Guru's rape conviction sparks riots in India

The rape conviction of a self-proclaimed spiritual leader in India poured thousands of his supporters into India's streets, killing at least 19 in the violent protests that followed.
Followers of self-styled "godman" Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh (right) throwing stones at security forces during clashes in Panchkula, in Haryana state, after he was convicted of rape. Supporters attacked railway stations, petrol stations and television v
Followers of self-styled "godman" Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh throwing stones at security forces during clashes in Panchkula, in Haryana state, after he was convicted of rape. Supporters attacked railway stations, petrol stations and television vans.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Followers of self-styled "godman" Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh (right) throwing stones at security forces during clashes in Panchkula, in Haryana state, after he was convicted of rape. Supporters attacked railway stations, petrol stations and television v
Followers of self-styled "godman" Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh (above) throwing stones at security forces during clashes in Panchkula, in Haryana state, after he was convicted of rape. Supporters attacked railway stations, petrol stations and television vans.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

20 dead, hundreds hurt as supporters go on rampage in northern states

PANCHKULA (India) • Violent protests erupted in India yesterday, leaving more than 20 people dead and hundreds of others injured, after thousands of supporters of a self-styled controversial "godman" - dubbed the "guru of bling" - went on the rampage after he was convicted of rape.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of a social welfare and spiritual group, was found guilty of raping two followers at the headquarters of his Dera Sacha Sauda group in the northern town of Sirsa, in a case dating back to 2002.

Supporters attacked railway stations, petrol stations and television vans in towns across the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, witnesses said.

Most of those killed were in Panchkula town in Haryana state where the court returned its verdict on Singh, a federal interior ministry official said. More than 200 were wounded in the two states.

Dozens of cars were burning in Panchkula town and television footage showed frantic scenes outside a hospital, with medical staff hurriedly transferring injured patients from ambulances on to wheelchairs and stretchers. Smoke could be seen rising in another part of town.

Prosecutor Harinder Pal Singh Verma was quoted as saying that Singh was "calm after the verdict was passed" and had been flown by helicopter to another city in Haryana. He will be sentenced on Monday.

Protests also erupted in New Delhi and in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan. Supporters of the guru set fire to some buses and two empty train coaches in the capital.

Singh, a 50-year-old burly, bearded man who has scripted and starred in his own films, is known as the "guru of bling" for his penchant for bejewelled costumes and roaring around on motorcycles. He describes himself on Twitter as a "spiritual saint" and "all-round sportsperson".

Singh commands a following that he claims is in the millions. Supporters started gathering in the streets outside the court in Panchkula ahead of the hearing on Thursday and thousands of troops were deployed to combat the violence.

"The court has convicted Ram Rahim Singh of rape charges," Mr Kohal Dev Sharma, a lawyer at the court said. "Justice has finally prevailed."

Singh has denied the charges and called on his followers through a video message to remain peaceful.

But one of his lawyers , MrA.K. Dhir, said Singh's followers had every right to express their outrage.

The chief minister of Haryana state, Mr Manohar Lal, said in a Twitter post that the administration was monitoring the situation closely and strict action would be taken against people trying to disrupt the peace.

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 in the murder of a journalist in 2002.

Singh, a 50-year-old burly, bearded man who has scripted and starred in his own films, is known as the "guru of bling" for his penchant for bejewelled costumes and roaring around on motorcycles. He describes himself on Twitter as a "spiritual saint" and "all-round sportsperson".

Mr Sharma said Singh faced a minimum of seven years in prison following the conviction.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'Guru's rape conviction sparks riots in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe