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Satnam Sena's divisive clout in Chhattisgarh

By R Krishna Das
December 16, 2013 12:43 IST
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In Chhattisgarh, the Satnami sect voted for its own candidates in 21 constituencies, leaving the Congress trailing the Bharatiya Janata Party in its own strongholds. R Krishna Das evaluates the role the Satnami community played in the Congress loss and BJP victory in a tightly fought election.

Sometime in mid-June in 2008, Korba Central Jail had an unusual visitor. A senior minister in the Raman Singh cabinet had come to the prison to meet Bal Das, a priest of the Satnami Samaj.

Das, along with some 75 people of the Satnami sect, had been booked for attacking a police team during a fair at Bodsara in Bilaspur district in April 2008. The fair was organised on a private property which the sect allegedly wanted to encroach on, believing that its “guru” had been born at this very place.

The priest had refused to apply for bail and was instead demanding unconditional release. The minister, as an emissary of the state government, met him inside the jail, had a closed-door discussion with him and ended the deadlock. Das then applied for bail which the government did not oppose. He was released. Five years later, the matter is still in court.

The episode was to prove significant for the BJP government in Chhattisgarh. It managed to pacify the ‘guru’ of a prominent community that enjoys the status of Scheduled Caste in the state. The fruits of that act were reaped five years later, when the results of the 2013 assembly election came out. The Congress, which had traditionally enjoyed the support of the community, had failed miserably in the constituencies where the Satnamis were voters in large numbers.

After the Raman Singh government had brought down the reserved quota for Scheduled Castes from 16 per cent to 12 per cent last year, the Satnamis in Chhattisgarh were angry with the ruling party. The BJP managers, led by the said minister, then worked out a strategy and decided to seek the “help” of Bal Das, the officiating priest of the Bhandarpuri dham of the Satnami community.

The community has four dhams (centres) in Chhattisgarh. The biggest is Girodhpuri, followed by Agaman, Bhandarpuri and Khapri. The Girodhpuri and Agaman dhams are headed by Vijay Guru who holds sway among the community. No officiating priest of any of the dhams, barring Bhandarpuri, had formed a political outfit.

Bal Das formed the Satnam Sena that was registered barely two months ago. It fielded candidates in the Satnami-dominated constituencies to divide the anti-BJP votes. The strategy worked. BJP won the seats where the Satnami community had decisive numbers. The Satnam Sena fielded candidates in 21 of the 90 assembly constituencies. Of these, only two constituencies were reserved for Scheduled Castes, while the remaining 19 were general seats with a substantial number of Satnami voters.

For example, from the unreserved Lormi assembly constituency in Mungeli district, Das’s son, Somesh Baba, contested. The seat is considered to be the stronghold of Congress stalwart Dharamjit Singh. The Congress lost to BJP’s Tokhan Sahu by 6,241 votes, while Somesh stood third with 16,649 votes, well over the victory margin.

* * *

Das campaigned in 16 assembly constituencies in a hired helicopter for five days. Though the Satnam Sena, whose candidates were not allotted a common symbol, could not bag a single seat, it acted as a spoiler for the Congress by eating into its traditional votes. BJP won at least 10 seats where Satnam Sena fielded its candidates. Significant, since BJP eventually won 49 seats the Congress’s 39 in the 90-member assembly.

 The political foray aimed at “helping” BJP has brought Das under the lens of the Congress and his community. In a telephonic interview with Business Standard, he denies that the Satnam Sena contested the election to help any political party. “Will any candidate or party contest the election to lose or help the other party?” he asks.

In most of the constituencies where the Satnam Sena contested, not all the Satnamis voted for them, Das says. Citing the example of Lormi, he says, the constituency had 54,000 Satnami voters, but his son polled only 16,649 votes. His critics also give the same example to counter him.

A prominent priest of the community, who does not wish to be named, says that Das floating a political outfit had not gone down well with the Satnamis. He had failed to get the backing of the community, and a section of people supported him and voted for the Satnam Sena candidates only because Das is a “guru” of the community, the priest says.

* * *

For the seniors of the community, which ordinarily maintains a low profile, a priest hiring a chopper and fielding candidates in an election has come as a big surprise. The source of the funds which made this possible remains a mystery.

“Those who are talking on these line think I am living in deprivation,” Das counters. The community has followers who were capable of funding the election, he says. “There is a lot of noise about my using a helicopter which I kept for only a couple of days. The Congress and BJP leaders use helicopters daily, but no one raises a finger,” he points out.

BJP won Chhattisgarh, but Das avoids taking credit for this victory. Without naming the Congress, he says that those who had lost the election should introspect. “Congress had lost the 2003 and 2008 elections too when Satnam Sena was nowhere in the picture. Hence, the Sena should not be blamed for BJP’s victory,” he says.

While the Congress spokesperson refuses to comment on the role which the Satnam Sena might have played, BJP gives it full credit for its victory. “Naturally the Sena candidates got the Congress votes which helped the party,” says Sachidanand Upasane, BJP’s state vice-president.

He, however, denies that BJP provided any assistant to Satnam Sena. “Why would the BJP help an outfit which was contesting against its candidate?” Upasane asks. That, he says, would have gone against the BJP candidate.

The numbers speak. BJP has gained in a big way in the Schedule Castes seats, despite angering the community by reducing the reservation in jobs. Of the 10 seats reserved for the Schedule Castes, BJP won nine — four more than the reserved seats won in 2008. Congress could win only one of the four.

Another prominent member of the Satnami community reveals that they were not happy with the way the Congress performed in the opposition. They (Congress leaders) failed to raise the reservation issue effectively, he says. Moreover, the Congress also opposed giving ticket to one of the “gurus” which annoyed the community.

The story of the Satnam Sena is not over. The outfit has big plans. “Satnam Sena was founded much before but we gave it a political colour two months ago,” Bal Das says. He now wants to register it as a regional party.

“Our candidates did not get a common symbol which resulted in the poor show,” Bal Das says. The organisation did initiate the process with the Election Commission to get a common symbol, but that got delayed, he says. Das now wants the Satnam Sena to play an active role in the ensuing Lok Sabha election as well.

Photograph: Reuters

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