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Punjab & Haryana on the edge ahead of Dera Sacha Sauda chief rape verdict

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 24 August 2017, 16:11 IST
(Sunil Saxena/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Hours before a CBI court in Panchkula is expected to deliver its verdict in a rape case involving the head of influential Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh stand on the edge.

With the administrations of the two states and the Union Territory apprehending trouble from Dera supporters, elaborate security arrangements have been put in place. Thousands of Dera supporters have reached Panchkula and the town appears to be a place under siege.

The case in which the verdict is expected on Friday dates back to 2002 when a complaint from an anonymous woman follower had reached the Punjab and Haryana court, alleging sexual exploitation at the Dera.

After a probe by the Sirsa sessions and district judge, the probe had been handed over to the CBI that had later booked the Dera chief for rape, criminal intimidation and acts intended to insult the modesty of a woman. The case has reached this stage after various twists and turns.

The Dera’s following

The Dera has a massive following running into lakhs in both Haryana and Punjab, mainly the Malwa belt of the state. It has gained popularity mainly for weaning away youngsters from the menace of alcoholism and other forms of addiction. It also undertakes welfare activities in the area of its influence.

There is also a colourful aspect of his personality. This godman is often referred to as a 'Rockstar Baba’ who has produced a series of music albums as well as the movie series 'Messenger of God'. He is also known for wielding considerable political influence in both the states.

But the flip side to his personality is his alleged involvement in several criminal cases. The godman is the prime suspect in the case pertaining to the murder of a journalist associated with Poora Sach newspaper. Ram Chander Chattrapati was shot on October 24, 2002 allegedly by Dera supporters for highlighting various acts of omission and commission at the Dera, as well as sexual assault and murder of a management committee member Ranjit Singh in 2003. Ranjit Singh is said to have written to the then Prime Minister about sexual exploitation by the Dera chief. This case is also pending in a CBI court.

The second case pertains to the allegations that surfaced in 2014 about forcible castration of around 400 sadhus at the Dera. The matter came to light when one Hansraj Chauhan reportedly claimed to have been manipulated into getting castrated on the pretext of ‘union with God’. This matter was probed by the CBI on the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court and it reportedly said that the castrations were carried out apparently to safeguard sadhvis from possible sexual advances from sadhus. The matter is pending adjudication.

The godman then ran into controversy with the Sikh community around ten years ago when he had appeared in newspaper advertisements in an attire similar to Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru. There were clashes between Dera supporters and Sikhs.

More recently in December 2014, the Punjab and Haryana High Court reportedly ordered monitoring of the Dera activities after reports of arms training at the premises.

Panchkula under siege

At this point of time, reports peg the number of Dera 'Premis' to have reached Panchkula, anywhere between 50,000 to 1.5 lakh. Though the authorities have not been allowing buses and vehicles of Dera supporters to enter Panchkula, they have been entering through various sectors on foot after reaching the city through public transport.

There are reports of the Premis saying that they can resort to any measure in case of an adverse judgment against their Guru. Some threats by the Premis have also been doing the rounds on the social media putting the law and order enforcing agencies on the tenterhooks.

In Panchkula, Chandigarh and Punjab section 144 has been imposed. All the schools and colleges have been ordered to remain shut. A complete ban has been issued on carrying of firearms, with orders to shut down the private gun houses selling arms and ammunition to license holders, till the situation normalises.

In Punjab, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has ordered withdrawal of 1000 police personnel from VVIP security for deployment on field duty to strengthen the security blanket in the state.

A government spokesperson said the centre has sanctioned an additional 10 companies of paramilitary forces to maintain law and order in the state. A total of 85 central companies along with thousands of policemen on the ground are maintaining a tight vigil especially in the vulnerable areas of Moga, Bathinda, Sangrur, Barnala, Patiala and Ludhiana. Security has been tightened along the state’s borders with Haryana, as well as the connecting roads to prevent any incursions.

Amid intelligence reports of followers of the Dera stocking petrol and arms at the Dera’s Naam Charcha Ghars, Amarinder has directed the police to crack down on elements trying to disrupt Punjab’s peace and tranquility.

The police have seized five walkie-talkies from suspected Dera followers and are moving to identify the various locations suspected to be housing dangerous weapons of any kind.

The Chandigarh administration has asked the hotels and guest houses to prohibit the stay in their premises of unknown person whose identity has not been established. Preparations have been made to utilise a cricket stadium in Sector 16 to be used as a temporary jail.

Haryana's Director General of Police (DGP) BS Sandhu has also appealed to the people not to spread rumours and to maintain law and order situation. The state government has decided that government, private, government aided colleges, universities, district and sub divisional libraries will remain closed.

The controversial godman maintains a massive political clout in the region. The Dera had openly come out in support of the BJP in Haryana in the 2014 Assembly polls. It had supported the Congress in Punjab in the 2002 and 2007 assembly polls while it was the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine that got the support in the next two Assembly polls, including the Assembly elections this year. The Akalis had drawn a lot of flak when the Akal Takht Jathedars had pardoned this godman of his 'blasphemous' act in September 2015 without his appearing in person before the Akal Takht.

Even as the current rape case has got nothing to do with either the Sikhs or Punjab, the politics is once again being weaved around him. Amarinder has warned against any attempts to disrupt the state’s law and order in view of the verdict. He has said that the people should accept any court judgment. He has also also appealed to leaders of all political parties to rise above political lines and help in maintaining peace and communal harmony in Punjab.

Meanwhile, the radical political force Dal Khalsa has urged the people of Punjab irrespective of religion to be prepared to protect themselves from the hooliganism being anticipated by Sirsa Dera followers. Party leaders HS Dhami and Kanwar Pal Singh said the people should not leave themselves on the mercy of the state and its administration as successive state governments and the police have record of siding with The Dera and its head.

They said the BJP-SAD and the Congress all are flocks of the same feather as far as patronising and sponsoring of this Godman is concerned. “We all know how the state has been protecting him, providing him Z-plus security cover despite his being facing the criminal cases of heinous nature,” they said.

The question being raised around the activities of the Dera followers is that are they not trying posing a direct challenge to the judiciary and despite his political clout, can the governments afford this?

First published: 24 August 2017, 16:11 IST