Mumbai simmers as Sikhs riot against the Dera chief & his trigger-happy guard

By Seema Kamdar in Mumbai and Vikas Kahol in Chandigarh

Mumbai simmered on Saturday as thousands of Sikhs, brandishing swords and lathis, blocked railway tracks, damaged Mulund station and shut down swathes of the city over the killing of a community member by bodyguards of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh on Friday.

The ripple was felt across north India — in Punjab and Haryana, angry Sikhs took to the streets demanding the Dera chief be arrested; in Jammu, agitators wielding swords, burnt his effigies and in the Capital, Sikhs shouted slogans and blocked busy thoroughfares.

Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, though known to seek the Dera chief’s blessings whenever Punjab goes to the polls, sensed the general outrage and asked the Maharashtra government to take action against him.

Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the highest religious body of the Sikhs, condemned Balkar Singh’s death. Damdami Taksal, a prominent Sikh seminary, also demanded action against the sect chief. On Friday, a handful of Sikhs were protesting outside Nirmal Lifestyle, a mall in the north-eastern suburb of Mulund, against the presence of Ram Rahim Singh when one of his bodyguards opened fire. Balkar, a Sikh businessman, died in the firing.

Soon, the news spread and mobs spilled onto Mumbai streets on Saturday morning. When it appeared the situation was spinning out of control in Mumbai, especially in Mulund and the key Eastern Express Highway — which the protesters paralysed for two hours — the police and the RAF hit back, clobbering and teargassing the agitators, some of them old men. An anxious Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh appealed to the Sikhs to maintain calm and refrain from violence. He announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs 2,00,000 to Balkar Singh’s family.

The SGPC also announced a similar amount as compensation. By the evening, the Sikhs suspended all agitation till Monday following Maharashtra deputy chief minister R.R. Patil’s assurance that he would convene a high-level meeting to resolve the issue. Throughout the day, Mulund, the epicentre of the protests, remained paralysed as the protesters squatted on railway tracks and pelted stones at the trains and buses from 11.30 am, damaging all the four railway tracks that pass through the station.

Though nobody was grievously hurt, train services had to be stopped for over an hour. A total shutdown was also observed in Kalyan and Ulhasnagar — Sikh-majority areas in Thane district. Security was tightened in Thane, Pune, Akola, Nagpur, and Nanded, state director general of police A.N. Roy said. The protesters wanted Ram Rahim Singh to be arrested — a possibility not entirely ruled out by Patil, who met city Sikh leaders in the evening. He assured the community that all necessary action would be taken against the four accused, arrested for Friday’s firing, under section 302 and the Arms Act.

They were remanded in police custody till July 2. All the four, Patil said, are part of Ram Rahim Singh’s security team. The revolver used to fire was seized. Ten more men from his security team were being grilled. “A full-fledged inquiry will be held by the city crime branch and if necessary, the guru could be called in for questioning as well,” Patil said. Sardar Tara Singh, the BJP MLA from Mulund, said: “The agitation was largely peaceful, but in places, it went out of hand.” Apart from Ram Rahim Singh’s arrest, the Sikhs do not want him to set up base in Mumbai. “It is believed that Dera Sacha Sauda is eyeing two to three acres at Khopoli in eastern Mumbai for setting up an office.

There are 3.5 lakh Sikhs in the city and if the Dera sets base in the city, daily skirmishes between the two communities could take place,” Tara Singh said. “The government should ensure he is not permitted to own property in Mumbai.” On the immediate agenda, though, is a peaceful resolution of the problem.

The state government has bought peace till Monday — the day Balkar’s Singh’s body will be cremated. While the Sikhs took to the streets in almost all parts of Punjab and some parts of Haryana on Saturday, the radical Sikh groups said they wanted the Dera chief behind the bars. Demanding that the Maharashtra government book him for murder, members of the Khalsa Action Committee blocked traffic in Amritsar on Saturday. The youth wing of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) also held a protest in Amritsar.

Talking to the media at Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the Punjab chief minister said he had spoken to Deshmukh and the Maharashtra DGP about the incident. Terming it as “tragic and shocking”, Badal said action must be taken against the Dera chief. The Sikhs in Haryana’s Sirsa, where the Dera headquarters are located, blocked traffic on National Highway 10 for six hours.

The police were rushed to the spot to prevent any clash between the agitators and the Dera followers. In Punjab, security was beefed up at areas where the Dera has a presence. In Bathinda, the police took out a precautionary flag march and appealed to the people to maintain calm. Reports of protests poured in from Jalandhar and Ludhiana, too.

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