The unprecedented outbreak of violence and arson that followed the conviction by a CBI court of the Dera Sacha Sauda’s maverick chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in two rape cases numbed the senses. That over 35 people were killed and over 250 seriously injured is infuriating because it was totally avoidable. The Punjab and Haryana High Court pointed out in a sharp reaction on Saturday that for “vote bank” politics the ML Khattar government in Haryana “surrendered” to allow over 1.5 lakh followers to assemble in Panchkula, where the verdict was given. On Monday, the CBI court announced a 20-year jail term.

Even a trainee or junior IAS officer in a district post would not have allowed such a massive build-up of people, as the violence after an adverse verdict was inevitable. It’s a no brainer. Dera followers converged upon Panchkula armed with lathis, firearms and hundreds of bottles of petrol, which was used to burn vehicles and buildings. The plan of action was evident, but the Haryana CM fiddled while Panchkula burned.

All this violence for a man who was convicted for rape! Hence scores of tweets, mainly from women, who asked: “Such massive support for a rapist. Are you still wondering why women feel unsafe in India?” For me the most defining moment was the TV image of women supporters throwing stones and defying the police. To express support for a rapist!

When it comes to faith and religious fanaticism, Indian women outdo men by a long shot. Tragically, there are innumerable instances of “godmen” — Hindu, Muslim, Christian or any other — sexually exploiting and assaulting women, or indulging in child abuse. This is common knowledge .

Shocking complaints

After an anonymous letter was sent by a Dera ‘sadhvi’ in 2002 to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee — full credit to him for getting it investigated — the district court in Sirsa tried to get evidence but failed as the terrorised victims refused to speak out.

The case was handed over to the CBI and so huge was his political clout and following — six crore devotees providing a mouth-watering vote bank —— that only in 2006 did the CBI convince the two sadhvis to testify against the accused.

Apparently, a good chunk of the followers are very poor or Dalits who are not accepted by other caste-ridden sects. Most of the crowd in Panchkula was from poor/Dalit families. When you face poverty or caste/religion-based oppression, you will embrace devoutly whoever accepts you.

That makes the tragedy greater; you turn to someone you consider a higher power for solace for your troubles, illnesses, injustice or whatever, force your daughters to join the cesspool and face sexual torture. Women, and often children, are much more vulnerable to this malaise rooted, sadly, in religion and faith.

Having investigated similar complaints of rape in the ashram of the so-called godman Premananda in Pudukottai in the mid-1990s, and being responsible for his arrest and conviction — two life-terms — for both rape and murder, I guess I should feel lucky that I ended up with nothing more severe than a plethora of abusive midnight calls for a week.

Well done, CBI!

But 15 years ago, journalist Ram Chander Chhatrapati was shot dead after he made public the rape allegation against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. Even though this case took a ridiculous 15 years — we now know why — kudos to the CBI for not giving up and delivering justice to the two ‘sadhvis’. Perhaps the parrot does fly out of the cage in some cases!

It is infuriating to learn from their deposition before the CBI judges the modus operandi; how different girls were summoned by him and raped, after which they would get into a list referred to by the victims as “ pitaji ki mafi ”, code words for the women already raped by him.

The clout he has is scary indeed — arrival in a humongous convoy, his briefcase carried in the court premises by the assistant advocate general, since sacked, and other perks. It makes you apprehend possible acquittal by a higher court.

One aspect this sordid saga reiterates is the unholy nexus between politics and religion. And how most religious sects are carefully cultivated and patronised by politicians to harvest a rich cache of votes in elections.

Had powerful Haryana ministers not been his bhakts, the circus in Panchkula before the verdict and the violent aftermath could have been prevented by a firm district administration.

Election victory is sweet indeed, and has to be ensured by hook or crook, or the patronage of criminal godmen. If a part of it comes at the cost of sexual exploitation of vulnerable women, isn’t it unavoidable collateral damage?