CHANDIGARH: The Army was called out and curfew was imposed in 10 districts of Punjab's Malwa region, home to a large number of Dera Sacha Sauda followers, as violence spread to the state following the conviction of the sect chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in a rape case today.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who was personally monitoring the situation, appealed to the people to remain calm and not to take the law in their hands.
The chief minister spoke to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley to apprise them of the situation.
He also spoke to Congress president Sonia Gandhi on the situation in Punjab and informed her of the steps taken by his government to maintain peace in the state.
Police have launched a major crackdown and arrested some supporters of the Dera Sacha Sauda, including a member of its state-level committee, an official spokesperson said.
The chief minister said the decision to call out the Army was taken to prevent any loss of life or damage to public/ private property in the 10 districts -- Sangrur, Barnala, SAS Nagar (Mohali), Bathinda, Mansa, Ferozepur, Fazilka, Faridkot, Sri Muktsar Sahib and Moga.
"The Army was staging flag-march in the curfew-bound areas of Punjab to restore the confidence of the people," he said.
Police patrolling has been intensified across the state, especially on highways and major roads. Eleven senior police officers have been deputed to supervise various security measures over the next 24 hours, especially during the night, the official spokesperson said.
Two railway stations -- Malout and Balluanna -- in Punjab were torched by the angry Dera followers. Besides, about 40 incidents of vandalism and arson were reported from across the state.
There were 28 incidents of arson, besides damage to state/central government offices/properties in seven districts of the Malwa region, the spokesperson said.
The Punjab government has arranged for more than 200 buses to escort the Dera supporters out of Panchkula in a regulated manner to ensure peaceful transition through Punjab on way back to Sirsa, the headquarters of Dera Sacha Sauda.
The chief minister expressed shock that "the situation was allowed to escalate by the Haryana government".
"The trouble could have been averted had the Dera supporters been stopped from aggregating in one place," he said, adding that the Haryana government should have stopped trains and buses from reaching Panchkula, just as Punjab had done.
"Preventive and precautionary measures should have been taken in time," he said, adding that it was the responsibility of any state government to maintain law and order.
The Punjab government spokesperson said the state government was in control of the situation in the state.
The chief minister said the Dera supporters were allegedly resorting to violence while on their way back to their homes from Panchkula, where a CBI court convicted the self-styled godman.
He expressed hope that the situation would be controlled by tomorrow morning.
In his appeal broadcast through television and on social media, the chief minister exhorted the people of Punjab not to get provoked by rumours and to respect and accept the court orders.
He assured the people that a tight blanket of paramilitary and police forces was in place across the state to ensure their safety and security.
The Chief Minister, who went around the vulnerable areas of the state near Panchkula earlier in the day, ahead of the court verdict, said his government would not allow anyone to destroy the peace and harmony of Punjab at any cost.
"We will not let the atmosphere of the state be vitiated at any cost," he warned, adding that besides 85 companies of CRPF and BSF deployed on the ground, the Army was in full readiness to deal with any untoward incident. The security forces were fully prepared to tackle any eventuality, he added.
At least 30 people were killed and 250 injured in widespread violence, arson and police firing in Haryana triggered by the conviction.
While 28 people were killed in Panchkula, the epicentre of the violence, two died in Sirsa.
CBI judge Jagdeep Singh, while holding the Dera chief guilty of raping two female followers more than 15 years ago, said the quantum of sentence would be pronounced on August 28.
The punishment can be a jail term of not less than seven years but may even extend to life imprisonment.