A day after 30 people were killed in violence on the streets, Panchkula had all the appearances of a cantonment town. Army officers armed with guns stood at every corner. Every major road was lined with barricades and barbed wire. Every single vehicle, including official government vehicles, leaving for Chandigarh, was thoroughly checked. The traffic was expectedly low. The streets were eerily silent. Residents were yet to get back to everyday life.

Outside an office, an angry crowd erupted, chanting slogans against the chief minister. “Khattar Murdabad! Ram Rahim Murdabad! BJP Murdabad! Khattar istifa do!” (Down with Khattar! Down with Ram Rahim! Down with the BJP! Khattar should resign!)

On Friday afternoon, minutes after Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the head of a religious sect called the Dera Sacha Sauda, was convicted for rape by a court in Panchkula, his followers had gone on a rampage. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Haryana government under chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar had failed to prevent more than a lakh followers from gathering in the township next to Chandigarh, ahead of the verdict.

Eight buildings were torched by the followers, the director general of police BS Sandhu told reporters on Saturday. Some of them were owned by the government. Other buildings escaped narrowly.

The entrance to the Hartron office which was attacked by the mob on Friday. Photo credit: Satvika Kundu

In Sector 4, the office of the state government-owned Haryana State Electronics Development Corporation Limited bore the marks of a mob attack. The ceiling was charred, the floor covered with shattered glass. The security supervisor of office said he had been inside the office on Friday afternoon, with four other men, when the violence started. First, the mob pelted stones and bricks at the building, then it broke the gate. “About 25-30 people entered the office, including two-three women. They hurled bottles with petrol inside,” said the security supervisor. “Fearing for our lives, we ran upstairs.”

The armed forces eventually drove away the mob, but only after the office went up in flames. The soldiers extinguished the fire and saved the building from burning down, yet they cut it very close. “We could have lost our lives. Anything could have happened,” said the security supervisor. “We didn’t see a single policeman.”

The security supervisor added: “The mob violence didn’t seem spontaneous – it certainly seemed as if they had planned it beforehand…”

Shards of glass lie all over the Hartron office. Photo credit: VS Kundu

A security guard at Life Insurance Corporation’s office had a similar story. “I couldn’t count how many people there were. There was a massive crowd – there were men, women, even older people. As soon as they started breaking things, I ran inside the office. They were at it, breaking and throwing things, for at least an hour.” He and his colleagues were relieved to escape unhurt.

A view inside the branch of HDFC Bank in Sector 16. Photo credit: Satvika Kundu

Remains of the day

By Saturday afternoon, the streets had been cleared in Panchkula, but in Sector 3, which was the epicentre of the violence, the signs of Friday’s carnage still remained. Clothes, shoes, slippers, food, even cooking utensils belonging to the Dera followers littered the area. Caddies from the Panchkula Golf Club, who watched the riots from the roof of a neighbouring hotel, said most of the crowd, which included many children, women and elderly people, had been trying to escape the chaos.

The carcasses of burnt vehicles stood around. One was parked with all the doors open, while another, which still contained all the belongings of what appeared to be a family, had seats stained with blood. A fire-truck and a car had been burnt to the core.

Shattered window panes of vehicles in Sector 9. Photo credit: VS Kundu

People collected in the Sector 16 market – two restaurants and a branch of HDFC bank were burnt down, a few offices damaged. In the neighbourhood, a funeral van inside Aggarwal Bhavan was set on fire. Some residents said their vehicles had been burnt down, others spoke of rioters trying to get inside their homes. “Most of them were trying to escape and just go back home,” said a resident of Sector 17.

Armed forces reportedly tackled the mob in that sector with water canons. They rounded up the vandals, but reportedly dropped a few apologetic, terrified Dera followers to the railway station to find their way home.

Fire truck burnt down. Photo credit: Satvika Kundu
The funeral van inside Aggarwal Bhavan was targetted. Photo credit: Satvika Kundu