At least 31 people have died in the violence that erupted at Panchkula town after religious leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted of rape.
Panchukla is a small town near Chandigarh, Punjab. The violence later spread to Delhi, the nation’s capital, where two train coaches were set on fire.
The Dera Sacha Sauda is a spiritual cult established in 1948 in Haryana. It has over 46 ashrams across India with centres in countries like the US and Canada. According to certain estimates, there are 60 million followers of this organization in the world.
The leader of Dera Sacha Sauda, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, has been a controversial figure in India. He took over as the head of the group in 1990. In 2002, a female follower of the group allegedly wrote to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, accusing Singh of raping her. On September 2002, a CBI probe was launched into the claim. Additionally, in 2002, murder charges were filed against Singh in connection to the death of Ram Chander Chhatra, a journalist who wrote about the group. After 14 years, Singh was convicted of rape by a special CBI court in Panchkula. He was taken into judicial custody and he will be sentence on August 28, 2017.
Singh has been praised over the years by many politicians from different political parties. In 2014, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi Tweeted his support for Singh in spearheading the Swachh Bharat initiative. He has also praised him during a campaign rally for the Lok Sabha polls in 2014
The day before the verdict was to be announced, close to 1.5 lakh devotees of the group came to support their spiritual leader. Ram Rahim posted a video message urging his followers to go home but none conceded. There was heavy deployment of armed forces to control the crowds.
The United States embassy and consulates in India issued a safety advisory for its citizens ahead of the judgement of a special court.
Violence and rioting erupted almost immediately after Singh was convicted of rape. There were clashes between the police and the followers. The armed forces had to use tear gas. Violence erupted in other regions in Haryana and Punjab. According to the latest media reports, at least 31 have died as a result of this violence. In Delhi two train coaches were set on fire.
As violence escalated during the day, close to 200 trains in Punjab and Haryana were cancelled. The army was also called in to 10 districts.
PM Modi took to Twitter to condemn the violence. He said, “The instances of violence today are deeply distressing. I strongly condemn the violence & urge everyone to maintain peace. The law & order situation is being closely monitored. I reviewed the situation with the NSA & Home Secretary.”
Manohar Lal Khattar, the Chief Minister of Haryana, has been criticized for seemingly excusing the followers of Dera Sacha Sauda. A statement from his office read, “The Chief Minister said some anti-social elements got mixed up with the followers of Dera Sacha Sauda after the delivery of the verdict by the CBI court in the case involving the Dera chief, resorted to violence and disrupted the peace. Strict action is being taken against these persons. No one is above the law and strict action will be taken against anyone who tries to take the law into his hands.”
BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj has questioned the decision to convict Singh of rape. He told reporters, “I respect the judiciary but I want to say that crores of people are supporting Ram Rahim, and only one person is complaining against him. Is one person right or are crores of people right?”
Our assessment is that the government of Haryana has to be tactful in handling this issue. It’s quite apparent that the situation is very emotive. What is worrying is that hundreds of thousands of people are taken to the streets in support of it. If this tendency is not curbed, we might be entering into a new phase of mobocracy.