ROHTAK: An Indian court on Monday sentenced a controversial spiritual leader to 10 years in prison for raping two of his devotees, days after his followers went on a rampage that left 38 dead.
The riots broke out on Friday when Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, 50, was convicted of raping the two women at the sprawling headquarters of his hugely popular Dera Sacha Sauda sect in the northern state of Haryana.
A lawyer for the victims in the case, which dates back to 1999, confirmed Monday’s sentence and said there could be dozens more cases of abuse involving women at the sect.
“We will file two appeals shortly. One for enhancement of the punishment and another for further investigation into the case,” Utsav Singh Bains told AFP by phone.
“We believe there are at least 48 more victims who were sexually abused and who may have been killed or are too scared to come out and testify against Ram Rahim.”
Bains said the prosecution wanted the court to jail Singh for life — the maximum possible sentence for rape in India — given that there were two victims and one was a minor.
Authorities have imposed a security clampdown on the city of Rohtak where Singh is being held due to fears of a repeat of Friday’s violence, when tens of thousands of his supporters set fire to cars and clashed with security forces.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the violence but his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also in power in Haryana, was criticised for failing to anticipate the riots.
Police were taking no chances Monday in Rohtak, where mobile internet has been cut, roads barricaded with barbed wire and soldiers deployed to man checkpoints.
‘Guru in bling’
More than 100 of Singh’s senior loyalists have been placed in detention as a precautionary measure, said Rohtak police chief Navdeep Singh Virk.
He said his officers would use “whatever force is required” against the guru’s devotees should they again resort to violence.
“If the situation so arises that (we) need to use firearms, my officers have complete authority,” the police chief told broadcaster NDTV.
A judge was flown in by helicopter to sentence the spiritual leader, known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for bejewelled costumes.
The rape case was brought after an anonymous letter was sent to then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002, accusing Singh of repeatedly raping the sender and several other women in the sect.
A judge asked the federal Central Bureau of Investigation 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.
Singh also stood trial for conspiracy over the murder in 2002 of a journalist investigating the rape allegations. He denied the charge and the case is ongoing.
On Friday the journalist’s son Anshul Chhatrapati welcomed the sentence on Singh, saying the court had “sent a message that any charlatan, however big he may be, is not above the law”.
Critics say Haryana authorities grossly underestimated the risk posed by the army of devotees after violent protests in many parts of the northern state on Friday.
Over the weekend thousands of followers congregated in the spiritual headquarters of his sect at Sirsa, despite calls from police and troops for them to disperse.
Devotees eventually began trickling out one by one from the compound Sunday, under the supervision of hundreds of soldiers and riot police.
Modi said Sunday it was “natural to be worried” as the violence even briefly reached the capital New Delhi.
“Violence is not acceptable in the nation, in any form,” he said in his monthly radio address.
“Those who take law in their hands or take to violence will not be spared, whoever they are.”
Followers of the self-styled “godman” continue to insist upon his innocence.