Three years ago, Haryana’s Panchkula was on High Alert as local court’s verdict in a rape case against the Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh came to the general awareness.
Followers of Dera Sacha Sauda came into the city and went on a rampage as they were opposing the Court’s judgment especially around District Court Complex.
By the time the police brought the mob under control, 36 people lay dead and swathes of property wrecked.
Several media persons who went to Panchkula to report on Gurmeet’s trial had to face major violence. Most of them were injured and their equipment was 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 photo-journalists and half a dozen laptops were also broken.
At that time, the Haryana government promised the media persons to compensate for their losses. However, it’s been three years since that incident and 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 report came on the day of violence that quoted Manohar laal Khattar as saying “All those who have taken the law into their hands will be punished. We have identified some culprits including those who fired (from the mob at security forces), some of whom have been nabbed and action will be taken against them,”
He added, “Some people have lost lives and vehicles have been set on fire while government property too has been damaged. Some OB vans of the media have also been damaged by the mob.”
He further added, “State government will provide full compensation within a week to those persons whose property was damaged today. A website would be created where claimants can enter details regarding their damaged property, including vehicles and OB vans. He said, “Adding the portal would be launched within a day.”
Although, three years on 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 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.”
After three weeks of violence, an exhibition was organized at the Chandigarh Press Club and later at Punjab University titled ‘Blackout’. It brought out in brief about the damage caused that day which was capture by Photojournalists who were present there. A picture of a blackout was put up to symbolize the helplessness of the photojournalists who had lost cameras documenting the life-threatening situation.
“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 realizing a crowd was coming from my other side,” Balish recalled. Balish Ahuja was the photojournalist of Times of India.
“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 normalized, I went back to the spot but my cameras were beyond retrieval,” he said.
Sant Arora is another photojournalist with the Hindustan Times. He got several injuries after he got attacked by the mob. He had expected financial help from the state, Sant said, but it never came.
Bhupinder Jishtu, a photojournalist with ETV said that the mob set his car on fire in front of his eyes and he stood helpless there. He said that it was the negligence of the security agencies behind that Violence. He added that the Chief Minister promised to compensate for their losses but in reality, no help showed up.
In the case of the Dera violence, the losses suffered by journalists amounted to no more than Rs 3 crore. Overall, property worth nearly Rs 18 Crore 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 mobilization and deployment of security forces.
Bhupinder argued that the government should have kept the media persons the first priority to compensate. They should have understood that who needs the help more urgently. He said that it was very difficult for journalists to buy a replacement for their losses.
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.
“I had even asked the honorable court to allow us to compensate private persons, including media persons who suffered losses during the violence, so that common citizens don’t have to suffer. But we did not get the permission, ”told Haryana’s advocate general, Baldev Raj Mahajan to Newslaundry.
According to Sources, In the Dera violence case, claims commissioners are to be decided by the high court. According to Mahajan, the case was really close to the conclusion but it delayed due to the Pandemic.
A report by Newslaundry states that the Highcourt finalized 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 the 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 mobilization 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 a 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, the matter was last heard in February and has now been deferred to October 9.
“In case there is a 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 a 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,”said Barinder Rawat, president of the Chandigarh Press Club.
The court said that the police had no credible evidence to prove its case against the accused. “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 media persons.
Notably, these were the devotees of Ram Rahim who caused a major violence. Ram Rahim is currently in Rohtak’s Sunaria jail, serving a 20-year sentence in rape cases, in which he was convicted by the Special CBI court in August 2017.
In 2007, An anonymous letter to the then Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Punjab and Haryana HC chief justice saying that Ram Rahim sexually exploited two ‘sadhvis’.
Following a decade long delay (between which the special CBI court was shifted from Ambala to Panchkula), the special CBI court held Gurmeet Ram Rahim guilty of rape and criminal intimidation in August 2017.