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Rediff.com  » News » 'It was scary to see the black sky. To hear gunshots'

'It was scary to see the black sky. To hear gunshots'

August 25, 2017 23:24 IST

'It was frightening to feel that you were in a war-like situation.'
'Why do I have to feel unsafe in my own country?' asks angry Panchkula resident Raashi Sethia.
Rediff.com's Savera R Someshwar listens in.

IMAGE: Dera Sacha Sauda followers pelted stones and hurled bottles to protest the conviction of the sect's head, Gurmeet Ram Rahim. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

"We could hear people howling loudly. Even if the TV had not told us, we would have known that the verdict was out and had gone against Ram Rahim."

"Then, we heard gunfire."

Raashi Sethia, who lives in Panchkula, felt a frisson of fear, which was replaced by anger when she saw how frightened her two children, aged 11 and seven, were.

 

Panchkula -- a planned city like Chandigarh -- houses the Central Bureau of Investigation court where the 50-year-old Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, was convicted of rape in a case that spanned 200 hearings over 10 years, and began as an anonymous written complaint in 2002 which accused him of sexually exploiting two of his female followers.

It was because of this verdict that, for the last few days, life in this quiet community has not been normal.

"Over the last few days, several Ram Rahim supporters have been coming to Panchkula. They have been living in Town Park in Sector 5,” says 34-year-old Sethia.

Normally, says Sethia, the park would attract joggers and walkers. Children would play there.

But not for the last few days though.

"It was uncomfortable going there," says Sethia. "People were cooking and defecating in the open. There were water tankers all over. The huge crowd attracted all kinds of vendors -- from water, to toys, to ice creams -- who are not normally seen here."

"When it rained, this crowd would take shelter under shop awnings in the market place."

IMAGE: Rioters smashed television channel vans in Panchkula. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

There was an increased police presence in the area. On the day of the verdict, Panchkula had a double ring of security -- an inner ring of police personnel and an outer ring of wired barricade.

Schools had been shut for four days.

But the Dera followers -- "mostly young people," she says -- were generally quiet, so she felt that maybe she was over thinking the matter.

"I thought, maybe, they just wanted to see their guru. Also, we could step out and traffic was not too badly affected."

Then, the verdict was announced.

Around 2 pm, Sethia decided to quickly step out of her bungalow with her husband and stock up on some groceries from the only shop that was open in her sector.

As she reached the huge gates that guarded the sector, "We could see a big, angry mob rushing our way. They were pelting stones and throwing glass bottles. They were smashing the windows of every car that they passed."

The Sethias asked the security guards to quickly close the gates that allowed entry into their sector.

In the distance, they could see that the sky had been discoloured by a huge pall of black smoke.

They could also see a police helicopter clattering in the air.

IMAGE: Security personnel walk past a vehicle burnt in the violence. Photograph: PTI Photo

As the Sethias neared home, their eyes started itching in reaction, she guesses, to the tear gas used by the police to control the Dera followers.

"The crowd could not get into our sector," she says, "but they did get in at some other places. My friends have sent me videos where the Dera followers have climbed the walls of their homes and entered the compound. It's a very frightening situation."

They were lucky, she says, that the gates to their sector was closed on time.

"We have a lovely roundabout outside our sector," says Sethia, "with a small statue and flower arrangements. It was completely vandalised."

Later, her husband -- who had not been able to go to work that day -- wanted to step out to check on the situation. And the kids were in tears. They clung to him and didn't want him to go.

Sethia has decided that she is not going to send her children to school for another week at least, till she is confident about their safety.

"It was scary to see the black sky. To hear gunshots. It was frightening to feel that you were in a war-like situation."

"Why do I have to feel unsafe in my own country? Why do we have to fall prey to such goons? You knew something like this was going to happen, so why were you not prepared?"

"What's the point in imposing Section 144 (it bans an assembly of more than four people in an area) and then allowing all these people to gather here? The same thing happened in Sonepat and Rohtak during the Jat agitation. Does it mean that you can form a mob, create an atmosphere of fear and do anything?"

"If we are repeating our mistakes like this, then we are idiots. There are reports that Ram Rahim has influence over a huge vote bank. Is that all that matters?"

"When will our politicians stop thinking of vote banks and think of the people?"

Savera R Someshwar / Rediff.com