PANCHKULA, INDIA (REUTERS, AFP) - At least 19 people have died in North India in violent protests on Friday (Aug 25) after a court convicted a self-styled “godman” of raping two women, angering thousands of his supporters who said he was innocent, police and lawyers said.
Supporters rampaged in response, attacking railway stations, petrol stations and television vans in towns across the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, witnesses said.
Most of the casualties were in Panchkula town where the court returned its verdict on Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of a social welfare and spiritual group dubbed the "guru in bling" for his penchant for garish clothes and jewellery, a federal interior ministry official said. More than 200 were wounded in the two states, he said.
AFP, citing a police deputy superintendent, said as many as 22 people had died and 100 were injured.
Singh was earlier on Friday held guilty of raping two women followers in a case dating back to 2002 at the headquarters of his Dera Sacha Sauda group in the northern town of Sirsa.
Dozens of cars were burning in Panchkula town while a body lay on a roadside. Television footage showed frantic scenes outside a hospital in Panchkula, with medical staff hurriedly transferring injured patients from ambulances on to wheelchairs and stretchers. Smoke could be seen rising in another part of town.
Protests also erupted in New Delhi and in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan. Supporters of the godman set fire to some buses and two empty train coaches in the capital.
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.
Singh has a vast following in the northern state of Haryana, where he runs his spiritual movement that claims to have millions of devotees around the world.
Troops and riot police had been deployed ahead of the verdict, but violence broke out as news of his conviction spread among the gathered devotees. An AFP reporter saw police fire tear gas and water cannon into a crowd of protesters who threw stones and attacked two television vans, overturning one.
There were also unconfirmed reports of police firing into the air to disperse the crowd.
Media reports said Singh had been taken into custody under military escort. He will be sentenced on Aug 28.
“The court convicted Baba Ram Rahim Singh on rape charges,” prosecutor Harinder Pal Singh Verma told AFP by telephone after the closed hearing.
“Justice has finally prevailed,” said Kohal Dev Sharma, a lawyer at the court. 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.
Some Indian holy men can summon thousands of supporters on to the streets. Their systems of patronage and sermons are hugely popular with people who consider the government has failed them.
Up to 200,000 of Singh's supporters had flocked to Chandigarh in northern India ahead of the verdict, BBC reported.
Tens of thousands of his supporters marched on Thursday, alarming state authorities who redoubled security and suspended mobile Internet services.
"A meeting was held today (Thursday) and we made a decision to suspend mobile Internet and data services for the next 72 hours," Ram Niwas, Haryana's additional chief secretary, told reporters.
Roads into Panchkula, where a special court will issue a judgment on the allegations stretching back to 2002, were blockaded, and three stadiums set aside as makeshift prisons in case of trouble, officials said.
But tens of thousands of Singh's supporters were already camped out across the city, where schools and offices were closed as a precaution.
Mr Ravi Kumar, 25, said he wanted to ensure that "nothing unfair" was done to Singh, who has featured in action movies and music videos.
"He does so much good for humanity and they still trouble him by calling him here without a reason," Mr Kumar told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
The self-styled "godman" urged his supporters against violence and said he would personally appear in court on Friday.
"I have always respected the law. Even though I have a backache, still, abiding by law, I will go to court. I have full faith in God. Everyone should maintain peace," Singh posted on Twitter on Thursday.
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 over the murder of a journalist in 2002.
On its website, the group describes Singh as a saint as well as an author, inventor, scientist, philosopher, philanthropist, peace activist and "the ultimate humanitarian".