“If I had known this would happen, why would I have come?”
On Saturday afternoon, as 70-year-old Kaka Singh lay on a stretcher in Panchkula’s Civil Hospital in Sector 6 on Saturday afternoon, his leg covered with bandages and dried blood, he was still uncertain about how he’d come to be caught up in a swirl of unimaginable violence the day before.
Kaka Singh had been among the enormous crowd of devotees of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh who had been gathering in Panchkula in Haryana since the middle of last week, ahead of the announcement of the verdict in a rape case involving their spiritual leader. The devotees, who included women, children and elderly people, hunkered down in the streets and parks near the court building. On Friday afternoon, when news arrived that the leader had been found guilty, some Ram Rahim devotees reacted with anger. They began by attacking vans and then turned their wrath on cars and buildings.
The police cracked down hard with teargas canisters, water canons, lathi charges and pellet guns. By Saturday evening, the authorities announced that 30 people had died in the violence in Panchkula, and that 269 people had been injured.
To many observers, it seemed like the violence was inevitable. It seemed like Ram Rahim’s supporters had congregated in the city precisely so that they could protest an adverse verdict. But Kaka Singh and some others being treated in the Civil Hospital claimed that their motives were much more simple: they had made the effort to travel to Panchkula merely because wanted a glimpse of their spiritual leader, a man they call Pitaji or father.
“We were told to get on a bus if we want darshan of our Pitaji,” said Kaka Singh, explaining why he had taken the trip from Bathinda, Punjab, three days before the verdict was announced. He set up camp near Tau Devi Lal Stadium. He made the trip only because some members of the Dera asked him to. It had not occured to him that the situation would turn violent. “Why would I have come?” he asked. “I’m hardly at the age at which I’m looking to get my bones broken by a lathi.”
He still seemed hazy about the sequence of events on Friday. “I was running away from the stadium when I got hurt,” Singh said. “I was walking with the support of another injured woman, when their bus came and took all of us to the hospital.”
He added: “I have never been violent, or seen violence like this before.”
A 60-year-old woman on a stretcher had a similar story. She too was beaten by the police and her leg was covered with bandages and a splint. “We were just told to get on a bus if we wanted to come see Pitaj’,” she said. “I’m so old, I should have just stayed home. I don’t know anybody here, I don’t know where I am, I don’t even know how far from home I am.”
Concern for children
A social worker who was attempting to help people like Singh find their relatives and get back home was sympathetic to their plight. “They are just the common man who ended up becoming victims of the unruly hooligans yesterday,” he said.
Added another social worker, “Most of these people are innocent. They were piled into buses and trucks, and were eventually trapped into being injured like this. Most of their families don’t even know where they are. Most of the dead bodies are still unidentified, and will probably remain so. I want to just help these people and make sure they can return home.”
The social workers were especially concerned about the children who were part of the crowd, whose parents may be dead or injured in a hospital. “Why should they have to pay for the mistakes of those few miscreants?” one of the social workers asked.
As the social workers went about their efforts, people waiting on the pavement outside the hospital were asked to leave. Suddenly, police personnel were visible everywhere. People who weren’t absolutely essential to operations were barred from entering the hospital. Whispers echoed around the emergency ward: “Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar is soon arriving.”