Over the past four days, India has helplessly watched a rapist hold parts of the country to ransom.
On Aug. 25, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, a self-styled spiritual leader and head of the 70-million-strong Dera Sacha Sauda cult, was convicted of raping two female followers.
The verdict sparked an orgy of violence, with thousands of his followers going on a rampage killing 38 people and damaging property worth millions of rupees.
The turmoil began at the group’s headquarters in Sirsa near the Indian city of Chandigarh, the shared capital of the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. It soon spread to India’s capital of New Delhi, some 250 kilometres away, forcing the police to bar the assembly of four or more persons at a public spot.
In Punjab and Haryana, mobs set fire to government buildings and attacked police and TV journalists, forcing the police to use tear gas, water cannons, and firing in the air.
With the court scheduled to read out the sentence on Aug. 28, panic has gripped the region with schools and colleges remaining shut and mobile and internet services across Punjab and Haryana being suspended. Meanwhile, the violence has reportedly spread to other northern Indian states, including Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
“I had said it in my address at the Red Fort that violence in the name of faith will not be tolerated whether it is communal belief systems, following a particular political ideology, whether it is allegiance to a person or customs and traditions,” prime minister Narendra Modi said on Aug. 27 as part of his monthly radio talk Mann ki Baat. “No one has the right to take law in their hands in the name of faith.”
Modi was speaking a day after the high court of Punjab and Haryana pulled him up for his government’s lack of preparedness, particularly since intelligence agencies had warned of trouble. “He is the prime minister of not the BJP but of India,” the court had said.
While there are no official estimates on the damages caused by the violence, the court has asked the government to attach the properties of the convict to pay for the damages. Here is a look at the destruction caused over the past few days.
Soon after the conviction, Singh’s followers set two railway coaches on fire in New Delhi. Some 445 trains were cancelled across Punjab and Haryana while two stations in Punjab, Malout and Balluanna, were partially gutted.
The government now says service has been restored. However, the Delhi-Rohtak-Bathinda section is not yet operational and Indian Railways awaits security clearance for it.
With trains and bus services hit, airlines raked up fares. The one-hour flight between Chandigarh and New Delhi now costs between Rs9,000 and Rs15,000.
Hotels in both Punjab and Haryana have faced severe loss.
The state has lost around Rs100 crore almost everyday since the verdict, Satish Arora, president of the Punjab Hotels, Bars & Restaurants Union, reckons. “The hotels began suffering losses three days before the verdict was to be pronounced. The guests staying in hotels checked out anticipating tense situation in the city post the verdict in the case. Only those guests who are stranded due to suspension of bus and railway services had stayed back in the hotels and the occupancy rate has fallen down to only about 10%,” The Tribune newspaper quoted Arora as saying.
In Haryana, too, bookings were cancelled between Aug. 25 and Sept. 05. “I have talked to most of my association members and they have informed me that around 80% of the bookings have been cancelled due to fear of any untoward situation in Haryana,” Manbir Choudhary, state president of the Hotel and Restaurants Association Haryana, said.
In Punjab, traders have lost between Rs5 crore and Rs6 crore every day over the past few days.
“The losses began not on Friday but a few days before that since people stopped stepping out, anticipating violence as Dera followers made their way to Panchkula,” Rajinder Raju, district president of the traders’ body, Punjab Pradesh Beopar Mandal, said.
It will be a few days before normalcy returns, the traders fear.
With civic routines stopping abruptly, garbage has been piling up in many of the affected cities in the region.
In Bathinda, for instance, the municipal corporation had suspended collection of garbage for three days. “Owing to the curfew for several hours over these three days, garbage was not picked up from close to 64,000 households of the city and the secondary garbage picking points could be seen littered with trash,” The Tribune newspaper reported.
Schools and colleges across the two affected states have been shut for the past few days, including on Monday (Aug. 28).
Internet services in both Punjab and Haryana had been suspended since Aug. 24 and will remain suspended till Aug. 29.
“The Haryana government has extended the suspension of mobile internet services, including 2G, 3G, 4G, CDMA, and GPRS, all SMS services, and dongle services provided on mobile networks, except voice calls, in the state till 11.30am on Aug. 29,” Ram Niwas, an additional chief secretary in Haryana’s home ministry, said.
Broadband internet services at the Dera Sacha Sauda headquarters in Sirsa have also been suspended.