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Above: Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim

Even though the jailed Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim withdrew his application for parole in order to tend to his agricultural fields, he faced public criticism and put the state government in a quandary

By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

It was less than two years back that the powerful head of Dera Sacha Sauda, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, was convicted for the rape of two sadhvis and sentenced to 20 years in jail. The conviction had upset thousands of his supporters who had gathered in Panchkula, where the verdict was pronounced. They indulged in large-scale violence, leading to police firing in which over 30 of his supporters were killed and several injured.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court had subsequently ordered sealing of all properties of the Dera to recover the cost of damages done by its followers. Rahim had to be airlifted with the help of the Army to the high-security Sunaria jail to avoid any violence along the route if he was taken by road. Such is the security risk associated with him that no one except his very close family members are allowed to meet him in jail. He has not been let out of the jail premises even for hearings in other cases against him. These include the murder of a journalist in which a CBI court had awarded him life imprisonment earlier this year. He is now facing trial in forced castration cases. All such trials are being held through video conferencing.

Yet, the convicted Baba has made many desperate attempts to get out of the jail on parole. Earlier this year, he had moved an application that he be given parole to attend the wedding of his daughter. It later turned out that the wedding was of an inmate of the school the Dera runs for orphan girls. He claimed that he considered all children there as his daughters. However, he had not legally adopted them and therefore his plea for parole was rejected.

In his latest move, he has sought parole to tend to his agricultural fields. For a person who had been literally rolling in wealth and whose Dera is known to have acquired large tracts of land not only in various parts of India but also abroad, the plea to tend to his fields is laughable.

The Haryana government has said it was examining the plea and checking whether there was agricultural land in his name. It appears that at least in Haryana, where his headquarters is located, he may not be owning any land in his name. Even if he does, the plea to tend to fields appears preposterous. Ironically, as part of his rigorous imprisonment under which he has to labour and earn his living, he works as a gardener in the jail premises and grows vegetables.

The 51-year-old convict has now sought parole for 42 days and the jail superintendent has sent a recommendation to the district magistrate (DM) with the noting that the convict’s behaviour has been good and that he can be given parole. The district administration has been asked to submit a report to the commissioner, Rohtak Division, with a copy marked to the jail superintendent. The DM has written to revenue officials to check whether the convict owns agricultural land.

The developments have, however, unleashed severe criticism from various quarters, with a section of critics indicating that the move had the blessings of the Haryana government led by Manohar Lal Khattar.

They say the jail superintendent could not have given the recommendation in such a highly sensitive case unless he had a nod from the very top. They allege that it was being done to please the convict and Dera followers in the light of the forthcoming assembly elections.

It must be pointed out that the Dera, which has lakhs of followers, has a political wing which decides its support to various candidates and political parties. Candidates cutting across party lines would flock to the Dera and seek blessings (support) from the Dera head. Photographs of politicians lying prostrate before the Dera chief, including some Haryana ministers, have been appearing in local newspapers.

Generally in the past, it had been keeping its political support under wraps and had been publicly asking its supporters for vote “as per their conscience”. However, it was known that the supporters were conveyed through word of mouth whom to support.

The Dera had made an exception in the case of the BJP in the 2014 Haryana assembly elections when it had openly declared support to the party. The BJP had won with a thumping majority and had formed the government for the first time in the state. It is in the light of this fact that critics believe that the government is trying to woo Dera supporters. The chief minister has, of course, vehemently denied this while asserting that all prisoners have the right to seek parole and that a decision would be taken as per legal provisions. This is seen as a weak argument in the light of the fact that Rahim is a high security risk prisoner and security forces fear that he might never return to the jail if he is let out on parole. The CBI has, in fact, taken this plea while opposing his earlier application for bail.

Ironically, other major parties like the Congress and the two factions of the Indian National Lok Dal are also shying away from commenting on the issue. Perhaps these parties too do not want to annoy the Dera supporters.

The convict has applied under the Haryana Good Conduct Prisoner (Temporary Release) Act, 1988. It was enacted to provide for the temporary release of prisoners for good conduct after serving a certain period of conviction. Section 3 of the Act provides that the state government, in consultation with the DM of the area, can release a prisoner for three weeks in case a member of his family has died or is seriously ill or the prisoner is seriously ill. It can order parole for four weeks in case the prisoner is to get married, there is a marriage of close family members or for other sufficient causes like admission of any dependent in an educational institute, medically scheduled delivery of the convict’s wife or house repairs, among other grounds.

The prisoner, whether undertrial or convict, can also seek parole for agricultural operations on “his land or his father’s undivided land actually in possession of the prisoner” for a total of six weeks in a year. Parole can be granted after serving at least one year of the sentence and on the condition of good behaviour.

Rahim is eligible for parole as he has served the minimum sentence of one year. Ironically, he does not figure in the category of hardcore prisoners who are entitled to parole only after completion of five years of imprisonment. A hardcore prisoner, under the 1988 Act, means a person who has been convicted for dacoity, robbery, kidnapping for ransom, murder with rape, rape of a woman below 16 years age, gang rape, serial killing, contract killing and waging war against the nation or sedition.

The Haryana government can, however, deny him parole under Section 6 of the Act which states that the government can do so in case it is satisfied that a prisoner’s release “is likely to endanger the security of the State or its maintenance of public order”.

Now that’s the moot question. Various state government leaders like the chief minister and at least two of his ministers have given non-committal replies to questions from the media. All they have said is that they are “examining” the issue. Coming only a few months before assembly elections in October, it would be a tough call to take for the state government.

The CBI had earlier this year pleaded in the High Court that the grant of parole will be “highly detrimental to the peace” in Haryana and adjoining states and that the “law and order situation may go out of hands”. It is again likely to challenge any such move by the state government.

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