Followers of convicted Indian guru end impasse with army

Indian paramilitary personnel walk towards the Dera Sacha Sauda Ashram in Sirsa on Aug 26, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

SIRSA, INDIA (AFP) - Thousands of supporters of a controversial Indian guru ended a tense stand-off with soldiers Sunday (Aug 27), avoiding renewed violence after their leader's rape conviction sparked riots in which at least 36 people died.

Followers of Ram Rahim Singh, whose loyalists went on a rampage after he was found guilty Friday, began trickling out one by one under army guard from the compound of their spiritual headquarters in Sirsa, a town in the northern state of Haryana.

Hundreds of soldiers and riot police had blocked approaches to the premises spread over 1,000 acres (404 hectares) and were urging those holed up inside to surrender peacefully.

Indian authorities have been on high alert in Sirsa and Panchkula, the city where Singh faced judgment, since rioting and arson broke out minutes after the self-styled godman was found guilty of raping two of his followers.

Police said at least 36 people were killed as tens of thousands of followers went on the rampage, attacking television vans and setting fire to dozens of vehicles.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Sunday it was "natural to be worried" amid days of violence, which 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."

A curfew imposed in Sirsa, where soldiers patrolled empty streets, was briefly lifted Sunday to allow Singh's followers to leave the headquarters.

Under close guard, supporters left one by one from the compound as spiritual anthems blared from megaphones.

At a nearby shop adorned with posters of the 50-year-old spiritual leader, devotee Trilok Insaan defended the guru and accused police and troops of a brutal response.

"Our father can never do any sin," he told AFP.

"This is a conspiracy. Authorities issued a 'shoot at sight' order at innocent devotees, which is totally wrong."

Singh will be sentenced Monday at the prison where he is being held in Rohtak, which authorities have transformed into a fortress to avoid any repeat of violence.

Barbed-wire barricades have been erected along roadsides and the city is under police and military lockdown.

"No one will be allowed to go near the Sunaria jail at Rohtak," Haryana police chief B. S. Sandhu told reporters.

India has been rocked by numerous scandals involving popular ascetics claiming to possess mystical powers, and Singh is no stranger to controversy.

He is known as the "guru in bling" because of his penchant for bejewelled costumes, and claims to have more than 50 million loyal followers worldwide.

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.

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