At least 22 people were killed Friday when clashes broke out in northern India after a court convicted a controversial religious leader of raping two of his followers, sparking fury among tens of thousands of supporters who had gathered to await the verdict.
Authorities rushed hundreds of troops to the city of Panchkula after followers of guru Ram Rahim Singh torched cars, threw rocks and attacked television vans, breaking their windows and overturning one.
More than 100,000 were estimated to have gone to the city in Haryana state, where India’s federal investigations agency had set up a special court to rule on the charge that he had raped two female devotees.
Police deputy superintendent Isham Singh said 22 had been killed and around 100 injured after rioting broke out in Haryana, where many areas were now under curfew.
“The situation is tense but under control. The crowds have been dispersed at most places,” he told AFP by phone.
“The crowd outside the court was asked to vacate but they turned violent leading to police action.”
Ram Rahim Singh has a vast following in Haryana, where he runs a spiritual movement that claims to have millions of devotees around the world.
Authorities imposed an indefinite curfew in Panchkula, where mobile internet services had earlier been cut off.
“I don’t understand what the government and the police are doing. We have been feeling unsafe since yesterday and all our fears came true today,” local resident Sandeep Singh told AFP.
“Why did the police not act swiftly and forcefully against these followers?”
As news of Singh’s conviction spread there were reports of violence in the neighbouring state of Punjab and on the outskirts of the capital Delhi, which borders Haryana.
“Two train stations have been burnt in Punjab and two empty (train) coaches have been set on fire in Delhi’s Anand Vihar station,” said Neeraj Sharma, a spokesman for Indian Railways.
Hundreds of trains passing through Punjab and Haryana have been cancelled, he said.
Prosecutor Harinder Pal Singh Verma told AFP the guru was “calm after the verdict was passed” and had been flown by helicopter to another city in Haryana. He will be sentenced on August 28.
‘Guru in bling’
The 50-year-old self-styled “godman” is known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for bejewelled costumes, although the source of his apparently vast wealth is unclear.
The rape case was brought against him after an anonymous letter was sent to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 accusing him of repeatedly raping the sender and several other women in the sect.
A judge asked the Central Bureau of Investigations to look into the accusations, but it took years to trace the alleged victims and it was not until 2007 that two women came forward and filed charges.
India has been rocked by numerous scandals involving popular ascetics claiming to possess mystical powers, and Singh is no stranger to controversy.
In 2015 he was accused of encouraging 400 followers to undergo castration at his ashram so they could get closer to god.
He also stood trial for conspiracy over the murder of a journalist in 2002.
He describes his sect as a social welfare and spiritual organisation.
Messenger of God
Speaking before his conviction, supporters who had gathered in Panchkula credited him with turning their lives around, with some saying his organisation had helped them kick an addiction to alcohol.
“I’ve been part of the Dera movement for two decades and in that time I have not touched a drop,” said Gajendere Singh, a recovering alcoholic who said he was aged around 60.
“Before joining, people did not pay me much attention. But after, I had a support network.”
Singh’s work has angered mainstream religious leaders in India, particularly Sikhs who say he insults and belittles their faith.
There were protests in the Sikh-dominated state of Punjab over Singh’s 2015 appearance in a film entitled “MSG: The Messenger of God”, which showed him performing miracles, preaching to thousands and beating up gangsters while singing and dancing.