A dera is a type of socio-religious organization in northern India . Jacob Copeman defines the deras as "monasteries or the extended residential sites of religious leaders; frequently just glossed as sect". Several deras started out as non-orthodox Sikh sects, and many of them are now centres of distinct non-Sikh religious movements. Many Deras have attracted a large number of outcast Dalits, who earlier embraced Sikhism to escape the Hindu casteism, but felt socially excluded by the Jat Sikh-dominated clerical establishment.
The word Dera derives from the Persian word Derah or Dirah, which literally means a camp, abode, monastery or convent.
The phenomenon of Dera, as sectarian institution, is not new in Punjab and it is much older than the Sikh faith and Panth. Deras in Punjab, before the Sikh faith, belonged to Sufi Pirs, Yogi Naths, and Sants of Bhakti movement. In Punjab, the popularity of Sufi Pirs/Sants or their Shrines can be seen through their veneration across the communities such as Hindu, Sikh and Muslim. Shrines of Sufis were known as khanqahs. The major function of khanqah was to provide relief to people of all communities, particularly the lower strata of different communities. Several khanqahs were built and facilities were provided to lower castes of Hindu populace in rural areas. Khanqahs with modest hospitality and generosity offered spiritual guidance, psychological support and counseling that was free and open to all people. By doing so, khanqahs challenged the establishment of stratified social structure either Hindu or Muslim societies. Soon, khanqahs became epicenters of socio-cultural and theological activities of people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds and genders. Sufi shrines of Sakhi Sarvar Sultan, Sheikh Farid, Bulhe Shah, Sheikh Fattha, Khwaja Khizr, and Five Pirs (Panj Pir) were the manifestation of the shared devoutness of Punjabis.
During the lifetime of the Sikh Gurus, several deras had been established, many of them by the rival claimants to the "Guru" title. These deras included those of the Udasis, the Minas, the Dhirmalias, the Ramraiyas, the Handalis, and the Massandis. During the consolidation of the Sikh religion, several more deras cropped up. These included the deras of Bandei Khalsa (Bandapanthis), Nanakpanthis, Sewapanthis, Bhaktpanthi, Suthrashahi, Gulabdasi, Nirmalas and the Nihangs.
19th century onwards, several more deras came into being. The distinguishing characteristic of these new deras was that they acted as centres of Dalit mobilization. The majority of the followers of these deras were people of Dalit background, who had embraced Sikhism to escape the casteist Hindu varna system. However, they continued to experience social exclusion in the caste hierarchy of the Sikh society, which pushed them towards the deras and other organizations that promise social equality. The increasing politicization of the Sikh institutions - the Akal Takht and the SGPC - and their domination by Jat Sikhs has driven a large number of people to the Deras as well. The affluent Dalits among the Punjabi diaspora have also contributed to the growth of the deras.
According to a 2006-2007 study, there were more than 9,000 Sikh and non-Sikh deras in the rural areas of Punjab. A number of deras are also located in the neighbouring states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
The Sikh deras strictly observe the Rehat Maryada (Sikh code of conduct). The majority of their followers and leaders are from the Jat Sikh community. The leaders of these deras are rarely non-Jat, and never a Dalit. However, there are several Dalit sewadars, granthis, ragis, and kirtan performers in these deras.
Some of the prominent Sikh deras include those of:
The non-Sikh deras do not abide by the Sikh Rehyat Maryada. Along with the Sikh gurbani, they also recite non-Sikh texts, and some of them also indulge in idol worship. Unlike the Sikh deras, where the holy book Guru Granth Sahib is considered as the only current guru, the non-Sikh deras practice devotion towards a contemporary human guru.
Baba Sawan Singh of Radha Soami Satsang Beas. https://handwiki.org/wiki/index.php?curid=1817643
Hari Dass of Dera Sach Khand. https://handwiki.org/wiki/index.php?curid=1384167
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of the Dera Sacha Sauda. https://handwiki.org/wiki/index.php?curid=1290719
The majority of the followers of these deras are Dalits, Backward castes, and the poor among the Jat Sikhs. However, most of the deras are led by people from upper-caste backgrounds. As of 2007, the Nirankaris were led by a Khatri; the Dera Sacha Sauda was led by a Jat Sikh of Sidhu sub-caste; and the Radha Saomis were led by a Jat Sikh of the Dhillon sub-caste.
The Dalit-dominated deras have emerged as major centres of counter-culture, where the Dalits assert their pride, customs and tradition.
The deras are seen as a challenge to the mainstream Sikhism represented by the Khalsa Sikh identity. The total number of the followers of the various deras far exceeds the number of followers of the Golden Temple-based clerical establishment (the Akal Takht).
The tensions between the Dalits and the Jats have manifested in form of conflicts involving the Deras. Some of these incidents include:
Various political parties, including the Shiromani Akali Dal, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Indian National Congress, have patronized the deras to attract the Dalit vote bank. During the election season, several political leaders and candidates visit the Deras, seeking support from the leaders of the various deras. This trend first became visible during the 1997 Punjab Legislative Assembly elections.
The Akali Dal has openly sought electoral support from the Sikh deras. The Sant Samaj deras have openly supported Akali Dal.
Among the non-Sikh deras, the Dera Sacha Sauda is influential in the Malwa region, and has a political wing. It has supported multiple political parties in various elections. The Dera Sach Khand asked its Dalit followers to vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party in 2012 Punjab elections, which was responsible for the dismal performance of the Congress in the Doaba region. The Bhaniarwala Dera has not openly supported any political party, but disfavours the Akali Dal candidates. The Dera Beas (Radha Soami) has not openly supported any particular party either, but in the past it used to tilt towards the Congress. In the 2012 Punjab elections, it favoured the Akali Dal, after daughter of a former Dera chief married an Akali Dal leader.