On August 23, my wife and I drove from our Sector 4 house in Panchkula to a nursery. The worst of the summer seemed to be over and it was time for the annual planting of flowers. Along the three kilometer journey, we saw crowds of people who had occupied pavements along the road and areas under the flyovers. There was also a steady stream of men and women pouring into Panchkula. A heavy deployment of police was visible but they seemed to have no orders to prevent the crowds from entering.
The lifestyle of Panchkula residents changed over the next few days. As Dera supporters took over the streets, residents were increasingly confined to their homes. Slowly, public parks in residential complexes were occupied. Areas where ladies took their evening stroll turned into open bathing points.
Schools were shut down, public and private functions were cancelled. We looked into our refrigerator and made a list of items to be stocked up. To us it was obvious that the thousands of Dera supporters who had descended on our small township could resort to violence. It did not require an Intelligence Bureau report, only basic common sense.
On August 24, hearing a PIL on the situation in Panchkula, the Punjab and Haryana High Court came down heavily on the Haryana government for its failure to prevent crowds from entering Panchkula, accusing it of “collusion”. The High Court bench observed, “the residents of Panchkula too have a right to live in peace. How have you allowed this to happen?”
August 25 dawned with Panchkula residents totally locked into their sectors. Sitting in our homes, we saw pictures of Baba Ram Rahim zooming to the court in a convoy of 192 cars. It was an arrogant display of power, and to us it looked like an abject surrender of state authority.
Half an hour before the pronouncement of the court verdict, electricity was snapped and TV screens went blank. Internet services had already been suspended and we were now in an information blackout. Anxious residents climbed on rooftops to get some idea of what was going on. The mystery was cleared soon enough as firing of guns was heard.
Plumes of black smoke from burning vehicles and buildings was seen rising in the sky. In the Army, we are used to dealing with uncertain situations but Panchkula has a large number of retired and aged persons, some single. I could imagine what would be going through their minds as they saw arson and battles outside their homes.
As I write this, death toll in the violence after Baba Ram Rahim was declared guilty has touched 32. A curfew has been declared in Panchkula but from my balcony I can see crowds of people streaming along the highway. Hopefully they are leaving.
The State has a responsibility towards the silent citizen. It is a sad condition if in our country, law-abiding people are held prisoners in their homes while goons have the run of the city. Unless there is a clear realisation of this, and a strong will to deal with lawlessness, such scenes may continue to haunt us.
(The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views are personal.)