Dera Sacha Sauda chief’s protective device of having enough supporters failed

Where does `the will of the people’ start and `mob rule’ end? At one level, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh `protected’ himself from the law the same way people wielding power ­ and those seeking it ­ shield themselves: by sheer popularity . It was this `popular mandate’ that lashed out in Panchkula when confronted with the `very unpopular’ prospect of their `beloved leader’ being sentenced to jail on charges of rape.At another level, and a very heartening one at that, the Dera Sacha Sauda chief ‘s protective device of having enough supporters to make their reactions count, for facilitators in political and administrative positions of power, failed. The law did not buckle under `popular pressure’ and treat him with kid gloves, as many of us may have silently been afraid of before the sentencing on Friday afternoon: Ram Rahim Singh is now in jail.

Popular will work both ways. In the case of the 2012 rape of `Nirbahaya’ in Delhi, it was the wave of public mood ­ anger, desperation, and more anger ­ that not only `pressurised’ the law to act swiftly against the rapists, but it also was responsible for the Indian Penal Code, India Evidence Act, and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 to be amended via the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013, to toughen sexual offences laws.

Public pressure actually reopened the Jessica Lal murder case in 2006, after the accused, Manu Sharma, along with others had been acquitted by a trial court.India’s middle-classes, notorious till then for being the `silent majority’ even in matters that disturbed them, reacted with adequate anger. Manu Sharma’s protection as the son of a wealthy and influential MP from Haryana was no match for popular will.

What was popular will in those cases, showed its face as the `ugly mob’ in Haryana last weekend. With scores of people dead and property damaged, Ram Sahim Singh’s supporters went berserk at the news of their `guru’s’ imprisonment.Denial was followed by angry bewilderment. But this was no candlelight vigil at India Gate, but mob atavism ­ although emoting the same kind of feeling in their own heads that angry and disappointed `good citizens’ had felt when they felt the law of the land letting them down and justice denied.

For let there be no doubt that those who went on rampage last weekend, view the jailed Dera Sacha Sauda leader as a victim.It is the same skewed reasoning of condoning practices such as the instantaneous triple talaq as a `personal law’ of a community ­ in this case, of a cult ­ that applied to supporters of Ram Rahim Singh. It isn’t that thousands of his supporters believe him to be innocent of rape; they just believe that his crime doesn’t matter and should be beyond the law by virtue of his status as a `godman’.

Which is why it mattered so much how the law and order authorities controlled and defanged this mob. Which is also why the Punjab and Haryana High Court firmly stated on Saturday that the Haryana government had “surrendered“ to this mob “just to allure the vote bank“.

The charge against the Manohar Lal Khattar government is serious not because of the political patronage the Dera chief sought ­ and got -from the administration, because the cult leader sought and got `political support’ across the political spectrum over the years. It is serious because it shows the danger in this country of mixing up `the will of the people’ with `the wants of a mob’. Perhaps, the imprisonment of the Dera chief itself can be a landmark case for the political classes to realise that no longer can they pass off the screeches of `villagers with torches and pitchforks’ as `candlelight vigil protesters’.Be sure, India hasn’t seen the last of mob justice yet. One just hopes that this mob justice will no more be delivered.