PANCHKULA: Violent protests erupted in India on Friday, killing at least 32 people, after a court convicted a self-styled “godman” of raping two women, angering thousands of his supporters who said he was innocent, police and officials said.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of a social welfare and spiritual group, was found guilty of raping two followers in a case dating back to 2002 at the headquarters of his Dera Sacha Sauda group in the northern town of Sirsa.
Supporters rampaged in response, attacking railway stations, petrol stations and television vans in towns across the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, witnesses said.
Mobs set fire to government buildings and attacked police and TV journalists in the town of Panchkula in Haryana state, smashing the windshields of news vans and breaking broadcast equipment.
Police initially used tear gas and water cannons and then fired bullets in the air in an attempt to control the surging mobs as they vandalised bus stations and government vehicles.
“The situation is tense. There has been arson and burning,” Rajiv Mehrishi, the federal home secretary, said late Friday.
The violence left at least 32 dead, including some with bullet wounds, and more than 250 injured, according to BS Sandhu, a top Haryana police official.
He said more than 1,000 of the guru’s supporters had been detained in Panchkula on charges of arson and destruction of public property.
The special court announced the guilty verdict on Friday after hearing closing arguments in the 15-year-old case against the guru, who calls himself Saint Dr Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan.
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 sentencing is to be held Aug 28, prosecutor HPS Verma said.
Tens of thousands of followers had camped overnight awaiting the verdict.
Violence also broke out elsewhere in Haryana and the neighbouring state of Punjab, as well as in the capital, New Delhi, police said. 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.
A curfew was imposed in at least four districts of Punjab, said Amrinder Singh, the state’s chief minister.
A spokesman for the guru’s sect, Dera Sacha Sauda, urged his supporters to remain calm. “I just want to request everyone to maintain peace at the moment,” said Dilawar Insan. “We will explore what legal options are available to us.”
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.
Angry mobs also attacked police in the town of Sirsa, where the guru’s ashram is located, local police said.
When the guru left his ashram early Friday for the hearing, he was accompanied by a convoy of more than 180 vehicles, Singh, the Punjab chief minister, said.
Police erected heavy metal barricades topped with barbed wire along main roads in the town, a quiet residential suburb of Chandigarh, the joint capital of Haryana and Punjab states.
Authorities ordered internet and cellphone services shut down across both Haryana and Punjab as a security precaution. Train services were cancelled in the area, leading to railway delays across north India. Schools and colleges were also closed.
The case was tried in a special court run by India’s top investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Such cases against religious leaders have prompted 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 after he repeatedly failed to appear in court in connection with a murder trial.
In a televised appeal on Thursday, Ram Rahim Singh asked his supporters not to resort to violence, but some said they would not tolerate a verdict 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 park, saying Ram Rahim Singh had cured him of a decade-long addiction to drugs.
“There is a God above,” he said. “Our guru-ji follows the path of truth.”