A couple of months ago, my sister and I sat on our rooftop in our home and discussed how our hometown was so sleepy and boring, nothing really seemed to happen there. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Anytime we saw reports of mob violence or riots from other parts of India, we’d thank our stars that we lived in one of the safest places in India – the city of Panchkula, in Harayana.
But events that began to unfold last weekend changed that forever. On Saturday, August 19, followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect from other parts of Haryana and Punjab started trickling into Panchkula. They were gathering to show their support for their spiritual leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who was to appear at the town’s Central Bureau of Investigation court on August 25 to face the verdict in a rape case in which he had been accused in 2002. By Tuesday, there were rumours that Ram Rahim’s followers were hiding weapons and flammable fuels which they would use in case he was found guilty. We heard that lakhs of supporters would arrive in the city by Friday.
My family started to worry – our home is only a stone’s throw from the court. My mother wanted to leave immediately, but the rest of us were hesitant. Media reports were varied: some claimed only a few thousand followers had gathered in Panchkula, though others suggested 50,000 people had already collected. We decided to wait for more information, But as a precaution, sent my grandmother away to a relative’s house in neighbouring Chandigarh.
Negotiating the cordons
On Wednesday, Section 144 was imposed to prohibit the assembly of more than four people, Haryana and Punjab were put on high alert and panic had set in. Reports estimated that one lakh Ram Rahim followers had gathered. Roads around the court – which border the sector in which I live – were cordoned off. On a trip to buy groceries, my father and I decided to drive around the area to see whether the situation was really as grave as the media claimed. We saw a few people sleeping on the pavements and road dividers, but were quite underwhelmed.
Then we reached Sector 3, and neared the Panchkula Golf Club, which has been a regular haunt for my family for years. Thousands of people had camped for the night in the club parking lot and surrounding areas. Their freshly-laundered clothes were laid out to dry on the fences. Men with baskets walked around distributing chappatis to the crowd. Some people had gathered at a temporary tea stall, many more crowded around a phone-charging area. The police had set up several barricades.
On Thursday morning, the numbers had increased. My father and I returned to Sector 3 to record some more videos and chat with some of Ram Rahim’s followers. They unanimously stated that they intended to be peaceful, and that the sect had never been given to violence. They conveyed a self-sacrificial, selfless dedication and love for their leader, though vehemently so. There was the hint of something in their voices that made us decide to leave. On Thursday evening, we set off for Chandigarh.
That night, we heard on the news that the police and paramilitary forces were attempting to evict the followers. Perhaps nothing would happen after all. Perhaps, all the crowds wanted was just a darshan of their leader, and they would set back home after they’d seen him.
As I write this on Friday night, my hands are shaking – out of fear, but mostly out of uncontrollable anger. On TV, I can see chaos on the streets, the markets and parks in which I’ve spent my entire life. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted of rape in the afternoon, and Panchkula erupted in flames.
A friend from Melbourne, whose family lives in Panchkula, sent me pictures on WhatsApp – the skies near his house had turned grey with smoke. The parking lot in Sector 5, in front of Nik Bakers, where my friends and I had spent countless evenings just parked in our cars, was on fire. The cigarette vendor we lovingly called “Panditji” cried on camera as his stall was burnt down.
TV news reported that the mob had split and dispersed into Sectors 2 and 4, while some were heading to Sectors 16 and 17. I called a friend’s mother who lives in Sector 4, to warn her to stay safe. Struggling to speak, she assured me they were all right, but that their relatives’ cars had been set on fire in Sector 17. The protestors were vandalising houses and cars, she said. My sister’s friend from Sector 2 shared a video which showed security forces firing at some of the vandals deep inside residential areas.
In spite of all the warning signs, Panchkula is burning. Who should be held responsible?
Dera Sacha Sauda
Rape verdict and after