PANCHKULA (India) • The Indian authorities have arrested hundreds of people and cancelled more than 300 trains passing through two northern states after at least 30 people were killed in violent protests sparked by a court's decision to convict a controversial spiritual leader of rape.
Security forces were deployed outside the headquarters of Dera Sacha Sauda sect in Sirsa, Haryana state, where some 10,000 followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh remained holed up yesterday, Reuters quoted Director General of Police Baljit Singh Sandhu as saying.
Violence erupted in Haryana and nearby Punjab state on Friday afternoon, minutes after a court pronounced Singh guilty of raping two followers in 2002.
Although the curfew was lifted in Panchkula city in Haryana yesterday, restrictions on public assembly remained in place, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.
About 524 people had been arrested, top Haryana administrator Ram Niwas told Reuters.
A total of 340 trains had also been cancelled as a precaution.
Tensions are expected to remain high as the 50-year-old spiritual leader will be sentenced tomorrow.
India's self-styled "godmen" have legions of devoted followers, but several have been embroiled in scandals in recent years. Here are some of the other well-known gurus. Rampal Maharaj: He considers himself an incarnation of a 15th-century mystic Indian poet. In 2014, a court issued a warrant for his arrest on a series of charges, including conspiracy to murder. The guru barricaded himself in his ashram, guarded by devotees armed with stones, petrol bombs and other weapons. It was days before police were finally able to arrest him. Asaram Bapu: He was accused of several offences including rape, trafficking and sexual crimes against minors. He had urged followers to live a "pious life" free of sexual desires and once condemned Valentine's Day as encouraging young people to engage in "dirty acts". He was arrested in 2013 after a 16-year- old girl accused him of raping her on the pretext of ridding her of "evil spirits". Sathya Sai Baba: He was one of India's most famous and widely followed spiritual gurus, known for his vast charitable empire. When he died in 2011, he was given a state funeral. But his trust was often criticised for lack of transparency. After his death, 98kg of gold, 307kg of silver and 115 million rupees (S$2.4 million) in cash were found in his private quarters. Swami Nithyananda: He faces a series of assault and sexual abuse charges, although he has never been convicted. In 2010, he was held in jail for 53 days after a sex video scandal. The footage purportedly showed him fondling two women.
The sect has said it will appeal the court verdict.
The rape case was brought against Singh 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, said AFP.
But it took years to trace the alleged victims and it was not until 2007 that two women came forward and filed charges
Singh, who claims to have 60 million followers worldwide, is in custody in Rohtak city. Prison sources told NDTV that he is being held in a special cell and has an assistant with him.
The spiritual leader - who stood in court on Friday with his hands folded in prayer and his eyes closed - was shocked when the judge pronounced him guilty, the public prosecutor told The Times of India.
Dressed in white, he was a pale shadow of his usual flamboyant, flashy self. But his dramatic arrival and exit from court was befitting of his superstar-like status among his followers.
He was escorted by hundreds of cars ferrying his security guards and supporters as they drove from Sirsa city, where his sect is headquartered, to the court in Panchkula.
After the verdict, he was taken to a car outside the court and told to record an appeal, asking his followers to maintain peace, the Times of India reported.
He was then whisked off to the Rohtak jail in a helicopter, as tens of thousands of his followers went on an angry rampage in Panchkula and other towns in Haryana.
"He can't do any wrong... He works to rid the world of all its troubles," shopkeeper Rajkumar, who is known by only one name, told AFP.
Singh is hailed as a social reformer among his followers. His sect - which describes itself as a social welfare and spiritual organisation - is behind numerous welfare activities, including sanitation and blood donation drives, as well as diabetes and cholesterol screening campaigns.
REVERED BY FOLLOWERS
He can't do any wrong... He works to rid the world of all its troubles.
SHOPKEEPER RAJKUMAR, on Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who is hailed as a social reformer among his followers.
But it is the guru's eccentric and larger-than-life personality that has attracted a cult-like following.
Nicknamed "guru of bling", he wears outlandish clothes with flashy jewellery and sometimes bright headgear, and loves riding oversized motorcycles.
He holds 19 Guinness Book of Records for feats such as finger painting, vegetable mosaics and oil lamp displays. He has also directed and acted in several movies, and has also produced several music albums.
Calling himself the "Rockstar Baba", he claims to have invented "religious rock", said Huffington Post.
He believes he is "packaging a spiritual message in a modern wrapper" and has held rock concerts notorious for daredevil stunts, like singing while being suspended 9m above the ground on a moving crane, said the report.
"I started rapping and singing fast songs to lure youth away from the fast music that leads them to drugs," he was once quoted as saying.
Since taking over the sect in 1990 when he was barely 23 years old, Singh has extended its influence beyond India to countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the United Arab Emirates, said the Economic Times.
The sprawling Sirsa premises, which spread across nearly 404ha, include schools, sports facilities, a hospital and a cinema hall.
The guru enjoys political patronage from several local politicians, including Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, and other ministers of the state government, the New York Times said. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also paid recognition to the sect's contribution to society.
But the guru has been dogged by allegations of criminal behaviour and controversies.
He is being investigated for two homicide cases involving his sect manager and a journalist who investigated the sect's activities.
In 2015, he was accused of encouraging 400 followers to undergo castration at his ashram so that they could get closer to God.
His work has also angered mainstream religious leaders in India, particularly the Sikhs who say he insults and belittles their faith.
There were protests in the Sikh-dominated state of Punjab in 2015 over Singh's film entitled MSG: The Messenger Of God, which showed him performing miracles, preaching to thousands and beating up gangsters while singing and dancing.
He claimed the movie aimed to spread social awareness, but some Sikh groups have accused him of portraying himself as God and a Sikh guru.