PANCHKULA (AFP) – Hundreds of troops Saturday patrolled a northern Indian city hit by deadly clashes that killed at least 30 people after thousands protested a court’s decision to convict a controversial spiritual leader of rape.
The army was deployed in Haryana state’s Panchkula city after tens of thousands of followers of guru Ram Rahim Singh went on an angry rampage, attacking television vans and setting fire to dozens of private vehicles.
Security forces were put on high alert to ensure there was no repeat of the violence that erupted Friday afternoon, minutes after a special court pronounced the self-styled guru guilty of raping two of his followers.
Mobile phone services were disrupted in some parts of Haryana and neighbouring Punjab state, where authorities had earlier imposed a curfew following the clashes.
Although the curfew was lifted in Panchkula Saturday, restrictions on public assembly remained in place.
Haryana police chief B.S. Sandhu told AFP Saturday at least 30 people had died with the toll likely to rise as some of the wounded were being treated for serious head injuries.
“The toll within the state is at least 30 dead and around 200 injured including about 50 police and security personnel,” said Sandhu.
“Some of the injured didn’t come to the hospitals fearing that they could face police action or arrests for involvement in the violence,” he said.
Official sources told AFP earlier that at least 32 people had died, with most of the fatalities caused by gun shots.
The 50-year-old Singh is known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for bejewelled costumes and claims to have more than 50 million loyal followers worldwide.
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.
Some 200,000 members of Singh’s sect had gathered in Panchkula in a show of support a day before the verdict, which enraged his followers, with many saying they were in a state of shock.
“I have been with dear Ram Rahim Singh for around 14 years. I can bet that all the allegations against our guru are false,” said Rajkumar, a shopkeeper from Haryana who was undergoing treatment at the hospital.
“He can’t do any wrong… He works to rid the world of all its troubles,” he told AFP, his head heavily bandaged.
Ajay Garg, a doctor in Panchkula, blamed the police for allowing the situation to spiral out of control.
“Our family was very scared. We went to the third floor of our house. They (mobs) were out of control and even damaged my car which was parked outside,” he told AFP.
Singh’s Dera Sacha Sauda sect, whose headquarters are located in nearby Sirsa town, said it would appeal the verdict.
“This is unjust. We will appeal against the judgement,” it said in a statement.
The sprawling Sirsa premises, spread across nearly 1,000 acres (404 hectares), include schools, sports facilities, a hospital and a cinema hall — thanks to Singh’s love for the silver screen.
In 2015 Singh started a film franchise portraying him as MSG or the ‘Messenger of God’, performing miracles, preaching to thousands and beating up gangsters while singing and dancing.
His last flick ‘MSG – The Warrior Lion Heart’ was released last year, with the guru playing a secret agent fighting aliens and UFOs.
Singh’s sentencing will be announced on Monday.