Hundreds of troops Saturday laid siege to the headquarters of a sect led by a controversial Indian guru whose conviction for rape triggered deadly clashes that have killed at least 36 people.
Soldiers and riot police cordoned off the routes leading to the sprawling premises of Guru Ram Rahim Singh spread over 1,000 acres (404 hectares) in Sirsa, a town in northern Haryana state.
A police source told AFP some 20,000 followers of guru’s Dera Sacha Sauda sect were believed to be holed up inside the mini township that houses schools, a hospital, various sports facilities and a cinema hall.
“The area has been put under curfew. The situation is tense but under control,” he told AFP, requesting anonymity.
TV footage showed heavily armed security forces taking position outside the gated headquarters.
Army major general Rajpal Punia, however, said there were no plans as yet to storm the headquarters and evacuate the premises.
“We are only focusing on maintaining law and order,” he told reporters.
The Press Trust of India news agency said 15 followers of the spiritual sect had been arrested for rioting and arson that broke out Friday in the cities of Panchkula and Sirsa, minutes after Singh was found guilty of raping two of his followers.
Police said at least 36 people were killed as tens of thousands of followers went on an angry rampage, attacking television vans and setting fire to dozens of vehicles.
“According to the latest update 30 people have died in Panchkula and six in Sirsa,” Haryana police chief B. S. Sandhu told AFP.
More than 200 people were injured including about 50 police and security personnel, he added.
Authorities in Haryana, which is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, faced flak over poor handling of the situation and allowing Singh to travel in a luxury chopper to the jail.
The 50-year-old Singh is known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for bejeweled costumes and claims to have more than 50 million loyal followers worldwide.
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 victims and it was not until 2007 that two women came forward and filed charges.
– ‘Unjust’ verdict –
Some 200,000 members of Singh’s sect had gathered in Panchkula in a show of support a day before the verdict.
The decision enraged his followers, with many saying they were in a state of shock.
“I have been with dear Ram Rahim Singh for around 14 years. I can bet that all the allegations against our guru are false,” said Rajkumar, a shopkeeper from Haryana who was undergoing treatment in hospital.
“He can’t do any wrong… He works to rid the world of all its troubles,” he told AFP, his head heavily bandaged.
Ajay Garg, a doctor in Panchkula, blamed the police for allowing the situation to spiral out of control.
“Our family was very scared. We went to the third floor of our house. They (mobs) were out of control and even damaged my car which was parked outside,” he told AFP.
Singh’s sect said it would appeal the verdict while urging supporters to maintain peace.
“This is unjust. We will appeal against the judgment,” it said in a statement late Friday.
Singh, often seen sporting flamboyant leather jackets and riding customised superbikes, has a special love of cinema.
In 2015 he started a film franchise portraying him as MSG or the ‘Messenger of God’, performing miracles, preaching to thousands and beating up gangsters while singing and dancing.
His last flick ‘MSG – The Warrior Lion Heart’ was released last year, with the guru playing a secret agent fighting aliens and UFOs.
Singh’s sentencing will be announced on Monday.