In November 2014, armed followers of Baba Rampal kept the security forces at bay for a fortnight outside the sect leader’s well-fortified ashram near Hisar in Haryana to prevent him from being arrested. It was only after six devotees died and hundreds of others were injured that the forces managed to detain the leader, who was wanted for murder.

Three years on, a similar situation appears to be building up in Panchkula, the city adjoining Chandigarh. Thousands of followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda have been pouring into this town ahead of a Central Bureau of Investigation special court ruling on Friday in a rape case involving the religious sect’s head, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. On Thursday, intelligence agencies estimated the number of Singh’s followers in and around Panchula at more than 200,000.

Singh is accused of raping two former women devotees at the sect’s headquarters in Sirsa, Haryana. The case was registered in 2002 on the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which took suo moto cognisance of an anonymous letter detailing the alleged sexual assault sent by one of the sadhvis to Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was prime minister at the time. The court handed the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The case became murkier with the murder in 2002 of a Dera Sacha Sauda follower, whose family claimed he was suspected to have been behind the anonymous letter, and a journalist who had reported on the story.

For his part, Singh is said to have claimed in court that “he was not fit to indulge in physical relationships”.

The flamboyantly dressed sect head – who is also a singer, actor and director – is extremely popular. The sect’s official website claims to have 60 million followers worldwide, most of them residents of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

No stopping them

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s followers started to arrive in Panchkula, where the CBI court is located, on Monday. The trickle soon turned into a flood. As the administration hastily put up barricades in a 1-square-km radius, thousands of Dera followers occupied parks, roads and vacant plots around the security cordon.

Criticising the administration for letting the situation get out of control, the Punjab and Haryana High Court, located in Chandigarh, has directed the government to put the Army on alert.

Policemen question Dera Sacha Sauda followers near Chandigarh railway station. (Credit: Keshav Singh / HT)

However, a senior Haryana Police officer, who asked for his name not to be used, said identifying and stopping the sect’s followers had proved extremely difficult. “All of them are dressed in simple clothes and do not carry anything incriminating or suspicious with them,” he explained. “It is also very difficult to identify the followers as they do not often travel in groups. Thousands of ordinary people arrive in Chandigarh and its surrounding areas every day to visit government offices or hospitals and we could not have stopped them.”

Haryana Director General of Police BS Sandhu, too, said it was “impossible to prevent” these people from entering Panchkula. “There are multiple routes to Panchkula,” he said. “Besides, they are also entering from the Punjab side.”

He added that the police could not risk using even minor force to hold them back as this could have led to violence and bloodshed. “There are women and children in large numbers, so how can we make use of force like lathicharge?” he asked.

At the same time, media reports quoted the police as saying that Dera followers in Punjab and Haryana were collecting petrol, diesel, weapons and stones in case the verdict did not go in favour of their leader.

Social media warnings

The situation has become even more volatile with some followers, who call Singh “Pitaji” (father) or “Guruji”, putting up social media videos warning of dire consequences in the event he is convicted by the court.

In response, the state government has reportedly decided to suspend internet and mobile services to check the spread of rumours. The district authorities have ordered the closure of all educational institutions, offices and markets and advised residents to avoid areas close to the court premises. Reports said several trains have been cancelled and a stadium each in Chandigarh, Panchkula and Sirsa have been turned into makeshift prisons, in case of trouble.

According to security experts, there is time even now to defuse the situation, either by deferring the announcement of the judgment or by shifting the court temporarily to another city. “Although it may give an impression that the authorities have buckled before crowd power, it can still avoid widespread violence,” said one expert.