Dera Sacha Sauda sect members overturn an OB van on the streets of Panchkula. Image: AP
“India is the land of Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Buddha. Violence is not acceptable in the nation, in any form,” said the Prime Minister in his Sunday Mann Ki Baat radio address. This comes on the heels of 36 deaths and over 250 injured in violence that that erupted after Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted and arrested in a 2002 rape case.
Violence and damage to public property after court verdict is highly condemnable; appeal to all citizens to maintain peace #PresidentKovind— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) August 25, 2017Over a lakh of his followers were allowed to assemble in Panchkula ahead of the verdict, and once the news was out of his conviction large mobs threw stones, clashed with the police and set fire to vehicles and public property in Panchkula as well as in other parts of Haryana and Punjab.
The instances of violence today are deeply distressing. I strongly condemn the violence & urge everyone to maintain peace.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) August 25, 2017
As the violence raged on, the Punjab and Haryana high court took the government to task stating that the Prime Minister is of the nation and not the BJP. The bench observed, “National integrity is above parties. Are we one nation or a party nation?” The Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has come under criticism for allowing large groups of Rahims followers were allowed to gather as the court pronounced the verdict.
As with many god men and women, Rahim Singh had his fare share of a cult following. The flamboyant guru runs an empire under the brand name MSG which includes everything from shampoos and hair-oil to running 11 schools and two colleges which includes a management institute. How does a man gain such a following with violence and death in the vein of defending a convicted rapist? The Hindustan Times editorial stated that people like Ram Rahim must not be allowed to become a public nuisance –
“Despite appeals for calm, his supporters continued their rampage after the verdict was announced. But the larger question is how these cults are allowed to become a law unto themselves and how it is that they seem to feel a sense of entitlement that they are above the law.”
“If Ram Rahim Singh was as keen as he seemed to be that his followers should not create such a public nuisance on his account, he should have reined them in. The fact that the supporters were out in full force was indication that this had at least the tacit approval of Ram Rahim Singh”
“The authorities need to take a look at how such cults become almost uncontrollable and stop them from any unlawful activity like stockpiling arms from inception. Deploying the resources of the state to ensure peace over one man’s conviction seems not just a huge waste but inefficiency in managing law and order in the first place.”
Not helping matters was Haryana minister and BJP MLA Manish Grover stating that the violence was “natural” and it was an expression of their “natural anger”. The BJP might want to realize the close proximity and relationship it has with the now convicted Rahim Singh in the eyes of some. The Haryana minister blamed the media for creating an atmosphere of panic in the state. Grover has reportedly donated Rs 11 lakh to the Dera Sacha Sauda from government funds.
The Times of India editorial blamed the Haryana government for the violence –
“…what’s inexplicable is that in the run up to the court verdict the dera chief was able to get more than 1.5 lakh of his followers to descend on Panchkula in a show of strength. This is a clear failure of the Haryana government to maintain law and order.”
“BJP often accuses other parties like Congress and SP of pandering to populist sentiments or vote banks. However, it’s guilty of the same with respect to Ram Rahim and his followers today. State governments in coordination with the home ministry must take strict action against the perpetrators and ensure law and order at all costs.”
The Dera Chief supported the BJP in the 2014 Assembly elections. He has held events where senior BJP leaders such as Kailash Vijayvargiya and Manoj Tiwari were present. Haryana Education Minister Ram Bilas Sharma stated the week prior that he followers were peace loving people and he even donated Rs.50 lakh as a mark of support to the Dera chief. A year ago, Health and Sports Minister Anil Vij also donated Rs 50 lakh.
The Hindu editorial stated that it was anarchy in Haryana as the verdict was given –
“…mob violence is difficult to control without resort to extreme force, but in this case the government seemed to rely entirely on the good sense of the sect’s followers. It failed to foresee violence on such a large scale, and no viable security plan was in place until after several hours of lawlessness.”
“Religious sects such as the Dera Sacha Sauda that command a huge following are often handled with kid gloves by governments as they can deliver votes in blocks. Senior BJP leaders, including ministers, have often been seen seeking the blessings of the Dera leader.”
“Clearly, godmen and cult leaders believe they are above the law. It is for the government and law enforcement agencies to disabuse them of that notion, especially when, as in the case of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, they face charges of rape and murder.”
The two hands at play here are stark. The first is the large cult like following that people like Ram Rahim has. An obsession among millions in India with godmen and following their words and actions without question can get dangerous as the Ram Rahim episode has clearly demonstrated. In an op-ed for News18, senior journalist Bhavdeep Singh writes on India’s obsession with these self proclaimed godmen –
“The question of why mentally sound individuals are willing to sacrifice their health, wealth, family and friends at the behest of a godman continues to puzzle social psychologists. It is not that such people are chronically depressed or don’t value their lives; it is just that they value their guru more.”
“The Dera Sacha Sauda was one of many cults in Punjab and Haryana when he took over in 1990. He expanded it many times over, leveraging his personal charisma and launching a variety of social welfare campaigns. As the number of his followers has grown, so has his political clout — to the point where he now feels secure in challenging the secular power of the state.”
The second is a state government and party who were inept in keeping law and order as the High Court had observed. The latest Times of India editorial stated that political interference had affected the Haryana police –
“But what about the accountability of chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar? Indeed the Punjab and Haryana high court has already indicted his government severely. Holding the state’s political interference in policing responsible for how dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s followers were able to run riot after his rape conviction”
“BJP brass is obdurately holding on to the position that the Khattar government should get credit for how its strong measures quelled the rioting within a day. This is a preposterous claim. The plain fact is that the storming of Panchkula and then the intense clashes resulting in 36 deaths could have been avoided with basic police work.”
The government, law enforcement and the state face another test as the sentencing is set to take place today. Thousands of police have been deployed and internet services have been shut down in Haryana and Punjab, educational institutions have been closed as the state is on high alert.
Once this episode has played itself out, the larger question remains; how are people like Ram Rahim, a wealthy flamboyant self-proclaimed godman able to attract millions who turn into a mob the minute their “dear leader” is in trouble with law. Strong words from the leader of a party that often courts these men and women is going to ring hallow.
More columns by Varun Sukumar