Ram Rahim rape verdict: Haryana, Punjab, Chandigarh in lockdown; civic nightmare in Panchkula as 2 lakh supporters, army on standby
Parts of Haryana and Punjab as well as Chandigarh were under a security lockdown on Thursday as 200,000 supporters of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh massed in Panchkula ahead of a verdict in a rape trial against him.
Schools, colleges and government offices were closed, and train and bus services suspended. The army was placed on standby, while police and paramilitary forces patrolled sensitive areas.
A cricket stadium was turned into a temporary jail in case the self-styled spiritual leader’s followers turn violent if he is found guilty.
The Punjab and Haryana high court directed the Union government to take pre-emptive measures and asked Haryana and Punjab why so many people were allowed to gather at one place despite prohibitory orders.
For his part, Singh tweeted that he would be present at the hearing in a CBI special court in Panchkula on Friday.
“I have always respected the law of the land. Despite pain in the back, I will be present in the court and respect law and order. I have full faith in god. I appeal to everyone to maintain peace,” he said.
The 50-year-old burly, bearded man who has scripted and starred in his own films and commands a near-devotional following is accused of raping two sadhvis, or woman devotees, in cases that date back to 2002.
The high court had directed the CBI to investigate after anonymous letters were circulated about the alleged sexual exploitation. Singh denies all charges.
“The verdict could lead to potential large-scale unrest and violence,” said Ajay Kumar, assistant commissioner of police (law and order) in Panchkula.
Preventive steps were taken after reports suggested his supporters have stockpiled weapons, including lathis, daggers and guns.
Thousands of women carrying sticks guarded the sect’s headquarters in Haryana’s Sirsa. They shouted provocative slogans against the government and threatened to “destroy everything if our guru is harmed”.
“Ikki dukki chak deyange, load payi ta chak deyange (We will take down one or two and the entire load if need be),” they shouted a death threat in unison.
The Dera Sacha Sauda claims to have 50 million followers and runs a spiritual empire. It’s not unusual for leaders of such quasi-religious sects to often have armed private militias protecting them.
Moving swiftly to stop rumours spreading on social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook, Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh suspended mobile internet for 72 hours from Thursday noon. The ban is applicable in Gurgaon too, private telecoms confirmed.
“Bulk SMSes and dongles have also been suspended for 72 hours. However, broadband services will function normally,” said Ram Niwas, the Haryana additional chief secretary for home.
The railways said it has cancelled 22 trains bound for the two states, excluding the Shatabdi to Chandigarh.
Airfares rocketed thereafter. The price of a one-way, New Delhi-Chandigarh ticket shot up to Rs 14,000.
Bus schedules have been changed too. Punjab Roadways will not operate its service to Haryana from Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Muktsar and Bathinda until Saturday. Haryana state transport buses will terminate in Ambala.
Residents of Panchkula, where the CBI court will pronounce its verdict, remained indoors as Singh’s followers swelled to 200,000. Police and paramilitary forces have corralled them into public parks after they camped on roads.
The township faces a civic nightmare as the mass of visitors spread bed sheets and blankets on footpaths, ate at community kitchens or langars and defecated along roads and parks.
Nearly 5,000 policemen patrolled the streets and nobody was allowed within a kilometer of the court complex. Similar measures were taken in nearby Chandigarh and Mohali.
Security forces will conduct a nightlong search for “lethal material” such as petrol and diesel in drums allegedly stored by Singh’s followers in Chandigarh and Sirsa. These could be used to fuel Molotov cocktails.
Government offices in Panchkula and Chandigarh will remain closed on Friday. Private establishments, including Infosys, are allowing their staff to work from home.
The high court warned Haryana director general of police of action if his men failed to provide adequate security. It was hearing a petition on the security situation in Panchkula.
The court observed that it doesn’t want a repeat of the lawlessness witnessed during the February 2016 Jat quota agitation in which nearly 30 people lost their lives and property worth crores was damaged in Haryana.
Clashes between Dera Sacha Sauda followers and members of the Sikh faith left at least three people dead in 2007.
In 2014, six people were killed as followers of another popular religious leader, guru Rampal, fought pitched battles with police attempting to arrest him over a murder trial.
(With inputs from agencies)