PANCHKULA: August 25 dawned and almost everything seemed routine. People set about their daily work just like another day. Perhaps the only thing out of place was the large gathering of crowds outside the special CBI court in Panchkula. This was the Big Day, I thought. The court would be deciding the fate of Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh, accused in a sexual assault case dating back to 2002, and head of the Dera Sacha Sauda.
The security forces were a reassuring sight though. After all, nothing could possibly go wrong with the men in green around, could they? The premis sat huddled, apprehensive but calm, as if waiting for the storm that seemed inevitable.
Moving around the epicentre, all I could think of was what if there is a sudden rain? What will happen to these people? Where will they seek shelter? That was all I was worried about at noon on Friday.
In fact, I also reassured a friend who had called to ask whether he could drive back to his home in Panchkula from Chandigarh post lunch that everything is just fine. How wrong would I be proved in just a couple of hours! And then, shortly after 3 pm all hell broke loose.
Ram Rahim was convicted by the special CBI court. There was a sudden ripple in the immense crowd of devotees that had been allowed to gather despite Section 144 in place.
The Dera supporters, who had been patiently waiting all this while, attacked the police and media. The OB vans of various TV channels were the first victims as angry youngsters set them afire.
Not satiated, they took to forcibly shutting shops and ransacking public properties and setting train coaches and state buses on fire. Needless to say, many including media personnel and cops sustained injuries.
Armed with tear gas and lathis against the violent supporters, who were shooting at the police, the cops had little option other than retreating. But by then, the emboldened mob had tasted blood. Mayhem reigned for the next few hours as they held the state to ransom.
With the state machinery conspicuously absent, by evening it was almost a free for all. Streets were littered with burnt vehicles, injured, and the dead. The sound of sirens filled the air. It was not before late evening and after 30 reported dead when a semblance of normalcy returned. By then Section 144 had been announced in 10 places across Delhi and in Noida, as well as curfew had been put in place in most places in Haryana and Punjab.
My friend could not reach home. He had to abandon his car midway and seek shelter in another friend’s home. As for me, I sought shelter with a cousin till late evening when things were not as bad and then cautiously drove back home.