born in the Dera’s spiritual and religious setting, before becoming commercial.

Bloodline of the gurus
Though the society maintains that gurudom is not hereditary, three of the five masters who have headed the Dera belong to the same family. Maharaj Sawan Singh (1903-48) was the great grandfather of the current guru. He was followed briefly by Maharaj Jagat Singh (1948-51), a chemistry professor and not related to his predecessor.

Jagat Singh’s sudden demise brought Sawan Singh’s grandson Maharaj Charan Singh to the helm. His four-decade reign saw the Dera grow from a village to a large township, as well as the forging of an important alliance.

Charan Singh had two sons and a daughter. His daughter Nimmie Singh’s marriage to Parvinder Singh, who went on to lead the erstwhile pharma major Ranbaxy Labs, began the association that continues to bring attention to the sect.

Parvinder and his family members were regular visitors to the Dera. However, old-timers say neither his father Bhai Mohan Singh nor brothers Manjit and Analjit were spotted in the Dera.

In the late 80s, when talks of succession were doing the rounds in the Dera, Parvinder’s name surfaced among those who could succeed the guru.

But Charan Singh had other ideas.

His choice was his 35-year-old nephew Gurinder Singh Dhillon. Son of Charan Singh’s sister and Gurmukh Singh Dhillon, a wealthy landlord from Mogra, Dhillon was educated in top institutions. He was working in Spain as an investment banker and was in India for the birth of his second son when the huge responsibility fell on him, according to some accounts. Parvinder was among his staunch supporters in those early days of consolidation.

Jasbir Singh Grewal aka Cuckoo, the son of Charan Singh, has been a senior functionary within the Fortis group, while his other son Ranbir Singh Grewal (Rana) has stayed away from the businesses, engaging in agriculture instead in Sirsa, Haryana.

Under Babaji Gurinder Singh Dhillon, the Dera has grown far beyond Beas.

Love, land, and langar
What started as a small hutment in Baba Jaimal’s time is now a sprawling city that can rival any international location in terms of cleanliness and convenience.

“Whatever you see here is the love of Babaji for the Sangat. And it all got created by the Sangat’s love for him,” says JC Sethi, secretary, RSSB, sitting in a minimalistic office in front of the satsang ghar, a limestone-cum-mud structure built in the 1930s.

How the Dera transformed over the years: As the society goes about buying land and developing it, controversies have cropped up every now. Photo from Equilibrium of love, an RSSB publication

Sethi explains that almost all the infrastructure that includes residences, hostels and halls, satsang and langar sheds were built by the “sewa” of the followers.

Apart from donations and physical labour, the followers also contribute by donating their produce, tractors, and other equipment which could be used in the projects of the Dera.

The satsang ghar, which some devotees call sachkhand, was designed to accommodate 2,500 followers. But soon this wasn't enough as the sect kept growing at a rapid pace. New followers are invited for special “naam daan” (initiation) ceremonies conducted usually after the designated weekends. There is an elaborate system of approving applications. In 2017-18, over 97,000 new followers were initiated into the sect.

“The current master has been at the helm for 28 years.Each year, he has initiated about 100,000 to 1,10,000 people. Before him, for 40 years huzur maharaj (Maharaj Charan Singh) performed initiations. In all, Sangat could be around 20 million people,” Sethi says.

The Dera itself, received 13.4 million visitors during the financial year 2017-18.

Like the satsang ghar, new facilities kept proving small for the growing populace, forcing the Dera to expand. More facilities meant more land. The Dera is flanked by defence land on one side and the river Beas on the other. So, after hitting the boundaries on both sides, it bought land longitudinally.

The society sits on over 1,900 acres of developed land in addition to about 1,250 acres of agriculture land, which is under cultivation. Wheat, vegetables, and seasonal fruits cultivated inside are largely utilised by the massive langar.

The Dera has a tile store that manufactures mosaic tiles, chequered tiles, and paver blocks. All the construction work is undertaken in-house, and the Dera even makes its own bricks and the ubiquitous brick-coloured paint. These and the engineering and carpentry facilities of the Dera form its industrial area.

Adjacent to the industrial area is the airstrip. Forty planes and helicopters used this airstrip for landing and take-off last year.

Some of those flights bring in politicians, who seek to gain from the association with the Dera during election times. But Babaji has remained neutral and has been careful about not taking sides, at least overtly.

He is rumoured to be close to the Badals of the Akali Dal as well as the current chief minister Amarinder Singh of the Congress. During the Punjab Assembly elections last year, these two and Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party were among the visitors to the Dera. Similarly, Himachal Pradesh rivals Virbadhra Singh and PK Dhumal flew in quick succession during the Assembly elections.

As the sect has grown, demand for satsangs in other areas has increased. So, in addition to 19 Sundays in Beas, the master delivers satsangs in other large centres as well.

Air Vice-Marshal DS Guram, president of RSSB, who coordinates the activities of regional centres, says, “Babaji is particular that wherever satsang is held, all the allied facilities, including parking, should be done within our own premises. He is particular that even the sound from the satsang should not reach outside.”

Guram recalls an incident when a couple of motorcycles parked in public land caught the eye of the Baba and he refused to deliver the satsang. “These satsangis had parked outside as they wanted to follow Babaji’s motorcade. But, it became a major embarrassment for us. Only after we physically lifted these vehicles and put them inside, did he start the satsang.”

To keep with such ideals and conform to local regulations, including the floor space index, RSSB has calculated that wherever Dhillon’s satsang is held, it would need minimum 200 acres of land.

Guram says there are about 18 such centres in India. Together, these centres alone would account for about 3,600 acres of land. In addition, there are around 5,000 smaller centres. Every year, hundreds of acres come into the society’s fold. That it maintains a separate “land purchase” department is a testimony. All this makes the society one of the largest landlords in the country.

Strong financial position
As the society goes about buying land and developing it, though only for spiritual purposes, controversies have cropped up every now and then over its finances and methods.

In FY18, the society purchased around 151 acres of land and exchanged about 57 acres it got for parcels which are contiguous. Such exchanges are also misunderstood as Dera receiving government land for free, claim Dera administrators.

For example, in Mohali, the society owned a total of 238 acres in different land parcels. “The holdings were such that city development would not have been possible. So, we agreed for an exchange with the development authority and in exchange for our 238 acres, we were given 200 acres of contiguous land. But people try to portray this as Dera being given land for free,” says Sethi.

Till the late 50s, the assets and management of the society were in the hands of the living guru. The then master Maharaj Charan Singh, a lawyer himself, felt that moving into a society structure would be more pragmatic. On October 11, 1957, Radha Soami Satsang Beas was registered as a non-profit society under the Societies Registration Act.

Once the society was formed, all the satsang properties were transferred to it. Responsibilities were divided, with the master becoming the spiritual head and patron of the society and the secretary of the society, along with an executive committee managing all the properties and all related administrative functions.

This structure has been continuing for the last six decades. At present, the committee has 16 members, including the president and the secretary.

For the financial year ended March 2018, the society's expenses exceeded its income by INR13.8 crore. It earned around INR406 crore, of which INR366 crore was from donations. This was slightly lower than the previous year.

There are about 30 centres across the country where sewa boxes are kept. Donations from the sangat are received in these boxes. About 30%-35% of funds come through this route. The rest are through cheques, according to committee members.

Sale of assets fetched around INR31 crore, while income from investments and sale of materials like books and photographs accounted for the rest.

Of the total expenses of INR419.8 crore, a bulk was capital expenditure for building and maintaining assets. The society spent about INR254 crore on assets and equipment at the branch satsang centres. Civil works in the Dera cost around INR49 crore and land purchases accounted for INR20.24 crore.

"We are an open book. Our financial returns are filed with the authorities every year," VK Gulati, who handles the society's finances, says.

Spiritual activities undertaken by the trust are done by sewadars on a pro-bono or honorarium basis. Pensioners and people who have other sources of income do their services pro-bono, while others, especially younger people with growing families, are provided parshads to take care of their family's expenses.

However, this model would not work for the three hospitals in Beas, Sikanderpur, and Bhota, and the Pathseekers school, where professional talent needs to be attracted and retained. Doctors and teachers are paid on par with the government scales.

Two separate trusts manage the activities of hospitals (Maharaj Jagat Singh Medical Relief Society) and the school (RSSB Educational and Environmental Society). While the land and the buildings of the hospitals and the school are owned by RSSB, the services are provided by the charitable trusts. This is done to ensure the donations are exempt under the IT Act. The hospital at Beas sits on a prime 35 acre plot on the highway.

In the books of RSSB, it is valued at less than INR2.88 crore. The Bhota and Sikanderpur hospitals are valued at INR13.4 crore and INR10.3 crore, respectively, according to the written-down value method. The entire developments in the Dera at Beas are valued at INR860 crore, whereas assets and equipment at other satsang centres are held to be worth INR2,161 crore.

While there is speculation that the market value of these properties could be worth a multiple of what is in the books, the administrators dismiss this as "notional".

Finances, returns, and relationships
Old-timers say that even during Charan Singh's time, there were talks about the society's robust cash flows being used to prop up Ranbaxy's finances, including loans on favourable terms.

Under Gurinder Singh Dhillon's regime, the relationship has only strengthened. After Parvinder Singh succumbed to cancer in 1999, the family entered a phase of bitter internal dispute. Pravinder's sons Malvinder and Shivinder, then in their 20s, looked up to Dhillon.

The Babaji, who "loved the brothers like his own sons", did not disappoint. After a short escalation following the death of Bhai Mohan Singh in 2006, the families quickly settled and Ranbaxy was firmly in the kitty of Malvinder and Shivinder.

It is around this time that the brothers started looking up to Babaji not only as a spiritual guru, but also an advisor and probably even a partner in business.

Administrators of the Dera recall the time when Shivinder had come to the Dera, relinquishing his business in 2015-16. This was the time when the master was diagnosed with cancer and had taken time off for treatment in Singapore, triggering speculation about succession plans.

Dera administrators say like all sewadars Shivinder was rotated across various departments. They laugh off suggestions in the media that he was being groomed for succession as the next Babaji.

"I am the secretary, I would know [if there was such a plan]," says Sethi. "Making an honest living is one of the fundamental teachings. Every satsangi is required to follow that. Beyond that, the society has no role in individual's wealth and finances."