Firsthand account: ‘We could only watch helplessly as the flames consumed our vehicles’https://indianexpress.com/article/india/firsthand-account-we-could-only-watch-helplessly-as-the-flames-consumed-our-vehicles-journalist-panchkula-ram-rahim-rape-verdict-dera-sacha-sauda-cbi-court-haryana-4813897/

Firsthand account: ‘We could only watch helplessly as the flames consumed our vehicles’

Panchkula violence: 'Within no time, a quiet gathering turned into an unruly mob. The police, which were assisted by paramilitary forces deputed to tackle the followers, were mute spectators. They just stood watching as the mobs toppled over an OB van of a TV channel.'

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A car set on fire by Dera followers in Panchkula on Friday. (Express photo: Kamleshwar Singh)

On Friday afternoon as the CBI trial court in Panchkula was announcing the verdict against Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a rumour that he had been acquitted sent the assembled gathering of his followers into a celebration mode. That, however, was short-lived. Along with other journalists, I was standing close to the security barricades in a buffer zone created to prevent the followers from reaching the CBI court in Sector 1.

The journalists were busy speaking to the Baba’s supporters, and a crowd had gathered around Dr Aditya Insan, spokesperson of the Dera Sacha Sauda. When Insan was asked to react to the news filtering out of the courtroom that Ram Rahim had been convicted, he denied having any such information.

Insan then spoke to some Dera coordinators in the area. The he announced loudly, waving his cellphone: “There is no concrete information about the verdict and your information is not correct.” That appeared to send a message to the followers, and the next thing we knew, all hell had broken loose.

Within no time, a quiet gathering turned into an unruly mob. The police, which were assisted by paramilitary forces deputed to tackle the followers, were mute spectators. They just stood watching as the mobs toppled over an OB van of a TV channel.

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The first teargas shell was launched by the security forces only after they spotted mobs setting vehicles on fire. Then, stones and rocks were flying in the air. A staffer of a TV channel was beaten severely by the mob.

The Panchkula administration had been claiming that adequate security was made in the area. But on Wednesday, when senior officials pleaded with their men to come forward and control the mob, they got no response. “Aage aao, daro mat,” one senior officer shouted, but instead of going forward, the policemen were turning tail and retreated several times.

After failing to control the situation, they fired rubber bullets and tear gas indiscriminately to save themselves. Then the security personnel started beating the stone throwers in the mob, trying to push them out of the area. When things settled after a few minutes, we saw two bodies lying on the road.

We suddenly realised that government buildings and dozens of vehicles, and even two fire tenders parked outside them were ablaze. I crossed the line of burning two-wheelers only to find my motorcycle, and The Indian Express photographer Kamleshwar Singh’s were among them. We could only watch helplessly as the flames consumed our vehicles. There were no other fire tenders to douse the flames. We could see police personnel shouting for more ambulances to take the injured to hospital.

By the time additional forces, fire tenders and siren of ambulances starting doing the rounds in the area, the damage had been done.

Attack on media

The Dera followers damaged several vehicles of mediapersons. They burnt four motorcycles of Amar Ujala journalists, one scooter of Dainik Jagran journalist, one motorcycle of Dainik Savera journalist, three cars of Dainik Bhaskar journalists, one car of a correspondent of The Times of India, an OB van of NDTV, one OB van of India Today, one OB van of Republic TV channel, one car of E24 channel, and an Activa of a stringer of a foreign news agency.