Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s conviction for rape on Friday resulted in a complete law and order breakdown in and around Panchkula near Chandigarh. After a Central Bureau of Investigation court found Singh guilty in the afternoon, an estimated two lakh followers of the self-styled godman went on rampage, setting fire to railway stations, buses, media vans and electricity grids. Till 6 pm, media reports said at least 12 people had been killed and 150 injured, with the security forces struggling to contain the spreading violence. The Centre said six battalions of the Army have been deployed in Panchkula.

The utter lack of seriousness on part of the Haryana government in preparing for the verdict, despite clear indications of a crowd build-up as early as Wednesday, forced the Punjab and Haryana High Court to intervene decisively. On Friday, following large-scale violence, the court stated that it will attach properties of the Dera Sacha Sauda to compensate for loss to life and public property if they were found to be behind the rioting. It also sought a report on the violence by Saturday morning, including names of officers who had allegedly fled the scene during the violent protests. The court is expected to issue orders against civil and police officials. In fact, the court had warned on Thursday that it would not hesitate to dismiss the director general of police if the situation was not tackled properly.

While courts do not usually interfere in the executive’s duties, of which maintaining law and order is one of the most important, the extraordinary circumstances created by the ineffective functioning of the state has forced the High Court to step in and set the house right.

Getting into the act

The seriousness with which the High Court took up a Public Interest Litigation seeking proper security arrangements in Panchkula and elsewhere was apparent by Thursday afternoon, when it expanded the bench hearing the case to a full bench of three judges. On Friday morning, the bench, led by the acting Chief Justice SS Saroon, directed the Haryana police chief to brief the court about the security arrangements, and explain why prohibitory orders were not in place.

The state’s response infuriated the court. The government claimed there was a clerical mistake in the prohibitory orders issued on August 22 and that fresh orders came into force on Thursday. But by Thursday, a large crowd running into thousands had already gathered in Panchkula, rendering the fresh orders useless.

Commenting on this, the court said: “This is nothing but a post-mortem of the situation. If you have passed the order, what measures have you taken for the dispersal of the people. The order is an invitation from you that please come, but not with guns. It is all lack of will power. The forces are best at what they do but either they don’t want to do it or they have been asked no to do it [remove the followers].”

The court did not stop there. It also pulled up the Union government for not sending enough paramilitary forces as requested by the state. “Panchkula and Haryana are part of India,” the court said. “Make a statement that it is not part of India and say the responsibility wholly lies with the state. What rubbish are you throwing at us? These are exceptional circumstances and exceptional steps are needed to be taken. We expect you [the Centre] to step in and save the residents.”

Delivering the judgment

On Friday, the court was exasperated when the media reported that a large crowd had gathered near the CBI court and a huge convoy of over 100 cars had followed the Dear chief from his headquarters in Sirsa to Panchkula. This happened despite prohibitory orders being in place. The court made it clear that it wanted to deliver the judgement, and asked the state to use force if necessary to keep the situation under control.

It has been argued that the court could have taken a step back, either postponing the judgement or changing of venue. However, the crowd build-up and the sheer audacity of Singh to put together a convoy of that size despite prohibitory orders was seen as an attempt to intimidate the judiciary. Indeed, a postponement of the verdict is precisely what the mobilisation of Singh’s followers appeared to have been aimed at. Yet, since there was a huge risk to public security, the state could at least have proposed a change of venue for delivering the judgement so as to neutralise the crowd. None of this happened, and violence swept the area following the judgement. That court’s orders were thus a response to an apathetic and incogitant state administration, which failed to rise to the occasion despite the gravity of the situation.

Meanwhile, the CBI court will hear the arguments on Singh’s sentencing Monday, when the convict will have to appear before it again.

Making up for the losses

Intervention by courts in executive duties is often criticised as judicial overreach, but in the present case, the High Court’s hand was forced. The court drew its authority from Article 226 of the Constitution, which allows it to issue orders to protect the rights of citizens. The threat of violence is a threat to the right to life guaranteed under Article 21.

The High Court also largely followed guidelines put in place by the Supreme Court to deal with violence and the resultant damage to public property.

In 2009, following multiple incidents of violence in several parts of the country, the Supreme Court issued a list of guidelines for such situations. Its threat of attaching the properties of the Dera Sacha Sauda is in keeping with the guidelines, which lay down that “the liability will be borne by the actual perpetrators of the crime as well as the organisers of the event giving rise to the liability – to be shared, as finally determined by the High Court or the Supreme Court as the case may be”.

In case of extensive damage, the apex court has recommended that compensation not exceeding twice the cost of the damage be paid to the affected persons. The High Court, as per the guidelines, will now have to appoint a claims commissioner – a retired High Court or Supreme Court judge – to assess the damage caused. The High Court can also initiate separate suo motu proceedings to order an investigation into the violence. The Supreme Court’s guidelines require the police to videograph agitations, and the High Court reiterated this on Friday.

Corrections and clarifications: A previous version of this article said the High Court had ordered the State government to attach the properties of Dera Sacha Sauda. The order said it will seize the properties in case the organisation is established to be behind the violence in Panchkula.