It was 11.30 am in the Punjab and Haryana High Court Friday when Haryana’s Advocate General B R Mahajan claimed that except for two spots, “a public park” and “a community hall,” most of the crowd of Dera Sacha Sauda followers had been evacuated from Panchkula.
Hearing this, the High Court directed the state “not to shy away” from using “any kind of weapon” to deal with persons indulging in arson, loot and violence. Three hours later, after their chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted of rape by the Panchkula CBI court, this very crowd went on a rampage, torched more than 70 vehicles and damaged six government buildings setting off a police-public clash that left, until midnight tonight, at least 30 dead and hundreds injured. And a beleaguered state government scrambling for cover.
Today’s violence, given its sudden flare-up and intensity, was startling — but hardly surprising. When Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar appealed for calm a few minutes before the verdict, it was clearly too little, too late. For, over the last seven days since the verdict date was announced, Dera followers kept swelling in numbers on the streets and parks of Panchkula. And not a single minister or MLA from the government, the ruling BJP or even the Opposition — all have mobilised the Dera at different times for political power — reached out to them.
This, when at least 19 MLAs of the BJP in Haryana led by party general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya had gone and paid their respects at the Dera in 2014 soon after the BJP, came to power in Haryana. On the law and order front, too, there was little evidence that the government had anticipated any trouble.
Result: the government allowed the crowd’s numbers to grow. State Cabinet Minister Rambilas Sharma, the bureaucracy and police force expressed their unwillingness to restrict followers’ entry calling them “peaceful followers of the Dera”.
Even the Punjab and Haryana High Court bench comprising Acting Chief Justice Justice S S Saron, Justice Surya Kant and Justice Avneesh Jhingan, while hearing a PIL filed by local advocate Ravinder Dhull on security arrangements, yesterday accused the state government of “complete collusion” with Dera followers.
The High Court also slammed the state government for issuing two “shoddy” Section 144 CrPC orders, in which the Panchkula district administration ordered that they shall only bar entry of people “moving with weapons”. After facing SC’s wrath, the state government quickly amended the orders and barred “assembly of five or more persons in Panchkula.”
And in a face-saving exercise, too late in the day, Haryana DGP B S Sandhu last evening announced that the police shall remove protestors from Panchkula and take them to “safe locations” outside. But there was little evidence of concerted action from the ground.
Until this morning, no protestor was removed. All the police did through last night was to ensure a stage-managed show in front of the media. Police officers made a few announcements using loudspeakers asking followers to go back on their own.
Three days ago, Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Ram Niwas had said, “We are totally prepared to deal with any situation. Nobody shall be allowed to breach the peace. Preventive arrests shall be made, if required”. Last week, the Chief Secretaries and police chiefs of both Punjab and Haryana met Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi in New Delhi and apprised him of the situation in both the states. Both the States also sought paramilitary support.
Throughout the week, Haryana police chief B S Sandhu kept on saying: “We are prepared to deal with any kind of situation and shall not allow it to deteriorate”. Ignoring the growing crowd of followers, the state government focused on moving the Dera chief from Sirsa to Panchkula. To enable that, the administration prepared a detailed traffic diversion plan, set up Punjab-Haryana joint police control rooms and designated sports stadiums as jails in case of preventive arrests.
None of this was useful today. The glaring lack of coordination between police and paramilitary was also evident this evening when several security personnel were seeing desperately looking for cover as the mob pelted stones. Armed personnel were seen ducking and escaping from beneath the barricades they had set up to block the protestors.
For Khattar, this is the third public flare-up in his term. In November, 2014, six persons died during the 14-day standoff between police and followers of Satlok Ashram in Hisar led by self-styled Godman Sant Rampal. The state had a hard time getting Rampal in custody so that he could be produced before the Punjab and Haryana High Court in a contempt case. In February last year, at least 30 persons were killed in another police-public clash during the violent Jat agitation.