Mayhem in Panchkula

Print edition : September 29, 2017

Dera Sacha Sauda followers overturn a media van in Panchkula on August 25. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

ON August 25, Special Judge Jagdeep Singh of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in Panchkula, Haryana, found the self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh ‘Insan’, the head of the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda, guilty of the rape of two sadhvis (women disciples) and criminal intimidation and convicted him under Sections 376 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code. On August 28, the court sentenced him to 20 years’ imprisonment. He is lodged in Rohtak prison. Within minutes of the order being pronounced, mayhem broke out in Panchkula and Sirsa and elsewhere in the State. Dera “premis”, as the followers are called, indulged in large-scale arson and destroyed private and public property. The State and paramilitary forces retaliated and within hours more than 35 Dera followers were killed.

It was not as if the Centre and the State government, both headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), were not warned about the fallout of the judgment. The Panchkula district administration had a potential law and order situation on its hands when the Dera followers began assembling in thousands on the eve of the judgment day.

On August 24, the High Court, while hearing a petition regarding security arrangements in Panchkula, directed the State government to make adequate arrangements. The petitioner told the court that “people have been gathering in groups and are disturbing the even tempo of life, besides holding out threats”. The court requested both the Additional Solicitor General, Government of India, and the Advocate General, Haryana, to intervene. The Additional Solicitor General stated that the Central government would provide adequate security and forces to the State government to maintain peace and law and order in Panchkula and the surrounding areas. The Centre (through the Home Secretary) was directed to provide forthwith forces, including paramilitary forces, in view of “the gravity of the situation”.

The CBI counsel had told the court that the witnesses in the case, the investigating officer and the Public Prosecutor in the trial court and the High Court faced threats. The court directed the State government to provide security to them. The Additional Solicitor General told the court that he had informed the Home Secretary of the orders passed by it. He also told the court that only part of the Central Armed Force Police Companies had been provided, and that police and public order were State subjects.

The court observed: “It is to be noticed that in extraordinary and grave situations, as in the present case, the Union government is not to abdicate or avoid its responsibility. It is duty-bound to help the State governments maintain peace and law and order by giving necessary force wherever required.” The Central government was directed to provide additional forces during the “intervening night today itself and before dawn tomorrow”. It also noted that the “State of Haryana had been somewhat lax in controlling the crowd that has been gathering in Panchkula”. Two orders under Section 144, one on August 18 and the other on August 22, were passed ex parte and addressed to the public in general.

The court found that the orders contained “no prohibition of the assembly of five or more persons at any point of time” which the Advocate General clarified was a “clerical mistake” and that an amended order was passed on August 24. The court observed that “by the time the amended order had been passed, the damage had already been done”, as people had already gathered probably with a view to raising protests. Around two lakh Dera followers were reported to have already gathered in Panchkula on August 24. According to Rajkumar, a Kisan Sabha leader, the “ premis” were told that there was a satsang (an association of “true followers”) on August 25 and that “Maharaj” himself would give the prasad (offering). “In fact, people have been made to believe that he went to jail so as to protect his followers from police action,” said Rajkumar.

Despite the assurances of the advocate appearing for the godman that the followers had gathered peacefully and would maintain peace at all costs and that appeals had been made to encourage them to return to their homes, the court directed the Punjab and Haryana governments to ensure that peace and law and order were maintained not only in Panchkula and Sirsa but in the rest of Haryana, Punjab and Chandigarh as well. On August 25, the court was told by the Additional Solicitor General that the Army had been kept on standby and more companies of forces had been requisitioned. The Advocate General, Haryana, stated that “evacuation had been carried out except in a park in Sector 5 Panchkula”. There was “some crowd in a Naam Charcha Ghar” in Sector 23. The Naam Charcha Ghar is an enclosure where the basic philosophy of the Dera is preached.

But on August 25, the High Court bench observed that the situation had worsened. The court was informed that the situation in Mansa, Bhatinda, and Ferozepur in Punjab was serious; that an attempt was made to set fire to a railway station, a sewa kendra and a telephone exchange, including power grids at Sangrur and Kot Kapura. Twenty-five incidents of arson using Molotov cocktails were reported. The Advocate General told the court that media vans had been set on fire in Panchkula and curfew was imposed. The Deputy Commissioner of Police was suspended as the court pulled up the State government for not preventing the entry of the Dera followers into Panchkula. It observed that there was a “sea difference between administrative and political decisions”. On the day of the sentencing, no instances of violence were reported.

The government had “surrendered to political considerations” and “allowed the crowd to gather” and the Central government’s response to the violence was a “knee-jerk reaction”, the three-judge High Court bench said and observed that the “PM was of the nation and not of the BJP”.

Meanwhile, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, who holds the Home portfolio, maintained that he had “acted with restraint”. After Gurmeet Singh’s conviction, Haryana Education Minister Ram Vilas Sharma and the BJP Member of Parliament from Unnao, Sakshi Maharaj, issued statements in his support. Sharma, who gifted Rs.51 lakh to the Dera recently, said that Dera “premis” had gathered in Panchkula and did not touch a single plant. Sakshi Maharaj later maintained that he was misquoted.

T.K. Rajalakshmi

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