At least 30 people have died in riots and arson attacks which broke out across two states in northern India after a spiritual leader was convicted of raping two of his female followers.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who claims to have millions of disciples, was found guilty of raping two women at the headquarters of his sect, known as Dera Sacha Sauda, in 2002.
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Gurus or spiritual leaders are enlightening influences in the lives of many Indians, guiding decisions both sacred and mundane, but few had the following or political clout of Singh.
The Guardian reports:
The Indian army was deployed in the city of Panchkula on Friday shortly after the court found Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh guilty of sexual assault. The self-styled “godman” and leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect has been taken into custody and will reportedly be flown by helicopter to a jail in Haryana state before sentencing on Monday.
Authorities told the Hindustan Times that at least 30 people had been killed across the region, with further 250 injured.
Electricity supplies, mobile internet and cable television had been cut in parts of Haryana and Punjab states before the verdict as up to 200,000 members of the sect massed in Panchkula in a show of defiance and support.
Live television footage on Friday afternoon showed smoke billowing above a railway station and petrol pump in Punjab that was allegedly set alight by supporters of Singh.
A curfew was imposed in three of Punjab’s largest cities as hundreds of incidents of violence were reported. Journalists on the scene in Panchkula and Sirsa – where the sect is headquartered – appeared to be singled out by the rioters.
Reporters and crew from the Hindustan Times, India Today and News18 have reported injuries or damage to their vehicles, while a van belonging to NDTV was set on fire.
Police used teargas and water cannon to contain the rioting. There were reports of reinforcements flooding into Panchkula, Sirsa and parts of Punjab.
Delhi is also on high alert with at least seven reports of arson across the Indian capital. Large gatherings have also been banned in Delhi on the basis of intelligence that sect supporters intend to demonstrate there on Saturday.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, said the clashes were deeply distressing. Writing on Twitter he said: “I strongly condemn the violence & urge everyone to maintain peace.”
Singh, one of the most powerful men in India, runs the 69-year-old sect from its ashram headquarters on a sprawling, 400-hectare (1,000-acre) Haryana property that includes a hotel, cinema, cricket stadium and schools. He claims to have 60 million followers worldwide.
The rape allegations, which Singh denies, first surfaced in an anonymous letter sent in 2002 to the then prime minister, Atal Vajpayee. Scrutiny of the ashram grew when a journalist investigating Dera Sacha Sauda was shot dead the same year.
India’s domestic security agency, the CBI, alleges Singh was involved in murdering the journalist after suspecting he was responsible for helping to circulate the anonymous letter, according to the Hindustan Times. He faces a separate trial in that case and denies the charges.
Gurus are enlightening influences in the lives of many Indians, guiding decisions both sacred and mundane, but few have the following of Singh or his political clout.
Singh is one of the few to openly back political parties, throwing his support in 2014 behind the Modi government and announcing last November that its controversial demonetisation policy was “in the national interest”.
In the decade that the rape trial has been running, Singh has continued courting both followers and controversy.
In 2014 he starred – encrusted in rhinestones – in the first of two hagiographic films about his life, in which he was credited for 30 roles including director, producer and choreographer.
Ticket sales were initially strong – more than 150,000 attended the first film’s premiere – but reportedly flagged after the CBI went public with accusations that Singh had been organising “mass castrations” of his followers since at least 2000. He denies this.
Many members of Dera Sacha Sauda are said to be Sikhs belonging to the lowest caste in society who are drawn to the sect’s message of equality among followers. Most devotees take the surname “Insan”, Hindi for human, symbolising a devotion to humanity.
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