An Indian court has awarded 10-year jail term to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim in a rape case. The court was set up in the Sunaria Jail in Rohtak where Ram Rahim has been detained.
Two vehicles were also set on fire by his followers. Indian police warned that they would use all necessary force to maintain order when a controversial guru is sentenced for rape, days after his followers went on a rampage that left 38 dead.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh handed a life sentence at a prison-side court hearing starting at 2.30 pm (0900 GMT) in the northern city of Rohtak, where authorities have imposed intense security due to fears his fervent devotees could turn violent again.
Tens of thousands of his supporters set fire to cars and clashed with security forces in the northern state of Haryana just minutes after Singh was found guilty Friday of raping two of his followers.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the violence but his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also in power in Haryana, was criticised for failing to anticipate the riots.
Police are taking no chances in Rohtak, where mobile internet has been cut, roads barricaded with barbed wire and soldiers deployed to man checkpoints.
More than 100 of Singh’s senior loyalists have been placed in detention as a precautionary measure, said Rohtak police chief Navdeep Singh Virk.
He said his officers would use “whatever force is required” to resist the guru’s devotees should they again resort to violence. “If the situation so arises that (we) need to use firearms, my officers have complete authority,” the police chief told broadcaster NDTV.
A judge is being flown by helicopter to sentence the 50-year-old spiritual leader known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for bejewelled costumes.
Singh, who claims to have more than 50 million followers worldwide, could face a minimum seven years in prison for raping two of his female devotees.
The rape case was brought against him after an anonymous letter was sent to then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 accusing Singh of repeatedly raping the sender and several other women in the sect.
A judge asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to look into the accusations, but it took years to trace the alleged victims and it was not until 2007 that two women came forward and filed charges.
An estimated 200,000 members of Singh’s Dera Sacha Sauda movement had gathered in the city of Panchkula in a show of support a day before his guilty verdict.
Violent protests followed across his power base in Haryana which borders New Delhi, with police deploying tear gas and water cannon. Critics say Haryana state authorities grossly underestimated the risk posed by the army of devotees. Over the weekend, thousands of followers congregated in the spiritual headquarters of his sect at Sirsa, despite calls from police and troops for them to disperse.
Devotees eventually began trickling out one by one from the compound Sunday, under the supervision of hundreds of soldiers and riot police, after a curfew was briefly lifted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Sunday it was “natural to be worried” as the violence even briefly reached the capital New Delhi. “Violence is not acceptable in the nation, in any form,” Modi said in his monthly radio address. “Those who take law in their hands or take to violence will not be spared, whoever they are.” Followers of the self-styled “godman” continue to insist upon his innocence.
India has been rocked by numerous scandals involving popular ascetics claiming to possess mystical powers. Singh’s Dera Sacha Sauda sect describes itself as a social welfare and spiritual organisation but he 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. He also stood trial for conspiracy over the murder of a journalist in 2002.