“Come what may, we will not leave this area till our pita-ji is exonerated,” said Ram Singh, using the Hindi word for father. The Dera Sacha Sauda follower had travelled all the way from Bhatinda in Punjab to Haryana’s Panchkula town for Friday’s CBI special court verdict in a rape case involving the head of the religious sect, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.
Standing beside him, Rajesh Kumar, from Rohtak in Haryana, spoke of a conspiracy against their guru and declared that they would not allow anyone to touch him. “We have come prepared for any sacrifice,” he said.
The two men were among thousands of Dera followers who had taken over public gardens, parks, vacant lots, even roads and pavements in the town’s eastern neighbourhood where the court is located – prompting the state government, in anticipation of a law and order problem, to make massive security arrangements and even sound out the Army.
Many of those gathered at Panchkula have set up temporary shelters made of tarpaulin sheets or are camping in trucks and other vehicles. Since they started arriving five days ago, their numbers have swelled with each passing day and on Thursday, security officials estimated there were at least 200,000 of them.
Carrying small bags, the streams of men, women and children snaked their way through barricaded roads. The police were not allowing vehicles beyond a certain point but were not stopping pedestrians. Senior officers said they could not risk using force to stop them since there are women and children among them.
The Dera followers were all charged up ahead of the court verdict. “Pita-ji is our god and we will do everything for him,” said Sarita, using the name for Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh popular among his followers. She has come with her husband and two-year-old son from Sirsa, the sect’s headquarters.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court on Thursday came down heavily on the Haryana government for allowing the upsurge of Dera followers in Panchkula. The court directed the Centre to provide adequate security and asked the State administration to ensure that law and order was maintained. The court also warned Haryana’s Director General of Police of initiating action against him if the State failed to ensure required security.
At 3 pm on Friday, the special court is set to pronounce its verdict in the case that dates back to 2002. Singh is accused of raping two sadhvis (female followers) at his Sirsa ashram. The case came to light after one of the women wrote anonymously to the then prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, about the alleged sexual assault. The Punjab and Haryana High Court then took up the matter, ordering an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Singh has denied the allegation.
His followers also swear by his innocence, and point to the work he has done for social welfare. Ranjit Singh, pramukh (head) of the Namghar (the Dera’s community centre) in Panchkula, claimed Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had “saved 6 crore people from the menace of drugs” while the Dera had planted 41,831,075 trees and collected 487,163 units of blood. Reading out from a list on his mobile phone, he added that “guru-ji adopted 19 prostitutes and 29 orphan girls as his daughters” and that he had “79 world records dedicated to humanity and 133 welfare activities”.
The Namghar has a community canteen for the visitors, but it is clearly not enough to feed them all. So, in the now occupied parks and vacant plots, Dera followers have set up temporary kitchens and are also using these spaces as toilets – which has left residents both angry and fearful. “How come the government allows so many of them here, why couldn’t they be stopped in their own towns?” asked Brigadier (retired) Praveen Kumar, whose house in Sector 23 is now surrounded by plastic sheds.
Late at night on Thursday, a video featuring Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was telecast on various TV channels in which the Dera chief said that he had asked his followers not to gather at Panchkula and said those gathered at Panchkula should return to their homes and help maintain law and order. But it seemed to be only for effect as those gathered were oblivious to the message and seemed in no mood to go back and appeared set for their well-organised vigil.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Manohar Lal Khattar has its task cut out. Schools and colleges, offices and markets have been shut and mobile internet services have been suspended. The government has also sounded out the Army – as it had done during a fortnight-long standoff with followers of another self-styled godman, Rampal, at his Hisar ashram in 2014 in which six people had died, and again during an agitation by Jats for reservations in jobs and education last year.
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