Three years ago to the day, Haryana’s Panchkula was on tenterhooks as followers of Dera Sacha Sauda poured into the city ahead of the pronouncement of a local court’s verdict in a rape case against the Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.
Panchkula was put on alert as were several cities in Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan where the Sirsa-headquartered sect had considerable influence.
It wasn’t long until almost every observer’s worst fears came true. As soon as the court delivered its judgement convicting Gurmeet, his devotees went on rampage, particularly around the District Court Complex. By the time the police brought the mob under control, 36 people lay dead and swathes of property wrecked.
The mediapersons who had been stationed in Panchkula to report on Gurmeet’s trial and the mob buildup became the first target of the violence. Several of them were injured, and their vehicles and equipment were burnt.
As per data compiled by the Chandigarh Press Club, motorcycles and cars of 37 reporters were damaged by the mob. Of these, 26 vehicles were completely burnt apart from three broadcast vans. Cameras of six photojournalists and half a dozen laptops were also broken.
The Haryana government at the time promised to compensate the mediapersons for their losses. Three years on, they are still waiting.
“None of the reporters filed insurance claims after the Haryana government assured them of full and timely reimbursement. Till date nothing has happened,” said Saurabh Duggal, secretary general of the Chandigarh Press Club.
A PTI on the day of the violence quoted chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar as saying his government would provide compensation within a week to people whose property had been damaged. To this end, he added, a website would be launched within a day for claimants to provide details of their damaged property, including vehicles and broadcast vans. None of that happened.
“I have given up all hope of receiving compensation,” said Barinder Saluja, a journalist with the Times of India, whose car was burnt to ashes.
The mob violence, Barinder said, was “a clear case” of intelligence failure: the state’s security apparatus had failed to apprehend the consequences of letting a crowd gather ahead of the judgement.
“The police allowed the crowd to gather in and around commercial places and they began rioting after the court’s verdict,” he explained. “It is where our cars were put on fire by rioters.”
Mandeep Singh, a reporter for a local TV channel in Jalandhar, Punjab, lost not just his car in the violence, but also a laptop, a tripod, wireless mics he had left in it. “My watch, a wallet with Rs 3,000 in cash and other personal belongings were also burnt,” he added. “My total losses were over Rs 8 lakh but I have not got anything in return.”
According to a complaint filed with the Panchkula police by Sumit Singh, a journalist based in Mohali, on August 28, 2017, the Dera mob targeted the vehicle of his TV channel, Sikh TV, and burnt it down. In the vehicle were two video cameras, a video transmission device, a sports camera, and two laptops that were either all burnt or looted.
A long wait for relief
Three weeks after the violence, an titled “Blackout”, organised at the Chandigarh Press Club and later at Panjab University, brought out in grim detail the mayhem caused that day and captured by the photojournalists who were present there. A picture of a blackout was put up to symbolise the helplessness of the photojournalists who had lost cameras documenting the life-threatening situation.
One such photojournalist was Balish Ahuja, of the Times of India, who was reporting from the Kalka-Shimla highway, where some Dera devotees had been stopped by the police.
“As soon as the verdict came out, the crowd got agitated. Standing a bit afar, I began taking pictures of clashes between the police and the Dera followers, not realising a crowd was coming from my other side,” Balish recalled.
The mob, brandishing sticks and iron rods, snatched both of Balish’s cameras, smashed them into pieces and began beating him up. “I ran fast, with many of them chasing me. I was lucky to get shelter in a nearby police post. After two hours, when the situation normalised, I went back to the spot but my cameras were beyond retrieval,” he said.
Sant Arora, a photojournalist with the Hindustan Times, received injuries to his hands and shoulders after he was attacked by the mob. He had expected financial help from the state, Sant said, but it never came.
Journalists in Panchkula on the day of the violence.
Bhupinder Jishtu, a journalist with ETV, had watched helplessly as his car went up in flames after being targeted by the mob. He blamed the “negligence” of the security agencies for the violence that day. In spite of the chief minister promising to provide compensation within a week, Bhupinder added, his government never showed even sympathy towards the affected mediapersons.
In contrast, the government had dispersed within one year to victims of the Jat violence, which broke out in 2016. In fact, the deputy commissioners of the affected districts called the victims to their offices and gave them compensation cheques. The reason for this, Bhupinder explained, was “vote bank compulsions”.
In case of the Dera violence, the losses suffered by journalists amounted to no more than Rs 3 crore. Overall, property worth nearly Rs was damaged. The state suffered a revenue loss of about Rs 88 crore, and its exchequer took a hit of Rs 20 crore from the idling of public transport and trains as well as expenses related to mobilisation and deployment of security forces.
Considering this, the Khattar government should have prioritised giving compensation to those of the victims who needed it more urgently, Bhupinder argued. And mediapersons should have been top of the list given that most of them are on low wages. Indeed, it proved difficult for most of the journalists who had lost their vehicles and equipment in the violence to buy replacements.
But the Haryana government left it to the Punjab and Haryana High Court to take a call on compensation. The court is yet to decide the matter.
A journalist who asked not to be named claimed that he was privy to a conversation where a lawyer associated with the Dera violence case had said the state was indeed in a position to compensate the private persons, including mediapersons, for the losses suffered by them. But no effort was made in this regard.
However, Haryana’s advocate general, Baldev Raj Mahajan, told Newslaundry that the promised compensation could not be disbursed to victims of the Dera violence because of an order passed by the high court.
“I had even asked the honourable court to allow us to compensate private persons, including mediapersons who suffered losses during the violence, so that common citizens don’t have to suffer. But we did not get the permission,” he explained, adding that claims could not be settled until the high court ruled on the matter.
Generally, a state appoints claims commissioners to adjudicate such matters and pay out compensation. In the Dera violence case, claims commissioners are to be decided by the high court.
The case was finally nearing conclusion, Mahajan said, India was hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and it was delayed again.
The high court case
On August 29, 2017, the high court finalised eight points of law in the Dera violence case, three of which related to compensation.
“What would be the scope of jurisdiction of the court in exercise of powers under Article 226 to determine the compensation payable for the damages, directly or indirectly, to the public at large and the private property on account of acts of violence and arson in Panchkula and other parts of the states of Punjab and Haryana?”
“Whether the expenses for the loss and damages that have been caused are liable to be recovered from the defaulter and if so, whether it would include expenses incurred in damage to public and private properties, harassment, costs and the arrangements for mobilisation of security forces and the actual security operations?”
“Whether compensation can be recovered from persons indulging in the agitations where there are clear and unequivocal circumstances, which show that the violence, rioting and arson etc. had been carried out by a particular group, organization, sect, religious body, political parties etc?”
The court also framed an crucial legal point: whether the state of Haryana failed in its duty to prevent the gathering of crowds in Panchkula and elsewhere. “In consequence of the above, it would require examination whether there was any complicity on the part of the State of Haryana with the agitators?” the court declared.
Before the coronavirus outbreak early this year, the case was being regularly heard, having been fast-tracked in 2019. Amicus Curiae Anupam Gupta was making his final arguments when the court was shut in view of the pandemic. As per a January 8, 2020 , Gupta had told the court that the gathering of the Dera devotees in Panchkula before the pronouncement of the verdict against Gurmeet was illegal.
The matter was last heard in February and has now been deferred to .
Barinder Rawat, president of the Chandigarh Press Club, has requested the court to decide the case at the earliest to prevent further delay in the disbursal of compensation to the mediapersons and other victims of the violence.
“In case there is an delay in conclusion of the case, as it looks apparent now, the state should move an application for the reimbursement to the media and other private citizens on priority basis since they can’t wait any longer,” he said. "The club too had filed an application on behalf of reporters to seek early compensation but the court clubbed our application with those of other petitioners."
‘Poor police investigation’
Harpreet Singh, a cameraman with Eye-I TV news channel, had his Panasonic PV-100 camera and tripod snatched by the mob.
For this attack, the Panchkula police booked six Dera followers under penal provisions related to rioting, disappearing evidence and theft. They were all acquitted by a local court in April 2018.
The court ruled that the police had no reliable evidence to prove its case against the accused beyond the shadow of reasonable doubt. “It is a fit case where the benefit of doubt deserves to be given to all the accused persons and by giving them the same, I acquit them of the charges,” ruled Ritu Tagore, sessions judge, Panchkula.
A total of 177 FIRs were registered in Panchkula following the violence. At least 47 of these concerned the violence against mediapersons.
Save for a handful, most of these cases are yet to be decided. One of the cases involves Upender Sen Gupta, a journalist who lost his bike in the violence.
On his complaint, the police registered an FIR against 16 persons under penal provisions for rioting and damaging public property. The FIR was filed on August 30, 2017 and the challan was filed in November that year. But, three years on, the court hasn’t even decided the maintainability of the charges against the accused.
Vivek Gupta is an independent journalist in Chandigarh. He has previously worked with the Hindustan Times, the Tribune and the Indian Express.
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