The past week or so have come as nothing less than a shock for the billion plus nation that prides itself in being an epitome of development and progress. For, the country witnessed one self-styled godman, a rape and murder accused at that, hold the administrative machinery and law and order apparatus across five states to ransom. The man in question, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, was on Monday sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for rape, illegal confinement and criminal intimidation. The verdict came on a case that finds its genesis in an anonymous complaint in 2002 that was later taken cognizance of by the court.
A former female follower had accused the Dera head of raping her more than once inside the sprawling Dera campus on the outskirts of Sirsa town in Haryana, 260 km from Chandigarh. An special CBI court in 2008 framed charges against the Dera chief for alleged sexual exploitation. A case of sexual exploitation was registered against Dera chief in 2002 by the CBI on the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court after anonymous letters were circulated about the alleged sexual exploitation of two 'Sadhvis' (female followers) by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.
The events that transpired in the past week – between the build-up to Ram Rahim’s conviction and his subsequent sentencing – saw riots, killings, prohibitory orders and curfew-like situation in many states throw normal life out of gear. A cursory look through a timeline of the happenings brings out a sense of mixed reactions – one makes us question the readiness and efficacy of our law and order machinery and the other that reinstates our belief that the rule of law exists and prevails.
Here is how the events transpired in the last week:
Ahead of the verdict into the Gurmit Ram Rahim case, we began hearing reports of areas of Punjab and Haryana being turned into a fortress as followers of the Dera head thronged Panchkula and the neighbouring areas of Chandigarh in thousands. A special CBI court had on August 17 reserved its verdict in the alleged rape of a 'sadhvi' by the Dera Sacha Sauda sect chief. The court said that it will pronounce the judgment on August 25, besides directing Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh to be present in the court on the day. Authorities in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana said they were taking measures to ensure that there is no untoward incident.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said he won’t let peace be disrupted at any cost and warned against any attempts to disrupt the state’s law and order in view of the upcoming court verdict. The Chief Minister also directed police to thwart any attempt to disturb peace.
The Haryana government, on the other hand, imposed prohibitory orders in the state. Security forces were pressed into service in border areas and the state government sought assistance of 115 companies of paramilitary forces from the Centre. Authorities informed that leaves of police personnel had been cancelled and home guards would be called on duty. All borders of the state were sealed and inter-state and inter-district activities of vehicles were being closely monitored, they said.
By August 23, two days ahead of the date the verdict was to be out, followers of Dera head Gurmeet Ram Rahim began gathering in thousands in Panchkula. Over 35,000 followers of the Dera were estimated to have already reached and more kept arriving at the sect's Sector-23 based 'Naam Charcha Ghar' (congregation/prayer centre) in Panchkula, claiming to be present to express their solidarity with the Dera head. Schools and colleges in Panchkula district were shut down as a precautionary measure.
Heavy police and paramilitary forces were deployed near the routes leading to the district court complex in Panchkula, where the lawyers suspended work for three days. Following the request of the state government, the Centre provided around 100 companies of paramilitary forces to Haryana and Punjab to maintain law and order. As unease grew in anticipation of which way the verdict would go, Dera head Ram Rahim took to Twitter to give a message of "selfless service and meditation" to his followers. "Selfless service, meditation and firm belief are the ornaments in spirituality," he said in a tweet and also shared a link to a Facebook video of one of his discourses.
Security forces in Haryana and Punjab took out flag marches at many sensitive places. Reports begin trickling in of Dera followers possibly stocking petrol, 'lathis' and other weapons at 'Naam Charcha Ghars'. Punjab police asked its SSPs and other top ranking police officials to be alert against any such action by the followers if the court verdict went against the Dera chief. Officials in Haryana maintain that the measures taken by the administration were adequate and that there would be no repeat of the 2015 standoff between the police and followers of another controversial godman Rampal in Hisar.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court on Thursday came down heavily on the Haryana government for allowing the huge gathering of Dera Sacha Sauda followers at Panchkula and asked the Centre to immediately provide adequate force. The court also rapped the DGP for allowing the huge gathering despite prohibitory orders being in force. The court asks why the DGP should not be suspended for failing to control the situation. Officials put Sirsa city and three nearby villages under indefinite curfew starting 10pm, August 24 as a precautionary measure. Reports say Haryana sought 25 Army columns for Panchkula which were likely to reach the two districts by the same night.
As tensions mounted, Haryana DGP said on Thursday evening that Dera followers would be evicted from near the court complex where they had gathered in thousands. At around 10pm that night, police begin evicting over two lakh followers of Dera Sacha Sauda sect chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh from Panchkula and Chandigarh. The DGP said 20 columns of the Army from the Western Command to be deployed in Panchkula late on Thursday night along with the paramilitary and state police forces to handle any exigency.
The day began with the Dera head leaving the sect’s headquarters in Sirsa for Panchkula by road along with a huge convoy of over 150 vehicles for the verdict. All movement of vehicles on the road were hit as the convoy zipped through the national highway with followers making a human chain at many places along the route. Dera followers also clashed with police at National Highway 1 in Ambala as police tried to remove thousands assembled at the highway. As the convoy progressed, the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed officers of Haryana dealing with Dera situation to use force or weapon as per need. High court orders that no leader -- social, political or religious -- will issue any provocative statement.
The Dera chief reached the Panchkula court at around 2.20 pm, where the special CBI court pronounced him guilty of rape. Special CBI Judge Jagdeep Singh read the order as the Dera chief stood in court with folded hands. He is immediately taken into custody as per procedure and a medical test conducted upon him right there at the court complex.
All hell broke loose as the court pronounced Gurmit Ram Rahim guilty of rape, as his followers went on rampage agitating against the conviction. Reports of 150 incidents of violence were received within one hour of the court’s verdict holding the Dera chief guilty. Forces fire tear gas shells to disperse crowds from near the court complex. However, the heavy presence of security and police personnel failed to prevent the violence that ensued as protesters run riot on the streets of Panchkula. At least two railway stations and a petrol pump were set on fire by protesters in Punjab post the verdict, while similar incidents were also reported from Bathinda.
Within Panchkula alone, a total of 30 people are reported killed and over 200 injured by the end of day. Agitated followers ran amok on the streets destroying public vehicles and targeting mediapersons. At least two OB vans of news channels were set afire by protesters and at least one journalist received injuries in the violence. The streets of Panchkula, replete with scenes of vehicles burning along the sideways, is something residents will take some time to forget and come to terms with.
The situation remained tense in other parts of the country as well. Besides Punjab and Haryana, reports of violence and arson were also reported from Rajasthan and national capital Delhi and neigbouring Ghaziabad. Protesters set alight two coaches of a train and a DTC bus in the national capital region. Prohibitory orders were issued by evening to prevent the situation from aggravating. The violence led to cancellation of 250 trains and suspension of inter-state bus services in Delhi. Curfew was imposed in several cities of Punjab and Haryana following the violence.
It took two days for the forces to come to grips with the situation which many alleged had been allowed to go out of hand. Despite the criticism that Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar was subjected to, the BJP top brass decided to stick with him and dismissed all calls for his ouster. Meanwhile, forces continued to patrol the streets of Punjab and Haryana cities, where many Dera supporters were detained following the verdict. Two sedition charges were also slapped against Dera followers.
Ram Rahim had been lodged at the Rohtak jail but reports alleged that he was still being accorded special treatment by authorities. Footage had surfaced on Friday showing a battery of lawyers escorting the rape convict out of court. One particular image showed him seated in a luxury chopper along with a woman believed to be his ‘adopted daughter’. The Deputy Advocate General of Haryana Gurdass Singh Salwara was sacked on Saturday after he was caught on camera carrying the luggage of Ram Rahim Singh.
State authorities later denied reports of the Dera head being allowed any special facilities in prison. Reports alleged earlier that he had been housed in a guest house inside the prison premises where he enjoyed facilities like mineral water, an air-conditioner and an attendant.
On Monday, the CBI judge was flown in to Rohtak where a court was set up in the District Jail in Sunaria for the verdict to be read out. The judge sentenced Ram Rahim to two consecutive jail terms of 10 years each in the 2002 case of rape of two of his female disciples. The court also imposed a fine of Rs 30 lakh on the Dera chief. Lawyers of both Ram Rahim and the CBI were given 10 minutes each to put forth their final arguments. While the CBI sought maximum punishment of life term for the convict, Ram Rahim’s lawyers cited his age and his social work seeking leniency.
The sect chief has been convicted of two counts of rape (Section 376 IPC), criminal intimidation (Section 506 IPC) and Section 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman).
Reports claimed Ram Rahim broke down into tears when the jail term was pronounced by the judge. He even refused to leave the court premises and had to be counselled by the medical team present in court before he was taken to a prison cell. He has been handed a prisoner tag of 8647 and was handed ordinary prisoner clothes. It is reported he spent his first night in jail without much sleep and food.
Ram Rahim is accused in another case of murder of Sirsa-based journalist Ram Chandra Chhatrapati who had first exposed sexual exploitation of female disciples by the sect chief in 2002. The case is before the same court that has handed him a 20-year jail term. The verdict in this case is expected in September.