By Manoj Kumar for Youth Ki Awaaz:
The hearing was scheduled for 2.30 pm, but we were already outside the court early in the morning. Supporters gathered outside were raising slogans and singing bhajans. They seemed to be in high spirits believing they had put enough pressure on the government and the court, and that this would reflect in Baba’s verdict. Even then, many in the crowd were armed with petrol bombs and rods. Just in case.
About 12.30 pm, we received news that Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan had left his ashram with about 200 vehicles in tow and that he would be greeting his followers before entering the court. Hearing this, the crowd got excited and started gathering closer around the court. Baba walked into the court hall at 2.35 pm, dressed in a white kurta with a pagdi on his head. He seemed quieter than his usual, boisterous self and was visibly tense. He did not greet or smile at anyone and just stood with his hands folded and head bowed.
As soon as the judge declared him guilty, the lawyer turned towards him and in that moment, he started crying. He did not even wipe away his tears. The Army then took Baba into custody without letting him interact with anyone.
Within 15 minutes, word about Baba’s conviction spread. With him being whisked away from the back gate, his anxious followers started getting even more restless.
The first reports of violence came in from Panchkula’s Sector 2, which is closest to the CBI special court. Dera followers started raising slogans and attacking media persons outside court.
Followers who had appeared empty-handed were now armed with sticks and rods. They were soon joined by more followers carrying petrol and diesel cans. This happened despite the police claiming they had taken all precautions (While the police asserted they had thoroughly checked the belongings of the followers, sources in the department revealed that those who had arrived at Panchkula three to four days ago had not been checked and that they may have been the ones who brought the weapons).
Some volunteers who were managing the crowd earlier were now nowhere to be found. Within minutes, the crowd went berserk and started pelting stones.
In many places, the mob spread out like guerrilla armies and laid siege to residential areas, police vans and every road leading to and from Panchkula.
The police personnel started running away and media persons hid in any corner they could find. Once the police force disappeared, the Dera supporters, armed with crude petrol bombs and tins of fuel, started torching parked vehicles near the court.
The mob went about targeting government buildings in the area. It first broke into the LIC building, smashed window panes, damaged furniture and then vandalised the Income Tax office.
Sensing the situation was worsening, the order to fire was given out and the police resorted to firing rubber pellets, tear gas shells, water cannons and shots in the air. About 10 people fell to the ground and were trampled upon by their fellow Dera supporters but that did not deter the mob.
Thousands of impassioned and armed Dera followers then started moving towards the centre of the city and residential colonies. Here, panic spread among the residents after they saw the Dera supporters enter their areas, and in some places even markets and buildings. The Army then swooped in and started detaining people who had entered residential colonies, handing them over to the police.
The situation improved slightly only after the paramilitary forces stepped in. Police sources informed us that by then, 15 people had died and hundreds had been injured. A source in the civil hospital revealed to me that the hospital was filled with stretchers and the injured were pouring in. The injured include policemen and media persons too.
It seems that the Dera supporters had a plan in place, just in case the verdict wasn’t in their favour. Between 3.30 pm and 7.30 pm, they attacked various sectors, including Sector 2 and Sector 15, which have been the worst-affected by the violence. These attacks started one by one so that the security forces had to scatter to control them. Despite restrictions on bulk buying of petrol, attackers were armed with petrol bombs and were torching vehicles along their route.
The mob seemed to have had a clear plan as far as the media is concerned – avoid getting filmed as they set about creating a ruckus.
Hindi news channel Aaj Tak’s journalists were one of the first to bear the brunt of their wrath as did the channel’s OB van, which was set afire. Soon, the OB van of Network 18 was also overturned.
Media persons in Panchkula were understandably angry. They are shocked that supporters who were talking to them openly before the verdict, were now attacking them brutally.
Discussing the attack with other reporters, we realized there was another reason to attack the media this systemically. During the Jat protest, it was alleged that police personnel had sourced many photos and videos from media houses to identify and implicate the rioters. These had also been presented in court as evidence. Perhaps, the rioters wanted to avoid making similar mistakes.
The media was also targeted by the police who did not want to be captured as they fled the scene, or be recorded using undue force on the mob.
As Baba is whisked off to jail in a helicopter and armed forces continue to bring the mob under control, the locals have been left angry and terrified. Even though residents had anticipated tension, stocked up on supplies and ensured extra safety measures, the violence has caused massive damage to public property. Within a matter of hours, the town of Panchkula was torn apart at the hands of the angry few.
Manoj Kumar is a Chandigarh-based freelance writer reporting from Panchkula, Haryana. He is a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.