New Delhi — Hundreds of people have been arrested in a north Indian city after protests over the rape conviction of a religious sect leader turned violent, leaving 32 dead and more than 200 injured.
Followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect were there to support its chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, known as India’s “rock-star baba” and the “guru of bling” for his garish, rhinestone-
studded costumes and on-screen performances.
In an anonymous letter in 2002, Singh was accused of raping two female devotees, and in 2008 he was formally charged with rape and intimidation.
The violence began Friday afternoon in Panchkula, in the northern state of Haryana, where an estimated 100,000 followers had gathered, awaiting the verdict in the trial. Singh’s supporters were seen weeping and fainting as they waited for the judge to rule on the long-running case.
Media reports suggested that Singh has been given a special cell at Sunaria jail as he awaits his sentencing on Monday. And the Haryana government has come under sharp criticism for giving him special treatment.
Haryana’s chief secretary, Depinder Singh Dhesi, denied allegations that Singh was being held in a police guesthouse: “He has been kept like a normal prisoner. In the whole case, if anyone had done any sort of leniency in his duty, then required action will be taken.”
Judge Jagdeep Singh, who convicted the famous guru, criticized the Haryana government for allowing such a volatile situation to build up outside his courtroom. India’s Home Ministry directed the state government to provide high-level security for the judge.
Followers started trickling into Panchkula a week before the verdict was due. Many put down tarpaulins and squatted on the streets outside the court.
By Friday, there were so many people on the city’s streets that a sports stadium was prepared as a mass jail for arrested protesters.
Clashes also spread to the town of Sirsa, where Singh’s sect has its headquarters.
Eyewitnesses described protesters throwing stones, setting vehicles ablaze and toppling media vans in Panchkula. In the Indian capital of New Delhi, an empty train was set on fire.
Haryana Police Chief B.S. Sandhu said Friday night that 550 people had been detained and that some weapons were recovered in Panchkula.
An unnamed staff member from the sanitation department at the Civil Hospital in Panchkula described to the Indian Express newspaper seeing about a hundred people, some of them dead, on stretchers. “It was a horrific scene inside [the] emergency [room],” the staff member was quoted as saying. Cellphones in the pockets of corpses rang through the night, the Express reported.
Doctors told reporters that many of those admitted were police officers and that the death toll could rise because of the number of those seriously injured.
The Times of India reported that the government gave orders to fire at rioters after a senior police officer was surrounded by an angry mob.
In a series of tweets, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for calm Friday night: “The instances of violence today are deeply distressing. I strongly condemn the violence & urge everyone to maintain peace,” he wrote.
Police fired shots in the air after the violence erupted, using water cannons and tear gas to quell the crowds. About 600 soldiers were deployed.
After his conviction, Singh was flown out of Panchkula. A minimum seven-year sentence is expected to be pronounced on Monday.
Singh, who claims to have 60 million followers and supernatural powers, has a penchant for appearing in self-produced music videos and movies such as “MSG: The Messenger” and its sequels, for which he co-wrote scripts, co-directed, and sang songs. In the films he has superhero-like qualities, performing motorcycle stunts and killing ghosts and aliens. In 2016, his song “Love Charger” was played by Jimmy Fallon in a segment on “The Tonight Show.”
Followers defend Singh, saying he has set up vast social welfare programs, including huge blood donation drives, and has perfomed mass marriages for former sex workers.
But behind his flamboyant image, Singh and his entourage are dogged by accusations of criminal activity.
In ongoing cases, Singh and members of his inner circle have been accused of two murders and intimidation in attempts to bury the accusations of rape.
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