NEW DELHI: An Indian guru convicted of rape awaited sentencing Monday, with authorities ramping up security amid fears of fresh violence days after protests over his guilty verdict left 36 dead.
Barbed-wire barriers were erected and residents warned to stay indoors in the northern city of Rohtak, where Ram Rahim Singh is being held and will be sentenced, while senior members of his sect were placed under detention as a precautionary measure.
Singh – who inspires a fervent, cult-like belief among followers who protest his innocence – could be handed a maximum sentence of life imprisonment at the prison-side court hearing Monday.
“We have made multi-layered arrangements so that nobody is able to reach the venue (prison) or enter Rohtak district itself,” police deputy inspector general Navdeep Singh Virk told Indian broadcaster NDTV.
“I am fully confident everything will go on peacefully and there will be no untoward incident.”
The heavy fortifications come with Indian authorities on high alert since rioting and arson broke out minutes after Singh – who has starred in films and claims to have 50 million followers – was found guilty of raping two of his devotees Friday.
Some 200,000 members of Singh’s Dera Sacha Sauda movement had gathered in Panchkula in a show of support a day before the verdict. Violent protests followed across his power base in the northern state of Haryana which borders New Delhi, with police deploying tear gas and water cannon.
Critics say Haryana state authorities grossly underestimated the risk posed by the army of Singh devotees.
Over the weekend, thousands of followers congregated in the spiritual headquarters of his sect in Sirsa, despite calls from police and troops for them to disperse.
Devotees eventually began trickling out from the compound Sunday, one by one under the supervision of hundreds of soldiers and riot police, after a curfew was briefly lifted.
Prime Minister Narendra 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,” Modi said in his monthly radio address.
“Those who take law in their hands or take to violence will not be spared, whoever they are.”
But his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also in power in Haryana, has come under heavy fire for failing to prevent the outbreak of violence and allowing the 50-year-old guru to travel in a luxury chopper to jail.
Followers of the flamboyant Singh, who is known as the “guru in bling” because of his penchant for bejewelled costumes and customised superbikes, continue to insist upon his innocence.
“Our father can never do any sin,” said devotee Trilok Insaan at a shop in Sirsa adorned with posters of a heavily-bearded Singh. “This is a conspiracy.”