Judgment day for dera chief

Back in 2002, a journalist dared to tell the unpleasant truth about a mighty sect head. In his eveninger, aptly titled Poora Sach, he published an anonymous letter — written to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee — about the alleged rape of sadhvis at Sirsa’s politically patronised Dera Sacha Sauda. His voice was silenced, predictably, with bullets. Ram Chander Chhatrapati was shot at outside his residence in Sirsa. After a struggle lasting four weeks, he lost the battle for life.

Over 16 years later, judgment day is nigh. The CBI special court in Panchkula is set to pronounce its verdict in the murder case on Friday. Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who is serving a 20-year term in Rohtak’s Sunaria jail for the rape of two of his followers, will make an appearance before the court through video-conferencing. The once-bitten-twice-shy Haryana authorities seem keen to avoid a repeat of the mayhem triggered by his conviction in the rape cases on August 25, 2017. The Manohar Lal Khattar government had come under fire for grossly mishandling the situation and allowing a sea of dera supporters to invade Panchkula. The post-judgment violence had claimed over 40 lives, besides the loss of government and private property worth crores of rupees.

The Chhatrapati family, which has bravely refused to bow before the sect all these years, is hoping that its long wait for justice and closure will finally end. The developments are also being watched closely by the country’s journalistic fraternity, which remains vulnerable to threats or worse for calling a spade a spade. India’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index-2018 was a lowly 138 (out of 180 countries), one place below Myanmar and one above Pakistan. Several journalists, including Gauri Lankesh, have lost their lives in recent years for taking on radicals. Many others have been browbeaten into self-censorship by unleashing prosecution proceedings on them. The sorry state of affairs will only worsen for the fourth estate if it’s let down by the judicial system.