Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim convicted; several dead as supporters go into a violent frenzy
Violence erupted in parts of Punjab and Haryana minutes after 'godman' Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the chief of Dera Sacha Sauda, was convicted in a rape case by a CBI court in Panchkula.
Unconfirmed reports say that 30 people have been killed and more than 100 injured in Panchkula alone.
Curfew has been imposed in five districts of Punjab - Mansa, Bathinda, Ferozepur, Fazilka and Patiala - and in Haryana, in Panchkula and Sirsa.
Panchkula remains the epicentre of violence where followers of the Dera gathered in thousands. Reports suggest the numbers may even have reached 1.5 lakh.
Soon after the verdict was declared, clashes were reported in Panchkula. Media OB vans were attacked and journalists were also injured in the violent attacks as Dera followers set fire to vehicles and even two hotels in the vicinity.
Security forces resorted to lathi charge, using water cannons and lobbying tear gas shells. Eyewitnesses claim that shots were also heard.
The violence moved beyond Panchkula to various parts of Haryana, Punjab and even Rajasthan.
In Punjab, there are reports of a power grid near Mansa being torched along with the Income Tax office in the city. The railway station was also burnt. In Sirsa, reports say one person has died. In Malout, the railway station and a petrol pump were torched. In Sangrur, yet another petrol pump has been torched. A telephone exchange was also set on fire in Barnala.
Sources say that the petrol pumps in Punjab, parts of Haryana and Chandigarh have been ordered to shut down.
The administration in Chandigarh also remains on tenterhooks amidst reports of the violence having spilled over into Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
Haryana's additional chief secretary (Home) Ram Niwas told the media that the government would compensate for the damage to the vehicles of media houses as well as the private property. “The arsonists have been identified and would be brought to book. The Dera supporters have been largely flushed out of Panchkula and the remaining would be flushed out by tonight,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has reportedly said that the properties of the Dera be evaluated and the losses be compensated from there.
On the boil
Panchkula was on the boil right from the morning when Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh left his Dera headquarters in Sirsa in a cavalcade of around 200 vehicles to go to court.
The 'godman' reached the court premises at around 2.30 pm after crossing several layers of security. Only two vehicles were allowed past the last layer. Soon the court gave its verdict, pronouncing him guilty. The quantum of the sentence is yet to be pronounced and will be done so on 28 August.
Ram Rahim was then transported by a helicopter to jail. Sources say that he is to be lodged in Rohtak jail. Earlier, he was to be taken to Ambala Central Jail, but the plan was shelved at the last minute.
Sources said that the Dera supporters resorted to lying down on the roads to stop their chief's departure from Sirsa to stop the cavalcade.
The administration's role
The Haryana administration has come in for a lot of criticism for not being able to check the large number of Dera followers from reaching Panchkula over the last four days. The matter took a turn for the worse as a large number among the crowds are senior citizens, women and children.
“Just when the clashes started, the mobs ran helter skelter not knowing where to go since they were not familiar with the geography of the town. There was large scale violence and what we could see was the city being engulfed in smoke as Dera supporters tried to enter into the residential areas,” said a Panchkula resident.
Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar and former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda have all asked people to maintain calm.
Khattar has also convened an emergency meeting of the state cabinet to chalk out a strategy to deal with the emerging situation and prepare for the day when the quantum of sentence would be announced for Ram Rahim Singh.
It was evident that in Panchkula at least, Dera supporters outnumbered the security forces. In Panchkula, they not only resorted to stone pelting but attacked the security personnel with iron rods and swords.
Residents of Panchkula remain holed up in their houses out of fear. “We are scared of the spill over of the arsonists into our residential societies. With the police following them, the chances of violence cannot be ruled out. We are under tremendous fear and stress. We can see flames all around,” said a resident of Sector 2.