By Geeta Seshu
On November 21, 2002, the courageous and indefatigable journalist RamChandra Chhattrapati died in a hospital in Delhi, 28 days after he was shot by two persons who were followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda in Sirsa, Haryana.
It has taken his family, in particular his son, Anshul Chhattrapati, an incredible 16 years to secure justice. Today, coincidentally on his death anniversary, the hearing for the final arguments against two accused: Gurmeet Ram Rahim and Kishan Lal, the manager of the Dera Sacha Sauda, will be held in the special CBI court.
Already, the court has recorded the testimony of Khatta Singh, a former driver of Dera Sacha Sauda chief, who had earlier turned hostile but came forward to depose after Ram Rahim’s conviction in the rape case last year. Singh was earlier too frightened but a re-trial was ordered where he gave his eye witness account of the way the conspiracy to kill the journalist was hatched in the Dera headquarters.
Now, this is the final stage in the case, says Anshul, who hopes that he can now see the end of the long struggle.
Ram Chandra Chhatrapati was shot by two persons outside his home in Sirsa on October 24, 2002, and died in Apollo Hospital in Delhi on Nov 21, 2002. In hospital, even as he struggled for his life, he gave a statement to police naming Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda, as the perpetrator of the attack on him. But police were reluctant to include the name of the dera in the statement they recorded.
Even today, says Anshul, though Gurmeet Ram Rahim is in jail, convicted in the rape case, the Dera is still powerful. It still controls educational and medical institutions, it still holds vast property and its followers roam about Sirsa with impunity.
It took a Herculean struggle by his son, Anshul, to secure justice for his father’s killing. A struggle that is still going on.
Click here for a complete timeline on the case so far.
Click here to read journalist and writer Pushpraj’s impassioned plea to remember the life and struggle of this heroic journalist.
Read the interview with Anshul Chhattrapati on the struggle he waged with such tenacity from “Clampdowns and Courage: Impunity (IFJ Press Freedom report 2017-18)”
On August 28, 2017, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of a religious cult called the Dera Sacha Sauda (Abode of Real Truth) was sentenced by a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court to 20 years imprisonment for the rape of two women. Elaborate, if somewhat bizarre, security arrangements were made for Justice Jagdeep Singh, who, with his staff was flown in from Chandigarh by helicopter to the special court set up in the premises of the district jail in Rohtak, around 66 km from New Delhi. A three-tier security ring with 4,000 personnel guarded the area around the jail where Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was lodged. The Rohtak deputy commissioner Atul Kumar had earlier
declared that shoot-at-sight orders would be issued, such was the influence of the Dera in the area (‘dera’ in Punjabi, which literally means a camp or settlement, in this context refers to a religious cult).
There was good reason for the high security. Three days before, when the court held Ram Rahim guilty of the crime, his followers went on a rampage, ransacking court premises, beating up journalists and setting fire to their outdoor broadcasting vans. Thirty-eight people lost their lives and over 250 others – including journalists – were injured in the violence. In Sirsa town, the headquarters of the Dera Sacha Sauda, curfew was imposed and an atmosphere of fear was heavy in the air.
If the district administration was caught by surprise at the scale of the violence and the savagery of the followers of Ram Rahim, one man was not. For 16 years, Anshul Chhatrapati has lived with the ever-present threat of violence as he doggedly pursued the case against Nirmal Singh and Kuldeep Singh, accused in the murder of his father, Ram Chander Chhatrapati, a highly respected journalist in Sirsa. The accused murderers are supporters of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and, according to the CBI investigation, had shot Ram Chander Chhatrapati for publishing an anonymous letter about the sexual exploitation of women in the ashram of the self-styled godman.
In a case related to another murder at the Dera, on February 22, 2018, the Punjab and Haryana High Court reserved an order on a petition filed by Khatta Singh, Ram Rahim’s former driver, who was earlier a witness for the CBI. In 2011, the CBI had declared him hostile when he said his life was threatened and he could not give evidence. Now, emboldened by the conviction of the Dera chief in the rape case, he came forward to say that he wanted to give evidence in the murder of Ranjit Singh, whose killing is suspected to have been at the behest of Ram Rahim.
“Is it yet another delaying tactic? Is he genuine? What will happen to our case if his plea is accepted?” wondered Anshul. The case relating to the murder of his journalist father is at the stage of final arguments while arguments have concluded in the Ranjit Singh murder case. If the plea was accepted, the case could be delayed by another four to six months, but if it was dismissed, the order could come in a month.
Ifs and Buts.
This has been the situation for the last three or four years. At every turn, some delay
would push back the progress of the case.
On October 24, 2002, Ram Chander Chhatrapati returned home early from the office where he had checked the pages of his newspaper Poora Sach (The Whole Truth).
Anshul recalls: “My father had a routine. He was very particular about proof-reading the entire paper by himself. His column ‘Off the record and on the record’, which he signed with the pen name ‘satyavadi’ (truthful) was very popular.
He usually went to meet his friends in the market after the newspaper was published. On that day, my brother and sister had told him to return early because our mother was not at home.”
He returned home at around 7.30 pm. A few minutes later, someone called out to him and he stepped into the galli (narrow lane) outside the house. He was pumped with five bullets. His children ran out on hearing the shots. There were two gunmen. One ran towards a police chowki (outpost) nearby and was nabbed by the police. The other was later caught. The children rushed their father to the local hospital and from there, moved him to Rohtak in an ambulance even as journalists and social activists in Sirsa gathered in shock and anger. He was conscious and even told the District Commissioner of Sirsa, “DC Saab, just as I told you, they came to get me.”
He clearly and repeatedly named Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda, as the perpetrator of the attack on him. But police were reluctant to include the name of the Dera in the statement they recorded.
Ram Chander Chhatrapati, a fighter till the end, died on November 21 in Apollo hospital in Delhi.
The Whole Truth
Mastana Balochistani, who founded the socio-spiritual organisation Dera Sacha Sauda in 1948, functioned out of a small cottage in Sirsa. He was succeeded by his disciple Satnam Singh. In a controversial ouster in 1990, Gurmeet Singh, who came to be known as Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, took over when he was just 23 years old. Ram Chander Chhatrapati, living and working in Sirsa, the Dera headquarters, saw the transformation of the Dera from 70 acres in 1990 to its present powerful 900 acre-empire of colonies, factories industries, hospitals and educational institutions across the states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan.
Impunity: Violence against justice
“My father, as well as other local media, questioned how the Dera could grow so much if it didn’t take donations. The fact is, so many people came under the influence of the Dera and gave up their land. But not all of this was voluntary. Those who dissented were swiftly evicted, repressed and even beaten into silence. And in Sirsa, the ordinary public also kept silent,” Anshul recalled.
But for Ram Chander Chhatrapati, silence was never an option. Passionately interested in journalism even as a student, he joined the Sirsa bar as a lawyer but continued to contribute to national newspapers and started a newspaper called Sirsa Samrat. That folded up, but he started Poora Sach in February 2000. A daily eveninger, its very first editorial carried an oath that its title meant ‘poora’ sach – the ‘whole’ truth and nothing but the truth. “He wrote that he would never compromise, that he believed in promoting a scientific temperament and would never encourage obscurantism,” Anshul recalls.
In his trademark vyangyatmak or satirical style, Ram Chander Chhatrapati wrote about national and international issues, even as he questioned the growth of the cult and critiqued the growing links between the Haryana state government and the Dera.
The reports soon began to have an impact. Says Anshul, “His friends used to counsel him not to take up cudgels against these powerful forces, but he refused to listen. He used to say: my writing is truthful, it is correct. I cannot remain silent.”
In May 2002, an anonymous letter about sexual exploitation in the Dera, reportedly written by a sadhvi (woman disciple), addressed to then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee began to do the rounds of media houses. Poora Sach published the letter in full on May 30, 2002, with the headline: ‘Dharm ke naam pe ho rahe hai, sadhvi ke jeevan barbaad (in the name of religion, sadhvis’ lives are ruined)’.
Another publication Lekha Jhoka (The Chronicle) in neighbouring Fatehabad district, also published the letter. Its offices were ransacked and its news editor had to go underground with his family. Poora Sach wrote about this attack too. It gave extensive coverage to the letter, its implications and the actions of the Dera followers in intimidating people who tried to discuss the revelations.
Ram Chander Chhatrapati began getting death threats and wrote to the then Superintendent of Police, Sirsa, on July 2, 2002, saying that he feared his daily movements were being tracked. But no action was taken on his letter.
In September 2002, the Punjab and Haryana High Court took suo moto notice of the letter and ordered a CBI enquiry. “All of this was reported by my father. Every single development was followed up and reported in his newspaper,” said Anshul. A month later, Ram Chander Chhatrapati was shot outside his home and succumbed on November 21, 2002.
A 16-year pursuit
From the beginning, the identity of the perpetrators was known to the police. The shooters had, the family later learnt, done quite a few recces and were aware of Chhatrapati’s routine. The shooter nabbed by the police, Kuldeep Singh, upon interrogation disclosed that he was from the cult and used a licenced revolver that belonged to a Dera employee Kishan Lal. Even the walkie talkie set the duo had used was licenced to the Dera. The other shooter was identified as Nirmal Singh.
On October 25, Ram Chander Chhatrapati underwent surgery and when he regained consciousness, gave a statement to the police naming Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh as the prime suspect. Anshul Chhatrapati also gave a statement to the police. It was only in November, after performing the last rites connected with his father’s funeral that Anshul realised that the police had not included their statements in their First Information Report (FIR).
As Anshul recalled, “The Dera and the state government clearly had an understanding. The state government was putting pressure on the police to see that Dera’s name must not be in the FIR; that the police’s needle of suspicion must be turned away from it.” The police even tried another old trick –to say that the shooting was due to a property dispute. But this did not wash.
“On November 23, 2002, the Chief Minister of Haryana come to my house and said that the culprits, however powerful, would be booked. But the exact opposite happened. There was no interrogation of the Dera head, the police didn’t bring in the Dera angle. In Sirsa, a movement led by the media called for a bandh (shutdown). Everyone joined in, citizens, political parties and lawyers,” Anshul said.
Finally, forced to concede by the fierce agitation of local journalists and citizens of Sirsa, the police held a press conference and declared that the Dera was suspected to be behind the shooting. But slowly, the movement became a victim of political pressure and apathy and gradually lost steam.
“So, I took on the mantle of the struggle for justice for my father. I wrote to the CM Haryana and demanded a CBI investigation. Ultimately, I had to knock on the doors of the court. On January 10, 2003, I filed a petition before the Punjab and Haryana High Court to demand a CBI investigation,” Anshul said, adding that it was not easy as the government cracked down on anyone who supported him or spoke against the Dera.
On July 31, 2007, a CBI challan (summons) was filed and the charge-sheet was finally filed in 2008. But for years thereafter, the accused would file applications in court on some pretext or the other. Between 2008 and 2017, the case came up several times and multiple applications were moved to delay the matter and intimidate the witnesses.
Anshul, who was a 21-year-old when his father died, took on the mantle of publishing the newspaper. It was difficult. His younger brother, who was 14 at the time, helped out because he had learnt to operate the computers in his father’s office. The family managed to survive from the income of their ancestral agricultural land but the long drawn out court case took its toll and they were forced to fold up the newspaper in 2014.
The period between 2013 and 2017 marked the growth of the Dera. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh gained immense political clout and amassed a lot of wealth. He began appearing on television, with his own morning show. He adopted blingy and flamboyant costumes and gave advertisements in the newspapers and, in his television programmes, was often dancing and singing with his followers. He even acted in two bio-pics celebrating his cult status.
Throughout, the case meandered along.
Impunity: Courting hope
The rape cases and the murder cases – of Ranjit Singh and of Ram Chander Chhattrapati – ran in tandem but the Dera managed to stall proceedings at almost every turn. In 2003, Ranjit Singh’s father moved the High Court for a CBI investigation but the police said the two shooters were caught and the weapon recovered so there was no need for a CBI enquiry. Finally, the court ordered a CBI investigation into all cases in November 2003.
Anshul acknowledges that the fight was possible only because of the support from well-known advocates who refused to charge a paisa. “We couldn’t afford a big lawyer. A supporter, Comrade Baldev Bakshi, got his son Ashwani Bakshi, a lawyer in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and Lekhraj Dhot from Sirsa, to help us. The senior lawyer, RS Cheema, worked pro bono. In fact, the Dera people had approached him but he refused their brief. All of them put up the legal fight and stood by us throughout. We salute them.”
The Dera challenged the order of the CBI investigation in the Supreme Court in Delhi. Socialist leader Yogendra Yadav, who was well acquainted with Ram Chander Chhattarpati’s work and had met him in Sirsa barely a week before he was shot, stepped in to secure the offices of the respected former judge, the late Rajinder Sachar. The Dera petition challenging the CBI investigation was dismissed in November 2004.
The otherwise discredited CBI worked earnestly. “Apart from the murder cases, the rape cases were a shot in the dark. There was only an anonymous letter to go by. The CBI interrogated 18 girls. Only two came forward to file complaints. Their bravery must be commended. It is not easy. In one case, the in-laws were followers of the Dera so they threw the girl out. But her husband has stood by her,” said Anshul.
Intimidation, bomb threats and attempted assault followed, even as Gurmeet Ram Rahim was given Z plus security and moved around in a cavalcade of six cars with black window glasses. “Even the atmosphere in the court was so frightening when we used to go for hearings,” Anshul said.
But the CBI investigating officer and its Superintendent of Police, Armandeep Singh, built a watertight case and withstood all the pressure, political and monetary. Regrettably, while the local media stayed away from following up on the case, possibly due to fear, Anshul continued to use the media as much as possible, in the most innovative manner. He continually briefed the media with updates on the case, even small incidents and developments. He would write letters to the High Court, the Supreme Court and to the Prime Minister. When the media in Haryana stayed quiet, he approached the more
responsive media in neighbouring Chandigarh. And, when the media was unable to cover the case, he made use of alternate and social media.
The electronic channels stayed away. Several channels would approach him for information and he would share it, only to find dead silence. “The channels keep asking, give us something different, something the stories can run with. But tell me, what can be a bigger story than a media worker being murdered?”
Today, Anshul awaits an elusive justice that now seems nearer. “I feel huge regret. Time is a great healer they say, but I don’t think so. My sister and brother were younger, so I had to take over. I took on the challenge. I have to get justice for him.”