Parts of two northern Indian states are in lockdown as tens of thousands of followers of a flamboyant “godman” nicknamed the “guru of bling” await a verdict on long-standing rape charges against the spiritual leader.
The Indian army is on standby in Punjab and Haryana, surveillance drones are circling, and schools and roads have been shut in the city of Panchkula, over fears that supporters of Ram Rahim Singh may turn violent if he is found guilty.
About 150,000 members of Dera Sacha Sauda, a “social welfare and spiritual organisation” led by Singh, are reported to have descended on Panchkula in the past few days to wait for the verdict, which is expected on Friday.
The guru, considered one of the most powerful men in India, runs the 69-year-old sect from its ashram headquarters on a sprawling, 1,000-acre Haryana property that boasts its own hotel, cinema, cricket stadium and schools.
Singh, who claims to have 60 million followers around the world, has been accused by India’s elite Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) of sexually assaulting two female former members of the sect.
Singh tweeted on Thursday that he would be present in court for the judgment. “I have always respected the law of the land,” he said.
“Despite a backache, I will be present in the court and respect law and order. I have full faith in God. I appeal to everyone to maintain peace.”
The rape allegations, which Singh denies, first surfaced in an anonymous letter sent to the Indian prime minister in 2002. Scrutiny of the ashram grew when a journalist investigating Dera Sacha Sauda was shot dead the same year.
The CBI alleges Singh was involved in murdering the journalist after suspecting he was responsible for helping to circulate the anonymous letter, according to the Hindustan Times. He is facing a separate, ongoing trial in that case and denies the charges.
Gurus are enlightening influences in the lives of many Indians, guiding decisions both sacred and mundane, but few have the following of Singh nor his political clout.
The spiritual leader is one of the few to openly back political parties, throwing his support in 2014 behind the Narendra Modi government and announcing in November that its controversial demonetisation policy was “in the national interest”.
In the decade that the rape trial has been running, Singh has continued courting both followers and controversy.
In 2014 he starred – encrusted in rhinestones – in the first of two hagiographic films about his life, in which he was credited for 30 roles including director, producer and choreographer.
Ticket sales were initially strong – more than 150,000 attended the first film’s premiere – but reportedly flagged after the CBI went public with accusations that Singh had been organising “mass castrations” of his followers since at least 2000. He denies this.
About 7,000 police officers are stationed in Panchkula ahead of the verdict, and mobile internet services have been suspended. Hundreds of hospital beds have been reserved for possible casualties while, in the nearby city of Chandigarh, a cricket stadium has been prepared as a temporary jail, according to New Delhi Television.
In neighbouring Punjab, which shares its capital Chandigarh with Haryana, hundreds of train services have been cancelled while firearms and gatherings have been temporarily banned.
The US embassy in Delhi has also put out a travel advisory urging its citizens in India to be wary of possible unrest in the wake of the verdict.
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