Aeschylus, the renowned Greek tragic playwright, wrote a trilogy — Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Haryana has scripted a different kind of tragic trilogy — Satlok Ashram in 2014, Jat reservation agitation in 2016 and Dera Sacha Sauda in 2017.
The protests over the arrest of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh on August 25 actually led to heavier casualties within a much shorter span of time. There were, in all, 31 deaths during the reservation agitation over a fortnight in February 2016 while 38 people lost their lives in Panchkula on August 25 in less than four hours. The quota agitation was far more widespread, extending over eight districts of the state and it witnessed destruction of public and private property on a much greater scale.
Was the Panchkula tragedy preventable? Certain facts are incontrovertible. It was known that the judgment would be pronounced on August 25. It was known that in all likelihood Singh would be convicted. It was known that there would be repercussions among his followers. There were intelligence reports that arms and explosives were being stored in the Dera. In the face of these facts, it was incumbent on the state government to ensure that crowds were not allowed to gather in Panchkula where the CBI Court was located. This simple precaution was not taken. The state government claimed that they had issued prohibitory orders banning the assembly of persons. If the orders were actually issued, why were they not enforced? The truth is that the orders did not ban movement of groups of five or more people; they only placed an injunction on carrying arms.
When cornered by the Punjab & Haryana High Court, the state government claimed that it was a “clerical error”. It is most unlikely that in a matter of such importance, an error of this kind would have been allowed to creep in. It appears that the state government, whose senior-most functionaries had, on more than one occasion, made a public show of their reverence and affinity to the so-called “baba”, decided that his followers should not be obstructed and that they should only be prevented from carrying any weapons. It is also possible that they believed or were given an assurance that the “premis”, as the Dera followers were called, would not indulge in violence. This proved to be a huge miscalculation. These premis had arrived in large numbers in Panchkula and by the time the high court expressed its displeasure over the inadequate preventive measures taken by the police, it was too late to dislodge them peacefully.
Soon after the CBI court pronounced its judgment, all hell broke loose. The followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh went on a rampage, destroying public and private property. The police showed hesitation in the initial stages and there was complete lawlessness for about two hours from 3pm to 5pm. The police forces, however, soon regrouped and with the help of the Central Armed Police Forces, brought the situation under control — inflicting heavy casualties in the process, which was quite unfortunate. The army did not open fire and only made a show of force.
Political procrastination appears to have been at the root of the tragic chain of events. The Haryana government, under a sense of political obligation to Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh for his support during the last elections — some kind of a jhhuta sauda — was, while giving an impression of enforcing the law of the land, apparently not prepared to hurt him beyond a point. And so, while prohibitory orders were issued for public consumption, there was a loophole in the orders which allowed the Dera followers to converge at Panchkula. Had the state government shown foresight and planned accordingly, it would have been possible to limit very substantially the number of people infiltrating into Panchkula and then deal with them effectively with a minimum loss of life.
It is significant that no lives were lost in Punjab and Chandigarh, where the administration took adequate precautionary measures. There were stray acts of vandalism only in these two areas. The entire sequence of events has brought out two disturbing trends: The executive is abdicating its governance functions with the result that the judiciary has to step into the domain. The judiciary was on target when it said (as reported in the media) that “administrative decisions were paralysed because of political considerations”. The directions given by the high court should have actually emanated from the Haryana secretariat. The other disturbing trend is calling the army as a matter of routine to deal with law and order situations. Do we want the army to defend us against China and Pakistan or get sucked into internal security matters? The Haryana police are more than capable of dealing with such situations. All it needs is clear directions, adequate resources, good training and competent leadership.
The tragedy of the country is that instead of reforming, reorganising, restructuring and rejuvenating our police forces, we are depending more on the Central Armed Police Forces and even the Indian Army.
There has been a terrible failure of leadership in Haryana at all levels — political, bureaucratic and police. The political leadership should have seen the straws in the wind and given priority to maintaining law and order rather than protecting a political constituency. At the administrative level, the senior functionaries have fallen far short of legitimate public expectations. Officers need to remember that, in relation to the political masters, they are under no obligation to carry out any unlawful orders and, in the event of lawful orders not being given in a developing situation, they should act as per their assessment based on intelligence inputs and information from the administrative channels. Their supreme loyalty should be to the Constitution.