At least 14 people have been killed in Indian towns as violent protests erupted after a court convicted a self-styled “godman” of raping two female followers, according to police and hospital sources.
Friday’s verdict angered thousands of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s supporters who said he was innocent.
Singh was found guilty 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, setting fire to government buildings, attacking railway stations, petrol stations and television vans in towns across the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, soon after the verdict was announced, witnesses said.
More than 15,000 Indian police and soldiers patrolled Panchkula, the town where the court gave its verdict on Singh, as local officials feared an outbreak of violence.
Police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse the protesters.
“Fourteen people have died and 80 were injured,” a medical officer at the government hospital in Panchkula told AFP news agency without giving his name.
A curfew was imposed in three districts in Punjab which are strongholds of the Dera Sacha Sauda group.
“There has been violence in some towns in Punjab, we are taking all measures to maintain peace,” said the state chief minister Amarinder Singh.
A defence spokesman said six columns of the Indian army, amounting to about 600 men, had been deployed in Panchkula to help police and paramilitary contain violent mobs.
The guru’s sect claims to have some 50 million followers and campaigns for vegetarianism and against drug addiction. Singh describes his sect as a social welfare and spiritual organization.
More than 100,000 had gathered near the court premises ahead of the verdict
The 50-year-old leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda group was taken into custody under military escort, and will be housed in a jailhouse in the nearby town of Rohtak until his sentencing on Monday.
“The court has convicted Ram Rahim Singh of rape charges,” Kohal Dev Sharma, a lawyer at the court said. “Justice has finally prevailed.”
Sharma said the Singh faced a minimum of seven years in prison.
Singh, a burly, bearded man who has scripted and starred in his own films, denied the rape charge. He had called on his followers through a video message to remain peaceful.
“We all must respect the law and maintain peace,” he said.
|Singh denies the rape charges against him [AFP]|
When the guru left his ashram in Sirsa early Friday for the hearing, he was accompanied by a 100-vehicle convoy.
Police had erected heavy metal barricades topped with barbed wire along main roads in the town, a quiet residential suburb of Chandigarh, which is the common capital of Haryana and Punjab states.
Officers on horseback monitored crowds near the courthouse. Helicopters whirred overhead.
“We are prepared to deal with any situation, but are confident that adequate measures have been put in place,” said BS Sandhu, a top Haryana police official, before the verdict was read.
Army soldiers planned to march later Friday through the streets to garner a sense of security, Sandhu said.
Mobile internet services had also been suspended in the states of Haryana and Punjab to stop people from spreading rumours and causing unrest, senior government official Ram Niwas said.
Train services were canceled through the area, leading to railway delays across north India. Schools and colleges were closed.
|Police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse the protesters [Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images]|
Source: News agencies