How Dera Sacha Sauda followers coordinated amid net ban
Sirsa: Raj Rani’s two expensive smartphones are her whole world. But the 32-year-old entrepreneur from Haryana’s Hisar district found them entirely useless when she needed them the most–on August 25, during the violent protests by members of the spiritual group Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) after their leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim was convicted of rape.
“My family follows DSS, and had gone to attend the monthly congregation on August 15 (which also happened to be Ram Rahim’s birthday), when were told that Pitaji asked us to stay back in the premises, in case of an adverse verdict by the court in rape cases against him,” she says. This is understood to have been done as a show of support that could put pressure on the judiciary and state for a favourable verdict.
Along with lakhs of other followers, Rani was present in Dera’s Sirsa headquarters with her two children. She stayed in constant touch with her husband Sunny Kumar, a businessman based in New Delhi. “Every day, I showed him the Dera premises and religious activities through WhatsApp video calls,” she says.
She recalls “the nightmarish moment” on the night of August 24 when the Haryana police and the Indian army surrounded the Dera. They imposed a curfew in the town, and restricted people from coming in and going outside the premises spread over 700 acres.
Rani says that the government blocked the internet on August 24–a day before the self-styled godman appeared in the Panchkula court. Service providers of different companies, including mobile phone and landline services, were also barred at the Dera Sacha Sauda headquarters. As a result, Rani lost all contact with her husband. “I was confident until I was connected with my family over WhatsApp call and video chat, but as soon as this went away, I started losing faith, and felt afraid,” she says.
After the curfew was imposed and internet was shut down, Rani says the devotees started to panic. They demanded that the DSS management permit them to go to their respective homes after Gurmeet’s arrest on August 25. After his conviction for rape, Rani says the politically influential and funds-flushed DSS fell like a house of cards. “There was chaos all around,” she says.
Fearing that Dera followers would vandalise public property to protest their leader’s conviction, the police had restricted public transport. Private vehicles were being allowed to move only after multiple security checks. On the morning of August 27, hundreds of devotees started to leave the Dera premises by foot. Rani walked about 50 kms along the national highway 10 (Hisar-Sirsa) up to Fatehabad district.
It was a coordination committee of police, legislators, and bureaucrats from Haryana, Punjab and Chandigarh, under the chairmanship of Punjab governor and union territory administrator VP Singh Badnore, that took the decision to ban the internet. After the order on August 24, all the SMSes, dongle, and data services provided on mobile network were suspended. The government only allowed phone calls during the internet shutdown in affected districts in these states.
Dissing the police’s claims that Dera followers started the violence first, provoking the cops to fire, 32-year-old shopkeeper Gaurav Soni, an ardent DSS follower for seven years, insists that things went out of control because the internet connection was snapped. He says that senior members in the Dera’s internal WhatsApp groups couldn’t send messages to calm angry followers. “Whatever happened was a result of a communication gap,” says Soni, who joined the protests. “No one asked the followers to get violent, and followers never attempt such things without proper instructions. But since there was a leadership gap, thanks to the break in communication, all this occurred.”
Vikas Kumar, an IT expert of the Dera Sacha Sauda agrees, “As soon as we came to know about the conviction, we tried to send a message from Dera chairperson Vipasana Insan, requesting followers to maintain peace, and keep faith in the judicial process. But we couldn’t upload this message because mobile internet and broadband services were banned.” They also tried to call key Dera leaders. “But it was too late by then, and followers clashed with law enforcement agencies,” Vikas adds.
The Dera’s protests, and the related internet and transport shutdown seemed to have impacted the group’s own followers too.
Those outside Haryana received misleading or panic-inducing forwards and videos, worrying them, but also worsening the anger against the state administration. Rajat Singh, a 65-year-old Dera follower from Mansa district, Punjab, says his son Rishipal Singh, had gone with several followers to the court in Panchkula, Haryana, where Gurmeet’s case was being heard. Rajat Singh says that since the internet was not banned at Punjab’s Mansa, he continuously received photographs of bullet-ridden bodies, charred cars, massive fires, and vandalism on WhatsApp. It’s unclear how Dera members from Haryana were able to send these pictures, overriding the blocked internet. “I was so disturbed,” he says. “As soon as we came to know that the Haryana police had opened fire on the followers, I started calling my son,” he says. But phone networks were constantly busy or spotty. “My son’s phone was not reachable. I asked relatives to send him text messages, or messages on WhatsApp, but the internet was not working.” It was much later, when Rishipal made a rushed call, that they were assured of his well-being.
Unaware of the violence at the Dera, 37-year-old Rakesh Kumar, a DSS follower from Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, was visiting Sirsa on August 24. “I booked a hotel in Sirsa district through an app, and chose to pay at the hotel. When I reached Sirsa, the internet was off.” Kumar went to the Dera taking lifts from a few vehicles plying on the sly, but soon returned to his hotel after followers went on a rampage. He wanted to leave Sirsa, but “got stuck” because the hotel didn’t allow him to leave without paying. ATMs were closed, vandalised, or not working, and it was generally unsafe to go out. “I had some balance on Paytm, but that was also not working as there was no internet connection,” he says.
Without Facebook or Twitter accounts, the Sirsa police had no way to counter rumours, discourage violence, or call for peace, says additional deputy commissioner (ADC) Sirsa, Munish Nagpal. A ban, he says, was the only way for them to nip crowd mobilisation in the bud, and curb rumours from spreading to Dera followers in other states of north India.
“The ban controlled the situation to a certain extent, but it handicapped us, and slowed the process of our communication with seniors in Chandigarh,” admitted Ashwin Shenvi, the superintendent of police (SP).
The Haryana police, chief minister and health minister are usually active on social media, and the government too prides itself on being digitally savvy, but during the ban, every account was inactive. This despite the state offices having broadband.
It is worth pointing out that DSS is credited for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s first ever win in Haryana in the 2014 state elections. Gurmeet Ram Rahim and CM Manohar Lal Khattar have even shared stages multiple times for photo-ops. Many believe this to be the reason behind the state government not being very vocal, online or offline, in condemning the violence by Gurmeet’s followers. It could have ticked off DSS’s over 50 million followers, a large votebank. The political dynamics, hence, were also responsible for internet becoming a victim of the violence unleashed.
[Click here to read this article on The Centre for Internet & Society, where it was first published.]