Jalandhar/New Delhi/Vienna, May 25 (IANS) One person was killed and eight people were injured as police fired at two places in Punjab during six hours of widespread violence by tens of thousands of followers of a Sikh sect after their leader was slain in faraway Austria.
Calm returned to the state only in the evening after the authorities summoned the military to assist the civilian administration as protestors indulged in widespread arson that saw the burning of an empty stationary train and three coaches as well as several private and public vehicles.
The violence was serious enough for Prime Minister to make a special appeal to the people of Punjab to stay calm.
Starting at around 9.30 a.m., mass protests and violence raged for some six hours in many parts of Punjab including Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Bathinda, Hoshiarpur, Patiala and Ferozepur and parts of nearby Haryana.
The authorities halted the Delhi-Lahore bus carrying Indians and Pakistanis at Ludhiana as a safety precaution.
The Delhi-Amritsar highway and several state highways were blocked by mobs armed with sticks, swords and bricks. The protestors included a large number of women, many armed with bamboos.
They were protesting the murder of Sant Rama Nand, 57, the second-in-command of Dera Sach Khand, which brings together primarily the Dalit Sikh followers of the 14th century Guru Ravidass.
Sant Rama Nand died Monday in a hospital in Vienna of gunshot injuries sustained the previous evening when a man opened fire in a gurdwara in the Austrian capital. The attackers, armed also with knives, were opposed to the sect. Sixteen people were injured in the clash.
The sect's top leader, Sant Niranjan Dass, 68, was also wounded in the Sunday clash that also involved the use of knives. But doctors said Monday that he was stable after emergency surgery.
Austrian officials said the body of Sant Rama Nand would be flown to India at the earliest.
As news of Sant Rama Nand's death spread like wildfire, violence erupted all across Punjab, particularly in the areas of Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Phagwara, Hoshiapur, Amritsar and Patiala.
Jalandhar came under curfew Sunday night following the first burst of violence. Curfew was also clamped in the towns of Ludhiana, Phagwara and Hoshiarpur.
But despite the curfew and the deployment of police and paramilitary forces, mobs took to the streets, frequently indulging in violence. Shops were forced to shut and streets wore a deserted look.
Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal confirmed that one person was killed and eight others were injured in police firing in Jalandhar Monday.
Badal, flanked by Deputy Chief Minister and Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal who is also the home minister, said: 'We all are very hurt with the developments but it is a religious issue and it is very difficult to control emotions. But at some places the protestors turned very violent.'
'All this happened suddenly and chaos spread rapidly in different towns that made it difficult for us to control the situation. Now the situation is under control.'
Protests also spread to Haryana where sect followers felled trees and blocked the Chandigarh-Delhi highway for some time at Ambala, 45 km from Chandigarh.
'I am deeply distressed by the outbreak of violence in Punjab following certain incidents in Vienna. Whatever the provocation, it is important to maintain peace and harmony among different sections of the people,' the prime minister said in New Delhi.
'I appeal to all sections of the people in Punjab to abjure violence and maintain peace. In areas where curfew has been imposed, it is necessary that people should go back to their homes and allow the security forces to restore law and order,' he added.
Manmohan Singh said Sikhism was about tolerance and harmony and that all the 'revered gurus of Sikhism preached the values of equality, brotherhood and harmony'.
Police said the stationary train was set fire to between Jalandhar and Phagwara. Three empty coaches were also torched at the Jalandhar Cantonment railway station. No one was injured in these incidents.
Police remained mute spectators at several places despite the violence. At the Amritsar bus stand, a handful of policemen failed to curbs young men damaging state-owned and private buses as well as other vehicles.
A mob attacked the convoy of Inspector General of Police Sanjiv Kalra at Lambra village near Jalandhar. His security guards fired several rounds in the air.
Most towns were tense after a night of violence. Shops and other commercial establishments did not open Monday morning. Several shops were also vandalized.