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India

At least 32 dead after violent protests erupt in response to controversial Indian guru’s rape conviction

Singh is also under investigation over allegations that he convinced 400 of his male followers to undergo castration, allegations he denies

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 August, 2017, 2:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 August, 2017, 9:47am

At least 32 people were killed ­on Friday when clashes broke out in northern India after a court convicted a controversial religious leader of raping two of his followers, sparking fury among tens of thousands of supporters gathered to await the verdict.

Authorities rushed hundreds of troops to the city of Panchkula after followers of guru Ram Rahim Singh torched cars, threw rocks and attacked television vans, breaking their windows and overturning one.

More than 100,000 were estimated to have gone to the city in Haryana state, where India’s federal investigations agency had set up a special court to rule on the charge that he had raped two female devotees.

Authorities said 32 people had been killed and around 180 injured after rioting broke out in Haryana, where many areas were now under curfew.

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“The situation continues to be grim but we are gaining some ground. Hopefully we will mobilise more forces in the night to take control,” a senior state official said.

He said the large crowd went berserk soon after the verdict was pronounced and attacked police and set vehicles afire before the police took action.

Most of the fatalities were caused by gunshots, the officer said.

Singh has a vast following in Haryana, where he runs a spirit­ual movement that claims to have millions of devotees.

Authorities imposed an indefinite curfew in Panchkula, where mobile internet services were cut off and troops deployed ahead of the verdict.

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As news of Singh’s conviction spread there were reports of violence in the neighbouring state of Punjab and on the outskirts of the capital Delhi.

“Two train stations have been burnt in Punjab and two empty [train] coaches have been set on fire in Delhi’s Anand Vihar ­station,” said Neeraj Sharma, a spokesman for Indian Railways.

Hundreds of trains passing through Punjab and Haryana have been cancelled, he said.

Prosecutor Harinder Pal Singh Verma said Singh was “calm after the verdict was passed” and had been flown by helicopter to another city in Haryana. He will be sentenced on August 28.

The 50-year-old self-styled “godman” is known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for ­bejewelled costumes, although the source of his apparently vast wealth is unclear.

The rape case was brought against him after an anonymous letter was sent to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 accusing him of repeatedly raping the sender and several other women in the sect.

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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.

Speaking before his conviction, supporters who gathered in Panchkula credited him with turning their lives around, with some saying his organisation had helped them kick an addiction to alcohol.

“I’ve been part of the Dera movement for two decades and in that time I have not touched a drop,” said Gajendere Singh, a recovering alcoholic.

Singh’s work has angered mainstream religious leaders in India, particularly Sikhs who say he insults and belittles their faith.

There were protests in the Sikh-dominated state of Punjab over Singh’s 2015 appearance in a film called MSG: The Messenger of God, which showed him performing miracles and beating up gangsters while singing and dancing.

Additional reporting by Reuters