ROHTAK, Haryana: Self-styled spiritual guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for the rape of two women followers.
The 50-year-old chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect wept as he was sentenced at a jail in Haryana’s Rohtak by Judge Jagdeep Singh, who flew down by a government helicopter to conduct a prison-side court hearing.
Thousands of soldiers are guarding the prison and the army is on stand-by. No civilians are being allowed within 10 km of the prison. Over a lakh of Ram Rahim’s followers had gathered in Panchkula, where he was convicted on Friday, and they erupted in violence that left 38 people dead and over 200 injured.
Ram Rahim’s lawyers, who today pleaded for a lighter sentence in view of his philanthropic work, have said they will appeal in a higher court. The CBI, which had sought a life sentence has said it will push for more punishment; sources in the agency said they have already moved an application for a longer prison term.
The Dera chief will be sent for a medical examination and then will be given a prison uniform and will be allotted a jail cell. Since Friday, when he was flown from Panchkula to Rohtak in a luxury helicopter, Ram Rahim occupied a special cell and was given bottled water and was allowed an assistant, amid massive criticism.
Thousands of paramilitary troops and anti-riot police have blocked off all roads in the area. Military sources said the Army can enter Rohtak in about an hour if needed. Barbed-wire barriers have been erected and residents have been warned to stay indoors in Rohtak. All schools and colleges in Haryana were closed today.
Large gatherings are banned in the city. Mobile internet services remain suspended. Senior members of Ram Rahim’s Dera Sacha Sauda sect were placed under detention as a precautionary measure.
The Rohtak police has warned that it may shoot at any sign of trouble. “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 NDTV. “I am fully confident everything will go on peacefully and there will be no untoward incident.”
Over 1,50,000 members of Ram Rahim’s Dera Sacha Sauda had gathered in Panchkula in a show of support before Friday’s verdict. Violent protests followed across his power base in the Haryana, with police deploying tear gas and water cannons, with little impact. It was clear the authorities grossly underestimated the risk posed by the army of Ram Rahim’s devotees.
Over the weekend, more than 100 branches of the sect have been sanitised and sealed across Haryana. Petrol cans and sticks were found stockpiled. The police in Sirsa, where his 1,000- acre main base is located, have been urging about 30,000 devotees to emerge from the campus.
A few thousand were persuaded to leave for their homes across the state in buses and those efforts will continue today, said top government officials to NDTV, denying reports that they will forcefully enter the campus to evacuate devotees.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned yesterday that “Violence is not acceptable in the nation, in any form.” But his party, the BJP, which governs 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 Ram Rahim, who is known as the “guru in bling” because of his penchant for bejeweled 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 Ram Rahim.