By Vishal Gulati 

Chandigarh: Chandigarh and its nearby Panchkula town were on Thursday turned into fortresses with curfew-like restrictions in place as tens of thousands of followers of Dera Sacha Sauda sect chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh gathered ahead of a crucial court verdict in a rape case against him.

Singing in praise of their spiritual leader, his followers in Panchkula, who are still arriving in droves, said they were here just to seek blessings from the “messenger of God”.

The verdict will be pronounced on Friday by the special CBI in Panchkula which has asked the self-styled godman, whose sect is headquartered at Sirsa in Haryana, to remain present at the time of the judgment.

The Dera chief appealed to his followers to maintain peace and said he would appear before the court on Friday.

“I have always respected the law. Despite pain in my back, I will obey the law and must visit the court,” Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh tweeted.

He urged his followers to maintain peace. “I believe in God. All should maintain peace.”

Thousands of security personnel, comprising paramilitary forces, have been deployed to prevent the “premis” or sect followers from arriving in Panchkula.

The sect chief has lakhs of followers in Punjab, Haryana and other states. He has been accused by a former female follower of raping her more than once inside the sprawling Dera campus on the outskirts of Sirsa town, 260 km from Chandigarh.

Braving rains in the evening, devotee Bhag Singh, who has come from Moga town in Punjab along with over 100 followers, said: “We are here just to seek his blessings. For us he’s god.”

“Since he is coming here, we have decided to reach Panchkula ahead of his arrival,” an elated Singh, who is a farmer, told IANS.

Like him, nearly two lakh sect followers have descended on Panchkula and nearby places from mostly across Punjab and Haryana.

They are spending their nights in the open. However, a few managed to take shelter in government buildings, while most spent the night on roads and parks.

Most of his followers, who also ran community kitchens, spent their time singing religious songs in praise of Gurmeet Ram Rahim.

“We have nothing to do with the court case and we do not know anything about it. We only know our father is coming here on Friday,” devotee Ashok Kumar, who has come from Panipat in Haryana, said.

Despite the government stopping the plying of buses towards Chandigarh and Panchkula beyond Ambala, 45 km from here, the flow of ‘premis’ continued.

A sea of devotees en route to Panchkula was seen travelling on foot beyond Ambala.

“Since our ‘guru-ji’ is coming, we have decided to reach Panchkula to get his blessings. So we have decided to reach the venue on foot,” said Bhag Singh, who is from Hisar in Haryana.

Bhag Singh and his family were carrying eatables for the community kitchen.

His wife Nirmal Kaur said the “guru ji” is like their father.

“The government is just trying to frame him in a false case. We know he will be acquitted by the court,” she added.

As a precautionary measure, the Haryana government has imposed prohibitory orders across the state and shut all schools and colleges in Panchkula and Sirsa districts till August 25.

Sacha Sauda sect followers have a high concentration in Sangrur, Barnala, Mansa, Bathinda, Fazilka, Faridkot and Ferozepore districts of Punjab. Most of these districts are close to Sirsa in Haryana.

Authorities imposed curfew-like restrictions in Chandigarh and Panchkula and shut mobile internet services in Haryana, Punjab and Chandigarh for three days from Thursday.

Fearing violence by the huge mass of Dera supporters gathered at Sirsa and in Panchkula where the court is based, officials announced several other restrictive steps.

Plying of buses to Chandigarh and Panchkula would be suspended till Friday. Likewise, the Railways cancelled 22 trains bound for Haryana. A Northern Railway spokesman said six trains going to Haryana were cancelled on Thursday.

More than 15,000 paramilitary personnel have been deployed in Punjab and Haryana, a senior official told IANS.

In a bid to discourage more people from reaching Panchkula, Haryana Roadways stopped plying buses for two days bound for Chandigarh and Panchkula.

Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar told all ministers and legislators to be in their constituencies till Friday.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court asked the Centre to provide additional forces ahead of the judgment.

Apprehending violence in case the court’s judgment went against the sect chief on Friday, a Division Bench of acting Chief Justice Surinder Singh Saron and Justice Avneesh Jhingan said they “did not want a situation similar to the Jat reservation stir”.