At least 30 people have died in riots and arson attacks that have broken out across two states in northern India after a flamboyant spiritual leader was convicted of raping two of his female followers.
The Indian army was deployed in the city of Panchkula on Friday shortly after the court found Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh guilty of sexual assault. The self-styled “godman” and leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect has been taken into custody and will reportedly be flown by helicopter to a jail in Haryana state before sentencing on Monday.
Authorities told the Hindustan Times that at least 30 people had been killed across the region, with a further 250 injured.
Electricity supplies, mobile internet and cable television had been cut in parts of Haryana and Punjab states before the verdict as up to 200,000 members of the sect massed in Panchkula in a show of defiance and support.
Television footage on Friday afternoon showed smoke billowing above a railway station and petrol pump in Punjab that was allegedly set alight by supporters of Singh.
A curfew was imposed in three of Punjab’s largest cities as hundreds of incidents of violence were reported. Journalists on the scene in Panchkula and Sirsa – where the sect is headquartered – appeared to be singled out by the rioters.
Reporters and crew from the Hindustan Times, India Today and News18 have reported injuries or damage to their vehicles, while a van belonging to NDTV was set on fire.
Police used teargas and water cannon to contain the rioting. There were reports of reinforcements flooding into Panchkula, Sirsa and parts of Punjab.
Delhi is also on high alert with at least seven reports of arson across the Indian capital. Large gatherings have also been banned in Delhi on the basis of intelligence that sect supporters intend to demonstrate there on Saturday.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, said the clashes were deeply distressing. Writing on Twitter he said: “I strongly condemn the violence & urge everyone to maintain peace.”
Singh, one of the most powerful men in India, runs the 69-year-old sect from its ashram headquarters on a sprawling, 400-hectare (1,000-acre) Haryana property that includes a hotel, cinema, cricket stadium and schools. He claims to have 60 million followers worldwide.
The rape allegations, which Singh denies, first surfaced in an anonymous letter sent in 2002 to the then prime minister, Atal Vajpayee. Scrutiny of the ashram grew when a journalist investigating Dera Sacha Sauda was shot dead the same year.
India’s domestic security agency, 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 faces a separate 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 or his political clout.
Singh is one of the few to openly back political parties, throwing his support in 2014 behind the Modi government and announcing last 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.
Many members of Dera Sacha Sauda are said to be Sikhs belonging to the lowest caste in society who are drawn to the sect’s message of equality among followers. Most devotees take the surname “Insan”, Hindi for human, symbolising a devotion to humanity.
Other than spiritual guidance, members of the sect receive subsidised food and medicine, including treatment for diseases borne from the poor water quality in the cities and towns across north India where the movement is concentrated.
The sect also runs campaigns against drug and alcohol abuse, and organises blood drives, sex worker outreach programmes and relief drives after natural disasters.
Dera Sacha Sauda said in a statement that it had been “wronged” by the verdict and that it would appeal to a higher court.
“What has happened with us is something that has happened to gurus through history,” it said in a statement. “Dera Sacha Sauda is dedicated to the betterment of humanity. We request all to maintain peace.”
More than 200 people have reportedly been admitted to hospital in Panchkula and another 100 supporters of the group detained by police. A cricket stadium in the nearby city of Chandigargh was converted into a temporary jail in the days before the verdict was delivered.
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.
All trains services to Rohtak, where Singh is being held until Monday’s sentencing, have also been cancelled. He will appear in court via video link and is expected to be sentenced to at least seven years’ prison.
The US embassy in Delhi has also released a travel advisory urging its citizens in India to be wary of possible unrest.
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