Sirsa, India – More than 1,000 followers of a multi-religious sect in northern India have pledged to marry female sex workers who want to escape exploitation.
Young Hindu, Muslim and Sikh men have been queuing up at the Dera Sacha Sauda (Abode of the Real Deal) in the town of Sirsa as “wedding volunteers”.
They say they are doing so to stop the women from being exploited in brothels.
They also claim that their move is part of a campaign to stop the spread of the HIV/Aids virus.
The Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) is one of many religious sects operating in northern India.
Most take root by offering community services, social welfare and spiritual leadership but over time, as their followings grow, they often seek political influence.
Correspondents say that in religious terms, the DSS is hard to classify. Many experts argue that it is not, as some have said, an offshoot of Sikhism.
More than 1,200 DSS members have signed pledges to marry the sex workers following a call from DSS chief Ram Rahim Singh a little over a month ago.
Mr Singh commands a huge following of predominantly lower caste Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs across the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Two years ago his growing influence brought the DSS chief into confrontation with the mainstream Sikh clergy who claimed he had tried to imitate their beliefs.
The sectarian violence that ensued across Punjab – as well as subsequent rape and murder charges brought against Ram Rahim Singh – have cast a shadow on the affairs and functioning of the DSS ever since, observers say.
But the group’s supporters believe the new campaign is to halt the spread of HIV by offering respectable options to sex workers and is part of a long list of related initiatives against drug abuse and female foeticide.
“By helping drug users and sex workers we are trying to help remove people from the highest risk situations,” said Dr Aditya Insan, a senior DSS functionary.
He estimates that 40%-50% of women working in red light districts in cities like Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi are HIV carriers.
Mr Singh (known as Guru-ji to his supporters) proclaimed at a congregation last month that “all women forced to live as prostitutes are my daughters”.
His remarks brought forth a virtual flood of eager young volunteers from his flock.
Business graduate Ashish Sachdeva, 22, is in the garments trade in the town of Sirsa. He believes that marrying a sex worker could be his chance to repay his debt to humanity and society.
“I am very well settled and it will be the greatest honour for me to respond to Guru-ji’s call.”
Nearly 100 young sex workers have contacted the DSS – from Calcutta’s Shonagachi red light district to brothels in Delhi and Mumbai.
“This will have to be a slow and delicately handled process,” Dr Insan said.
“Many women are HIV-positive. Some have young children and are understandably concerned about their future. We need to ensure these women are protected legally once they are married.”