Army called in as Panchkula braces for Dera chief verdict
New Delhi : With hours left for the CBI court's verdict on Friday in a rape case against Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and tension mounting in Haryana's Panchkula, adjoining here, Army was called in to deal with any situation along with other security forces.
Central para-military forces and Haryana Police tried to evict the Dera Sacha Sauda supporters gathered in thousands at various places in Panchkula, through the intervening night of Thursday and Friday.
However, the sect disciples stayed put. The verdict in the rape and sexual exploitation of a woman devotee allegedly by self-styled godman -- the Dera chief -- was likely to be announced around 2.30 pm.
Haryana Director General of Police (DGP) B.S. Sandhu said that 20 columns of the Army have been requisitioned. They have staged a flag march on Friday morning.
This is in addition to thousands of para-military forces and Haryana Police personnel already deployed in Panchkula.
Residents of Panchkula town had been facing a harrowing time in the past 72 hours with the heavy deployment of security forces, Dera followers swarming roads, parks and other open spaces and several roads being barricaded.
Shops and other establishments remained shut on Friday fearing violence after the verdict. The Dera chief was expected to arrive in the Panchkula special CBI court on a helicopter from his sect headquarters near Sirsa town in Haryana. He was asked to be present during the verdict.
Police sources said that the sect chief will fly out from his Sirsa headquarters around 12 noon. Singh, late on Thursday night, issued a video appeal to his followers to leave Panchkula and return to their homes.
"I had appealed to followers earlier also not to go to Panchkula. I appeal to them to return to their homes. I will appear before the court and I will go there," he said in his appeal.
The situation was tense at the Dera headquarters, about eight km from Sirsa town. The district administration in Sirsa has imposed curfew from 10 pm on Thursday. However, people were seen roaming around the sect headquarters.
Dera spokesman Aditya Insan said the sect followers will maintain peace in Sirsa and Panchkula.
"There are around five lakh followers who have gathered in and around Sirsa. There are about seven to eight lakh followers gathered in Panchkula," the spokesman said.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court on Thursday rapped the BJP government in Haryana, led by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, for not stopping the sect followers from coming to Panchkula.
Unconfirmed reports said nearly 1.5 lakh Dera supporters have assembled in Panchkula town. DGP Sandhu told the media on Thursday night that as per the court's directives the police have started their drive to control the supporters gathered in Panchkula.
The High Court will be again hear the matter regarding the assembly of the Dera followers. Sandhu said the law and order situation in the city was under control.
"Chandigarh Police is on high alert. Section 144 of the CrPC has already been imposed. No Dera follower is allowed to enter Chandigarh. If they try to enter, stern action will be taken," a police press release on Friday said.
The Army was on Thursday evening put on standby in Haryana and Punjab, even as authorities ordered imposition of curfew in Sirsa town. Sirsa Deputy Commissioner Prabhjot Singh said the curfew would remain imposed till further orders.
Tension prevailed in several parts of Haryana and Punjab as the Dera sect has millions of followers in both states.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh told the media here on Thursday that his government and police were fully prepared to deal with any situation emerging after the court verdict. They were in touch with the Army.
The tri-city area of Panchkula, Chandigarh and Mohali (in Punjab) were turned into a fortress, ahead of the judgment by the special CBI court judge Justice Jagdeep Singh.
Curfew-like restrictions have been imposed in various areas in both states, with educational institutions shut for two days (Thursday and Friday), trains cancelled and bus services disrupted.
Authorities have suspended mobile internet services and all SMS services. All dongle services provided on mobile networks, except voice calls for the next three days were also stopped.
Shops in Panchkula and Sirsa have been shut and stadia converted into temporary jail complexes. The alleged rape and sexual exploitation of the female follower was first reported through an anonymous letter in 2002 to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court here.
It has taken nearly 15 years to reach the verdict stage. The High Court had ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the matter. A journalist, Ram Chander Chhatrapati, who had first reported the sexual exploitation at the sect campus, was shot dead in October 2002.
The murder conspiracy case against Dera officials and the sect chief is being heard by the court separately. The sect followers regard their chief, who has a colourful personality and has acted in and directed three movies, as a "messenger of god".