Ahead of dera chief’s verdict, memories of 2007 violence haunt Bathinda
People are still haunted by the violence triggered in May 2007 after Gurmeet Ram Rahim allegedly mimicked the 10th Sikh master, Guru Gobind Singh, at a religious congregation at Salabatpura village of Bathinda district.
This grocery shop in Talwandi Sabo near Bathinda has customers from the nearby villages on both sides of the Punjab-Haryana border. But, for last two days, sales have nosedived as people have decided not to travel unless it is absolutely. The owner does not even want to be identified for this report, as anxiety and fear of violence envelop the region ahead of the August 25 verdict in a rape case against Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.
In the southern districts of Punjab that have a large number of dera followers, especially in the rural areas of Bathinda, barely 100km from the dera headquarters in Haryana’s Sirsa, memories accentuate fears. People are still haunted by the violence triggered in May 2007 after Gurmeet Ram Rahim allegedly mimicked the 10th Sikh master, Guru Gobind Singh, at a religious congregation at Salabatpura village of Bathinda district.
After the case of alleged blasphemy — the court case has been closed after the complaint was withdrawn — Punjab and Haryana had witnessed bloody clashes between the Sikhs who took offence and the dera’s followers.
Ever since the CBI court in Panchkula said it will pronounce its verdict in the rape case on August 25, dera followers, known as ‘premis’, have been congregating at Sirsa and Panchkula. Both states have issued alerts too, and paramilitary forces have been called in some areas. Here, too, people fear a verdict against the dera head might lead to violent protests by the followers, though there is no direct link of Sikh groups with the case and the complainants are two female ex-followers of the dera.
Three people were killed in Punjab and hundreds were injured during the clashes. Schools were officially closed for two days but residents said that parents didn’t send their wards for more than a week. More than 50 policemen were injured during the clashes with dera followers in Bathinda. Some dera followers burnt buses in Bathinda and Mansa and even a broadcast van of a news channel. Residents said that an undeclared curfew prevailed in the district for nearly 10 days.
Now, the Bathinda-Kalawanwali road that leads towards Sirsa wears a deserted look as people avoid travelling due to the tense environment. The dera claims there are more than 1 crore followers settled in Punjab and Haryana, and they don’t want their sect’s chief to even appear in court on the scheduled day of the verdict.
Owner of a cloth shop at Kalanwali in Haryana, which is almost halfway between Bathinda and Sirsa, said peace should be maintained and law should take its own course. Most others preferred to stay quiet — even off the record — as they fear any statement can invite the wrath of the dera followers.
Meanwhile, the district administration is taking precautions. Parents in several localities have decided not to send their wards to school on August 25. Transporters providing services to the schools have asked them to declare holiday on August 25. Residents of some villages on the inter-state border have stocked groceries and other essentials.