NEW DELHI: At least 32 people were killed Friday when clashes broke out in northern India after a court convicted a controversial religious leader of raping two of his followers, sparking fury among tens of thousands of supporters who had gathered for the verdict.
Authorities rushed hundreds of troops to the city of Panchkula after followers of guru Ram Rahim Singh torched cars went on a rampage throwing rocks and attacking television vans and setting fire to dozens of private vehicles.
More than 100,000 were estimated to have gone to the city in Haryana state, where India‘s federal investigations agency had set up a special court to rule on the charge that he had raped two female devotees.
Authorities rushed 600 troops to the northern Indian city of Panchkula, where an AFP reporter saw police fire tear gas and water cannon into crowds of protesters who threw stones and attacked two television vans, breaking their windows and overturning one.
More than 100,000 followers of guru Ram Rahim Singh were estimated to have gone to the city in Haryana state, where India’s federal investigations agency had set up a special court to rule on the charge that he had raped two female devotees.
Authorities said 32 people had been killed and around 180 injured after rioting broke out in Haryana, where many areas were now under curfew.
“The situation continues to be grim but we are gaining some ground. Hopefully we will mobilise more forces in the night to take control,” a senior state official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said the large crowd went berserk soon after the verdict was pronounced and attacked police and set vehicles afire before the police took action.
Most of the fatalities were caused by gunshots, the officer said.
Singh has a vast following in Haryana, where he runs a spiritual movement that claims to have millions of devotees around the world.
Authorities imposed an indefinite curfew in Panchkula, where mobile internet services had earlier been cut off and troops deployed ahead of the verdict.
As news of Singh’s conviction spread, police in the neighbouring state of Punjab said a mob had set fire to a train station in Mukhtar district.
“A large mob has set a train station on fire in Malout town. We have rushed forces and fire services to the spot,” local police chief Sushil Kumar told AFP by phone as Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh appealed for calm.
Media reports said Singh had been taken into custody under military escort. He will be sentenced on August 28.
“The court convicted Baba Ram Rahim Singh on rape charges,” prosecutor Harinder Pal Singh Verma told AFP by telephone after the closed hearing.
‘Guru in bling’
The 50-year-old self-styled “godman” is known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for bejewelled costumes, although the source of his apparently vast wealth is unclear.
The rape case was brought against him after an anonymous letter was sent to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 accusing him of repeatedly raping the sender and several other women in the sect.
A judge asked the Central Bureau of Investigations to look into the accusations, but it took years to trace the alleged victims and it was not until 2007 that two women came forward and filed charges.
India has been rocked by numerous scandals involving popular ascetics claiming to possess mystical powers, and Singh is no stranger to controversy.
In 2015 he was accused of encouraging 400 followers to undergo castration at his ashram so they could get closer to god.
He also stood trial for conspiracy over the murder of a journalist in 2002.
He describes his sect as a social welfare and spiritual organisation.
Speaking before his conviction, supporters who had gathered in Panchkula credited him with turning their lives around, with some saying his organisation had helped them kick an addiction to alcohol.
“I’ve been part of the Dera movement for two decades and in that time I have not touched a drop,” said Gajendere Singh, a recovering alcoholic who said he was aged around 60.
“Before joining, people did not pay me much attention. But after, I had a support network.”
Singh’s work has angered mainstream religious leaders in India, particularly Sikhs who say he insults and belittles their faith.
Singh was driven from his home town to the court in a vast convoy that Indian media said was made up of over 100 vehicles.
Television images showed devotees lining the streets, many of them sobbing uncontrollably.
Roads leading to the court have been barricaded off and three stadiums set aside as makeshift prisons in case of trouble after the verdict.