Deras are sects which adhere to no particular religion and attract a large following and consequently wield considerable political influence in Haryana and Punjab.
Within hours of the verdict, Singh’s supporters, who had assembled in large numbers in the vicinity of the court, went on a rampage, damaging public and private property—the mob singled out the assembled media, setting on fire their cars and the outdoor broadcasting vans of television channels.
Not only has the outbreak of violence shown the Haryana administration in poor light, large parts of North India are now at risk. At least 30 people were killed and 250 injured in widespread violence, arson and police firing in Haryana, PTI reported. While 28 people were killed in Panchkula, the epicentre of the violence, two died in Sirsa, where the Dera is located, PTI said.
The entire episode has brought the tenure of Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar under fresh scrutiny. The administration was found similarly wanting in dealing with the aftermath of a violent Jat agitation for reservations, which led to the death of 30 people.
“Briefed (Union home minister Rajnath Singh). Situation is being monitoring extensively. Strict action will be taken against those who try to disrupt peace," Khattar tweeted on Friday evening.
The high court of Punjab and Haryana has directed the state administration to attach the properties of the Dera to compensate for the damage caused by its supporters.
According to a PTI report, CBI judge Jagdeep Singh held the Dera Sacha Sauda chief guilty of rape in a case that was registered on the basis of an anonymous written complaint in 2002 that he had sexually exploited two female followers. The sentence will be pronounced on 28 August.
Soon after the judgement was announced, Singh’s followers, who had camped in the thousands in Panchkula, started attacking security personnel and media vehicles. This escalated fast, eventually leading to vehicles, buildings and public property being set on fire.
At least two railway stations in Punjab were set on fire along with two empty coaches of a train at Anand Vihar railway station in Delhi and one bus in Ghaziabad. A vehicle was set on fire by a group of unidentified people in Rajasthan’s Sriganganagar, Singh’s birthplace.
The Punjab government imposed curfew in 10 districts and deployed 85 paramilitary companies; the Army was kept on standby.
The Punjab and Haryana high court rapped the Khattar government for its apparent inability to maintain law and order ahead of the verdict and also pulled it up for not imposing prohibitory orders against the assembly of more than four people in any area to prevent Singh’s followers from converging in Panchkula. It added that it did not want a repeat of the Jat stir in the state.
“The Haryana political bosses were requested to impose curfew from Thursday night to ensure safety, but it was ignored," a senior Haryana police officer said on condition of anonymity.
Political analysts say that Khattar should take responsibility for the developments.
“It shows complete failure of the administration in taking pre-emptive measures, especially keeping past incidents in mind. They allowed the situation to get out of hand. It is a collective failure of the political class," said Ashutosh Kumar, a Punjab-based political analyst and professor in the department of political science at Panjab University in Chandigarh.
“The Prime Minister needs to step in. It cannot be left to CM Khattar, who has proved ineffective in the past... centre should take responsibility," he added.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for peace in a series of tweets on Friday evening and added that the law-and-order situation was being closely monitored.
“The instances of violence today are deeply distressing. I strongly condemn the violence and urge everyone to maintain peace. The law and order situation is being closely monitored. I reviewed the situation with the NSA and home secretary. Urged officials to work round the clock to restore normalcy and provide all possible assistance that is required," he posted on Twitter.
Earlier in the day, more than 150,000 supporters of Singh had reached Panchkula, not just from Punjab and Haryana but also from Delhi and as far as Madhya Pradesh. Hundreds of Dera followers and Singh’s disciples had camped along pavements leading to the district court in Panchkula.
While all internet as well as SMS services had been suspended, schools, colleges and offices had also been instructed to remain shut on Friday in Punjab and Haryana.
Even as shops remained shut, civilians in Panchkula were on tenterhooks with essential supplies running out. Bus services run by the Haryana and Punjab state governments were suspended, while 263 trains to both states were cancelled.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi expressed concern over the violence and appealed for peace. In a statement, Gandhi said several people including children had died in the violence, and “there was widespread destruction of public property and senseless attacks" on the media.
Jyotika Sood, Pretika Khanna and Anuja in New Delhi contributed to the story.