Through the night, the numbers grew. A residential neighbourhood in Panchkula, Sector 5 has turned involuntarily into an impromptu and massive base for nearly one lakh followers of spiritual guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.
Despite restricted entry to this town just 11 kms from Chandigarh, despite bus and train services being curtailed, despite police checkpoints on all major roads, the numbers grew. At one point, there were easily 15,000 people walking down or alongside a major highway that leads into Panchkula.
At 2.30 pm, a court here is expected to decide whether Ram Rahim, age 50, raped two women followers in 2002. At midnight, he appealed to his devotees - they are the Dera Sacha Sauda sect- to return home and keep calm. In a rare disobedience, his fans, who have settled into the colony near a local hotel name Bella Vista, say they aren't going anywhere till their leader is declared innocent. The courthouse is barely a 15-minute walk from here.
An elderly man riding a bicycle who lives in this colony is surprisingly accommodating of the new arrivals. "I have given them water from my house," he says, "they are peaceful and not causing any disturbance."
But the sort of fanatic devotion that Ram Rahim inspires is on display and is easily combustible. All streets and roads around the courthouse have been blocked off. Drones are in use for crowd surveillance. A local stadium, on standby to serve as a jail if needed, is being used to hold the rare clusters of Ram Rahim followers who are willing to accept the police's request to keep some distance from the court.
Ram Rahim, headed to Panchkula in a convoy of over 100 cars from his enormous campus in Sirsa, nearly 250 kms away, has denied any wrongdoing. He is accused of sexually exploiting two women in 2002. The trial began in 2007.
There are reports of his followers stockpiling lathis or wooden sticks in different centres run by the Dera Sacha Sauda. The Punjab and Haryana High Court yesterday was unequivocal in its criticism of the Haryana government, accusing it of failing to maintain law and order by allowing 100,000 people to descend on Panchkula.