Vehicles set on fire by suspected Dera Sacha Sauda sect members during riots in Panchkula, India, 25 August 2017. (EPA photo)
PANCHKULA, India — Hundreds of security forces marched through a northern Indian town on Saturday to maintain calm after supporters of a quasi-religious sect leader protested his rape conviction with violence that left at least 36 people dead.
The guru faces seven years to life in prison.
The presence of nearly 10,000 people in the guru’s headquarters has raised fears they may turn violent again after their leader is sentenced on Monday.
Authorities appealed to thousands of followers of the guru, who calls himself Saint Dr Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan, holed up in his headquarters in Sirsa, a town in Haryana state, to come out and go home.
“There are no instructions to security forces to enter the headquarters and forcibly clear it,” said police spokesman Surjit Singh.
After a court declared the sect leader guilty of raping two of his followers 15 years ago, mobs on Friday set fire to government buildings, vandalised bus stations and government vehicles, and attacked police officers and TV journalists in the town of Panchkula, 250 kilometres (155 miles) north of Sirsa.
Police used tear gas and water cannons and fired bullets to control the mobs near the court building.
Authorities lifted curfew restrictions on Panchkula, the main trouble spot, on Saturday after the night passed relatively peacefully and the area was cleared of protesters, said police officer Pradeep Kumar.
However, Kuldeep Puri, a 45-year-old resident, said people had come out of their homes after three days but were still scared. “Offices are shut today, even private offices are shut. No buses are running on the streets,” Mr Puri said.
Tens of thousands of supporters of the sect leader had camped in Panchkula for days waiting for Friday’s court verdict.
B.S. Sandhu, the state director-general of police, said 30 people died in Panchkula and another six in Sirsa. He said police arrested 524 people.
The protesters burned 28 vehicles and two government offices in Panchkula during rioting, he said.
The guru, who had denied the charges of raping the two women at his ashram in 2002, was flown by helicopter to a jail in the nearby town of Rohtak because district officials feared they would be overrun by his supporters. His sentence will be announced Monday.
Indian Home Secretary Rajiv Mahrishi said Saturday that the situation was under control elsewhere in Haryana and the neighbouring state of Punjab, as well as in the capital, New Delhi. Railway stations in the towns of Malout and Balluana were ablaze, and two coaches of an empty train parked in New Delhi’s Anand Vihar station were set on fire on Friday.
A curfew was imposed in at least four districts of Punjab, said Amrinder Singh, the state’s chief minister.
The sect claims to have about 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 their leaders to have small, heavily armed private militias protecting them.
Clashes in 2007 between Dera Sacha Sauda followers and members of the Sikh faith left at least three people dead in northern India.
In 2014, six people were killed when followers of another religious leader, the guru Rampal, fought pitched battles with police who were attempting to arrest him after he repeatedly failed to appear in court in connection with a murder trial.