In declining to surrender and appear before the Punjab and Haryana high court in a contempt case, Satlok Ashram head Rampal and his aides, it seems, misread the situation both legally as well as on the ground.
When Rampal was produced in the court on Thursday, a day after Haryana Police had arrested him, the high court, which had sought his presence and thrice issued non-bailable warrants for his arrest, allowed him the liberty to execute a surety bond before the Hisar chief judicial magistrate for his release in the contempt of court proceedings. The Contempt of Courts Act provides for releasing the contemnor on bail on execution of a surety bond. It also provides for discharging the contemnor on execution of a bond without sureties.
Thus, had Rampal appeared before the high court willingly in the contempt matter, he would have been a free man today. “The violence that occurred on Tuesday in a storming operation to arrest him, and deaths of his followers inside the ashram could have been avoided,” said a police official involved in the operation.
By not obeying the high court directions for putting up an appearance, the controversial Hisar dera head not only invited its wrath and cancellation of the bail granted in a 2006 murder case but also precipitated episodes that ended in registration of several fresh cases, including that of waging war against the state and abetting it; murder; attempt to murder; wrongful confinement etc.
After giving Rampal bail in the contempt matter, a Hisar magistrate remanded him in police custody for questioning in the fresh criminal cases. Even if he gets some relief in the Hisar cases, the Rohtak police will seek his custody in the 2006 murder case, since his bail stands cancelled.
“It was a grave miscalculation by team Rampal. During the preliminary round of discussions, the state government had conveyed to it clearly the repercussions of the contempt matter and their pigheaded line of thinking. But they never understood it,’’ said a mediator.
Sources say Rampal’s second in command, Baljit Dass, probably was the one to cause the most damage to the mediation process. “He was the most stubborn, not willing to listen to the voices of reason, and adopting the hard-line stance that ‘Guruji will not surrender under any circumstances. If the state wants to force its way, it will have to walk over us’,” said a source.
Logistics also miscalculated
Rampal and his team also got their logistics calculations wrong. For nearly 20,000 followers present inside the Barwala ashram, it had only about 800 quintals (80,000 kg) of flour; about 190-quintal rice (19,000 kg), including 12-quintal Basmati; and 75-quintal (about 7,500 kg) chana and dal; according to the police estimates after the search operation. There were nearly 130 LPG cylinders but plenty of firewood.
“An adult consumes about 400 grams per meal. Even if we assume that 15,000 followers will take just one meal a day, they would have consumed 6,000 kilograms of rations every day. This means they would have been out of stock by the ninth day,” said a police official.
“They had cut down on meals already and started serving followers two chappatis with pickle each. Many times, rice boiled in saltwater was served. They would not have survived long,” the officer said.
The ashram had a water-storage capacity of 60,000 litres, which could be replenished using submersible pumps. However, as the supply of electricity, water and edibles was severed on November 15, the 15,000 litres of diesel stocked in the ashram was now insufficient. There was again a grave miscalculation.