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Violent protests erupt in India as court convicts guru of rape
August 26, 2017, 8:17 am
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At least 31 people were killed and some 250 were hurt in violent protests in a northern Indian city Friday after a court convicted a controversial religious leader of rape.

Press reports from the northern state of Haryana said police fired tear gas and water cannon when violence broke out as tens of thousands of followers of guru Ram Rahim Singh had descended on Panchkula, where India’s federal investigations agency had set up a special court to rule on the charge that he had raped two female devotees.

Indian news channels showed vehicles and a bus set on fire in New Delhi, while at least one Rewa Express train was also torched at Anand Bihar station in the capital.

Meanwhile, the Northern Railways announced they plan to cancel or divert 236 trains due to the protests.

Police took Singh on Friday to Rohtak jail after the conviction. Clad in an all-white outfit, the guru waved his hand upon arrival outside the jail facility, while policemen wearing anti-riot gear were watching.

Before the court issued the verdict, troops and riot police had been deployed, but violence broke out as news of his conviction spread among the gathered devotees.

An AFP reporter saw police fire tear gas and water cannon into a crowd of protesters who threw stones and attacked two television vans, overturning one.

The number of reported violence-related deaths vary from 23 to 31, and the victims are believed to be Ram Rahim's followers, more than 200,000 of whom had flocked to the Chandigarh area ahead of Friday's verdict.

There were also unconfirmed reports of police firing into the air to disperse the crowd. Media reports said Singh had been taken into custody under military escort. He will be sentenced on August 28.

“The court convicted Baba Ram Rahim Singh on rape charges,” prosecutor Harinder Pal Singh Verma told AFP by telephone after the closed hearing.

‘Guru in bling’

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.

A judge asked the Central Bureau of Investigations 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.

Controversy

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.

He also stood trial for conspiracy over the murder of a journalist in 2002. He describes his sect as a social welfare and spiritual organisation.

Messenger

Speaking before his conviction, supporters who had 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 who said he was aged around 60.

“Before joining, people did not pay me much attention. But after, I had a support network.”

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 entitled “MSG: The messenger of god”, which showed him performing miracles, preaching to thousands and beating up gangsters while singing and dancing.

Singh was driven from his home town to the court in a vast convoy that Indian media said was made up of over 100 vehicles.

Television images showed devotees lining the streets, many of them sobbing uncontrollably.

Roads leading to the court have been barricaded off and three stadiums set aside as makeshift prisons in case of trouble after the verdict.

Source: Agencies

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