Ram Rahim trial: Punjab, Haryana must be tough and careful in dealing with Dera followers
It’s a script at once familiar and frightful. Instances of self-styled godmen finding themselves in the crosshairs of law of the land are a recurring theme.
But, the latest flashpoint ahead of a CBI court’s verdict tomorrow, August 25, on the rape case against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the colourful and controversial head of Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda, has put both Haryana and Punjab on the edge.
Tensions have sharply spiralled in both states where the sect has a sizable following. The mammoth gathering of the Dera faithful, who address themselves as ‘premis’, at Panckula where Singh has been directed to appear before the CBI judge, has presented a clear and present danger to law and order.
In spite of prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the CrPC in Haryana and barricading on roads, over 150,000 Dera followers, mostly women, had defiantly marched to the Chandigarh suburb and are camping at ground zero. By the time the legal denouement in the rape case based on the allegations of two female followers in 2002 is made, the number of ‘premis’ gathered, police officials apprehend, may swell to 500,000.
The CBI court has been fortified with multi-layered security, but Singh’s announcement that he will appear at court tomorrow despite a “back ache” will mean that maintaining law and order will be a daunting challenge for the Haryana government.
Making it a potentially explosive situation are high-level intelligence assessments that the frenzied followers may turn into an unruly mob in case of an adverse judgment against their chief. Such fears are not exaggerated, going by his followers’ spirited mobilisation and shrill defence of Singh’s innocence on social media platforms.
A confrontation with the Dera is the last thing the BJP government in Haryana would want, considering the sect had openly and overwhelming supported the party in the 2014 assembly elections. Also, the Manohar Lal Khattar regime hasn’t forgotten the hard lessons it had learnt from a botched-up handling of a violent showdown with the supporters of Rampal, another sect leader, in Hisar in 2014.
What adds grim portent to the fast-evolving crisis is the Punjab Police reports on the followers stockpiling petrol, diesel and weapons in their homes and the sect’s congregation centres across the state. Punjab, on a high alert like Haryana, has more reasons to worry in the backdrop of a decade-long simmering bloody conflict between the Dera and Sikh radicals.
To their credit, both Punjab and Haryana were quick to flag the issue with the Union home ministry and are pulling out all the stops to deal with the tricky situation.
To this end, the Centre has rushed about 60 companies of paramilitary forces to the trouble spots even as more are likely to be deployed. The Army has been put on standby in both states.
In Chandigarh, a cricket stadium has been converted into a temporary jail, while Panchkula has shut all educational institutions as a preventive step.
But that may not be enough to defuse the volatile build-up that can quickly degenerate into a conflagration of unimaginable consequences.
Notwithstanding its political compulsion, it’s an hour of test for the Haryana government to take an unequivocal stand in favour of upholding the rule of law. To that end, it will need to be both firm and tactful.