NEW DELHI — At least 30 people were killed Friday when violent clashes spread across northern India after a popular spiritual guru was convicted of rape and his followers flooded the streets, smashing cars, torching buses and attacking police officers.
More than 200 people were also injured in the clashes, which began in the city of Panchkula and quickly spread, according to local authorities.
The spiritual leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh — known as “the guru of bling” — has millions of followers. The Indian authorities had anticipated trouble ahead of a verdict.
A judge found Mr. Singh guilty of two counts of rape in a 15-year-old case in which two women said they were attacked at the headquarters of his sect. Mr. Singh, dressed in long white shirt and dhoti — a garment worn by Hindu men that wraps around both legs — was taken into custody after the verdict. His sentence will be announced next week.
Thousands of his followers, who were already gathered near the court in Panchkula and near the headquarters of his sect in Sirsa awaiting the verdict, poured into the streets brandishing sticks and hurling rocks upon hearing news of his conviction.
Videos show the crowd toppling television news vans and other vehicles as the police responded with water cannons.
For the past several days, police reinforcements had been bused into the northern Indian state of Haryana where the core of Mr. Singh’s supporters live. The army was put on standby in anticipation of violence. On Friday, text messaging and mobile internet services were cut off in the area in an attempt to avert mob mayhem.
Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana state, appealed for peace in a televised statement.
“Nobody is above the law,” Mr. Khattar said, vowing that “action will be taken against those who will take law in their own hands.”
Mr. Khattar, who visited some of the people injured in the violence at a hospital, confirmed that 30 people had been killed, and noted that some had died from police gunshot wounds.
Violence also was reported in the neighboring states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Delhi. In New Delhi, about 150 miles south of the center of the violence, several empty buses and train coaches were set afire.
Before the verdict was announced, Mr. Singh drove to the court house, escorted by a convoy of supporters who traveled from his ashram in Sirsa to Panchkula in hundreds of vehicles.
Riot police officers were deployed along the roads, and in at least two towns, the army was called to assist the police.
Mr. Singh’s eccentric personality has attracted a cultlike following. The self-styled “godman” is known for a flashy life and flamboyant dress. He often drives an oversized motorcycle and has made several films and music albums.
Mr. Singh broadcasts video, images and messages to his 3.75 million Twitter followers almost daily, and describes himself in his profile as a ”Spiritual Saint/Philanthropist/Versatile Singer/Allrounder/Sportsperson/Film Director/Actor/Art Director/Music Director/ Writer/Lyricist/Autobiographer/DOP.”
The Dera Sacha Sauda sect that Mr. Singh leads claims to have a worldwide following of 60 million people and is described on its website as a “Social Welfare & Spiritual Organization that preaches and practices humanitarianism and selfless services to others.”
It extols meditation, urges followers not to consume alcohol and encourages vegetarianism.
Like other large religious sects in India, Dera Sacha Sauda wields power. Local politicians regularly visit the sect’s headquarters, eager to offer support to Mr. Singh to help nurture their own political ambitions.
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Mr. Singh enjoys political patronage from several local politicians, including Mr. Khattar and other ministers of the Haryana state government.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also has offered support for the guru. In a 2014 tweet, Mr. Modi applauded his group’s efforts to take part in a campaign by the government to clean up the streets. During the most recent election, Mr. Modi also made mention of Dera Sacha Sauda and thanked the group for its contribution to the country.
Mr. Modi denounced Friday’s deadly violence in a series of tweets and appealed for peace.
This is not the first time a guru and his followers have been at the center of violence in the northern Haryana state of India.
Mr. Singh could face up to seven years in prison for the rape conviction. He also is under investigation for the murder of a journalist who first brought the rape allegations against him to light.
Utsav Singh Bains, an advocate for sexual assault victims, said that several women had accused Mr. Singh of rape, but only two came forward to file charges against him.
“Their families were attacked and they faced constant threat,” Mr. Bains said.
On – 25 Aug, 2017 By HARI KUMAR