Panchkula: At least 32 people were killed and over 350 injured as violence erupted in Haryana after a CBI court in Panchkula convicted Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of raping two of his followers in a case filed 15 years ago.
Angered by the court’s decision, mobs rampaged through the streets of Panchkula and set fire to government buildings, railway stations, petrol pumps and broadcast vans in the city. A trail of destruction was also left through Sirsa, which houses the sect’s headquarters.
Arson by the frenzied supporters was also witnessed in Delhi, Punjab and Rajasthan within a few hours of the pronouncement of the judgment. Railway stations in the towns of Malout and Balluana were ablaze, and two coaches of an empty train parked in Delhi's Anand Vihar station were torched.
Section 144, which prohibits more than four persons from assembling at one place, has been imposed in large parts of the affected states, including the capital, as a preventive measure.
Police initially used tear gas and water cannons and then fired bullets in the air in an attempt to control the surging mobs, but it was not enough to stop the mayhem from unfolding. Mediapersons and assets were among the main targets of the protesters.
Haryana DGP BS Sandhu said more than 1,000 of the godman’s supporters had been detained in Panchkula on charges of arson and destruction of public property, and said the situation was now coming under control.
Chief Minister Manohar Khattar, who has come under fire for ignoring intelligence inputs and allowing the mob to build-up over the last few days, said the authorities tried their best to stop the protesters, but their number was too big. “We tried,” he said, when faced with a volley of questions by reporters.
Dozens of cars were burning in Panchkula town while a bloodied body lay in the middle of a road. About 500 army soldiers were deployed to restore order. Visuals showed frantic scenes at hospitals as they struggled to keep pace with the steady stream of the injured flowing in. “All the injured are getting the best treatment in government hospitals,” the CM assured.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court said that the losses caused to property due to violence and arson by the baba’s followers will be recovered from Dera Sacha Sauda.
Ram Rahim, whose conviction had set the chaos in motion, was meanwhile flown by a helicopter to a make-shift jail in Rohtak amid stringent security as authorities feared a local prison too may be overrun by his supporters.
His sentencing will be held on Monday. The punishment can be a jail term not less than ten years but may even extend to life imprisonment.
CBI judge Jagdeep Singh held Ram Rahim guilty of rape in a case that was registered on the basis of an anonymous written complaint in 2002 that he had sexually exploited two female followers. On the basis of the report, a case was registered against him in December 2002 by the CBI on the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Dera Sacha Sauda’s spokesperson called the verdict “unjust” and said it would appeal against it in the High Court. A.K. Dhir, one of Rahim’s lawyers, said Singh was innocent and his followers had every right to express their outrage.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the violence, terming it “deeply distressing” and urged everyone to maintain peace. Modi, who reviewed the situation with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi, said the law and order situation is being closely monitored.
“Urged officials to work round the clock to restore normalcy and provide all possible assistance that is required,” he tweeted.