A supporter of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect beckons others to join her as soldiers stand guard on a barricaded road leading to a court in Panchkula, India, where a court convicted sect leader Ram Rahim Singh of rape. (AP Photo)
PANCHKULA, INDIA: At least 10 people were killed and several injured in violent protests in the northern state of Haryana after a religious leader was convicted on Friday in a 15-year-old rape case, television reports said.
Around 150 vehicles were torched in Panchkula town by thousands of followers of the self-proclaimed “godman” Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. The court is scheduled to sentence him on Monday.
Singh is the leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect in Sirsa district, around 250 kilometres east of Panchkula. He was convicted of raping two women at an ashram of his sect in 2002.
Television reports showed vehicles being torched in Panchkula, around 250km north of New Delhi. Similar incidents of violence were reported in several other parts of Haryana and even parts of New Delhi.
Ram Rahim Singh, who had denied the charges, was taken into custody and is being housed in a jail in the nearby town of Rohtak until his sentencing hearing on Monday, prosecutor HPS Verma said.
Crowds of supporters enraged by the ruling attacked TV journalists and media vehicles, breaking windshields and broadcasting equipment immediately after learning of the news.
Panchkula administrators had feared that a guilty finding would trigger violence among the tens of thousands of followers who had camped overnight awaiting the ruling.
More than 15,000 Indian police and paramilitary soldiers were patrolling Panchkula.
Angry mobs also attacked police in the town of Sirsa, where the guru’s ashram is located, according to a local police control room.
The guru’s Dera Sacha Sauda sect claims to have 50 million followers and campaigns for vegetarianism and against drug addiction. It has also taken up social causes such as organising the weddings of poor couples.
Such sects have huge followings in India. It’s not unusual for leaders to have small, heavily armed private militias protecting them.
When the guru left his ashram early Friday for the hearing, he was accompanied by a 100-vehicle convoy.
Prior to the reading of the court judgement, authorities ordered Internet and mobile phone services shut down across both Haryana and Punjab as a security precaution.
Train services were cancelled through the area, leading to railway delays across north India. Schools and colleges were closed.
The case was tried in a special court run by India’s top agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation. Such cases have prompted public violence in the past.
Clashes in 2007 between Dera Sacha Sauda followers and members of the Sikh faith left at least three people dead in north India.
In 2014, six people were killed when followers of another religious leader, guru Rampal, fought pitched battles with police who were attempting to arrest him for contempt of court after he repeatedly failed to appear in court in connection with a murder trial.
In a televised appeal on Thursday, Ram Rahim Singh had asked his supporters not to resort to violence, but some said they would not tolerate a ruling that went against their leader.
“I consider guru-ji to be only next to God,” farmer Malkit Singh said as he squatted on the ground in a Panchkula park, saying Ram Rahim Singh had cured him of a decadelong addiction to drugs.
“There is a God above,” he said. “Our guru-ji follows the path of truth.”