The town of Panchkula, near Chandigarh, in Haryana is under siege. Earlier on Friday, religious leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted of rape by a Central Bureau of Investigation court. Angered by the verdict, his supporters went on the rampage – they clashed with security forces and destroyed public and private property. As of 8 pm on Friday, media reports said that 29 people had been killed and several others injured in the violence, with security forces struggling to control it.

Even as the violence spread from Haryana to parts of Delhi, with Punjab on high alert, questions are being raised about the Haryana government’s handling of the situation. For one, why were so many of Ram Rahim’s supporters allowed to congregate in Panchkula? Especially when violence was expected from the followers of the religious order. And could the administration’s kid gloves in dealing with the mob have been driven by the close links the Bharatiya Janata Party – the ruling party in Haryana – has with Ram Rahim?

Cult leader

Ram Rahim heads the Dera Sacha Sauda, a powerful religious order headquartered in Sirsa, Haryana. The order has a large number of followers – numbering in tens of lakhs – in Haryana and Punjab, most of them Hindu and Sikh Dalits. Apart from being a religious leader, like Baba Ramdev, Ram Rahim also runs a fast-moving consumer goods company with an emphasis on swadeshi, Indian products. In addition to this, Ram Rahim has produced and starred in a series of movies. He is also a prolific singer with five albums and a number of public performances.

The rape case against Ram Rahim dates back to 2002 when a female follower of the Dera Sacha Sauda wrote anonymously to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee accusing the Dera chief of raping her as well as other women at his ashram in Sirsa. Ram Rahim was powerful enough at that time for political parties to steer clear of the case. Ultimately, it was the Punjab and Haryana High Court that ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation enquiry into the matter.

This is not the only case against the religious leader. Ram Rahim is also accused of murdering a Dera Sacha Sauda employee, allegedly because the employee helped in sending the anonymous letter to Prime Minister Vajpayee. The Dera chief is also an accused in the murder of journalist Ram Chander Chhatrapati, whose paper, Poora Sacch, had first reported on the rapes. The Central Bureau of Investigation court is hearing the murder case separately.

Security personnel in Panchkula on Friday. (Photo credit: HT).

State failure

The Dera Sacha Sauda has been involved in violence earlier. In 2007, Sikh and Dera followers clashed in Bathinda, Punjab. Three people were killed and the area remained under virtual lockdown for 10 days. Since then, the Dera has only grown larger, with its followers gaining a reputation of slavishly obeying the dictates of Ram Rahim.

In spite of these prominent red flags, however, the Haryana government treated the impending rape verdict with no urgency. The Central Bureau of Investigation court in Panchkula was expected to deliver the verdict on Friday, and the Dera’s supporters streamed into the quiet residential township in the preceding days, setting up camp in parks and other open spaces. Ultimately, between one lakh and two lakh supporters were present in Panchkula as the court was about to deliver its order. A letter issued by the Punjab Director General of Police (law and order) to his colleagues in the state on Tuesday indicated that the Dera supporters were storing petrol, diesel and arming themselves with sharp weapons and stones ahead of the verdict.

The Haryana government, however, allowed this gathering to take place. It did not even initiate the basic step of putting in place Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code – which prohibits the assembly of more than four people in one place. The Haryana government had told the Punjab and Haryana High Court on Thursday that this was not done due to a “clerical error”.

Prakash Singh, former Director General of Police of Assam and Uttar Pradesh, was clear that the Haryana government had not done its job. “The police should have prevented this congregation from happening,” said Singh. “And once it happened, the crowd should not have been allowed to move around openly but should have been herded into enclosed spaces like university campuses. They should have been disarmed and kept in custody.”

Ultimately, it was the Punjab and Haryana High Court that stepped in to ensure that suitable security arrangements were made ahead of the verdict. On Thursday, while hearing a Public Interest Litigation on the situation in Panchkula, the court sharply criticised the Haryana government, accusing it of being in “complete collusion” with the Dera supporters. It directed the government to ensure that the people who had arrived in Panchkula returned, and ordered it to prevent the crowds already there from growing further. It also pulled up the Union government for not providing enough paramilitary troops to Punjab and Haryana.

Dirty politics

The accusations of collusion come at the back of close links between the BJP – the ruling party in Haryana as well as the Centre – and the Dera Sacha Sauda. In 2014, Ram Rahim had announced the Dera’s support for the BJP for the Haryana Assembly Elections – the first time the order had ever publicly supported a political party. The BJP had sought the Dera’s support. Party president Amit Shah himself had met the Dera chief, asking for his support in Haryana, where the order reportedly has 60 lakh followers.

The egregious failure of the BJP-controlled Haryana government to rein in the Dera’s rampaging supporters must be seen against this background. In spite of its failure to control the mobs, the BJP is trying to brazen it out. On Thursday evening, with violence underway in Haryana, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh absolved Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s government of all blame. “We can’t blame the administration, they took precautions and it’s a democracy,” said Singh when asked why the mob was allowed to assemble in the first place.

Maintaining law and order is the most basic duty of the state. If this is bartered for political gains by politicians in power, the chaos that were are now seeing in Haryana will be the result.