India guru rape case: 28 die in unrest as Ram Rahim Singh convicted

By Telegraph
Violence in India

Twenty-eight people died and 250 were injured in India's northern Haryana state on Friday, as violent protests erupted after a court convicted a self-styled "God man" of raping two women.

Rioting initially erupted in Panchkula, 250km north of New Delhi, minutes after Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, 50, was declared guilty of raping two devotees in his ashram in 2002.

Mobs set fire to government buildings and attacked police and TV journalists, smashing the windshields of news vans and breaking broadcast equipment.

Police initially used tear gas and water cannons and then fired bullets in the air in an attempt to control the surging crowd as they vandalised bus stations and government vehicles.

“I have taken refuge in a house. They are attacking everyone,” said an NDTV reporter in Panchkula. The police were simply outnumbered, he added.

The army was deployed to restore order after thousands of local police and paramilitaries failed to control the 200,000-strong crowd of Singh’s followers.

"I don't understand what the government and the police are doing. We have been feeling unsafe since yesterday and all our fears came true today," local resident Sandeep Singh said.

"Why did the police not act swiftly and forcefully against these followers?"

The judge from the Special Central Bureau of Investigation said Singh, who heads the Dera Sacha Suada or Place of Truth ashram in Sirsa, would be sentenced on Monday. Officials said Singh could face a seven-year jail sentence.  

Charges against him were filed in 2007, following an anonymous letter to a former Indian prime minister detailing the rapes.

Late yesterday afternoon Singh was flown by helicopter to a nearby town, where he will be housed in a luxurious suite located in a police training academy, before being brought back for sentencing on Monday.

Partial to multi-coloured clothing, Singh sports a rock star image.

He claims a following of over 60 million devotees worldwide, and has also been accused by former ashram inmates of surrounding himself with some 400 castrated bodyguards, similar to medieval eunuchs.

Singh reportedly claims the castrations bring his followers "closer to God".

Hordes of Singh’s followers, who had gathered outside the courtroom armed with batons on Thursday night, had threatened violence if their guru was convicted.  

As a preventative measure to contain unrest, the state authorities in Haryana and neighbouring Punjab state deployed thousands of police and paramilitaries, keeping the army on standby.

They had also suspended Internet services to curb social messaging and imposed a curfew.

Despite their efforts, tens of thousands of angry supporters milled around the court as Singh was taken into police custody. He arrived in a 200-car cavalcade from his hometown, travelling in a bullet-proof Range Rover.   

The flamboyant Singh, dubbed the "guru of bling" has released numerous music videos and performs regularly in rock concerts attended by tens of thousands of his followers.

His ashram’s website says it is a "social welfare and spiritual organisation that preaches and practices humanitarianism and selfless services to others".

But officials said Singh was involved in politics and wooed assiduously by all state parties during elections as his ashram was a massive ‘vote bank’.

During the 2014 parliamentary polls Singh backed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, ensuring victory for its candidates. 

Mr Modi wrote in a tweet that he strongly condemned the "instances of violence" and urged everyone to maintain peace.

Supporters gathered in Panchkula credited Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh 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.

Asked whether she thought there would be violence Narindra Kaur, a devotee, said that would depend on the verdict.

"We don't know how people have managed to stay so patient," said Kaur, a civil servant."Now it all depends on the verdict."

Credit: Telegraph