Violent protests have erupted in northern India after a self-styled ‘guru’ was convicted of raping two followers of his religious sect.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, 50, known as ‘the guru in bling’ due to his flamboyant appearance, has been found guilty of two sexual assaults which took place in 2002.
Police were forced to fire tear gas and water cannons as Singh’s devotees clashed with security outside the court in Panchkula, northern India following the verdict.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, 50, known as ‘the guru in bling’, was found guilty of raping two female devotees in 2002
Singh has a vast following in the northern state of Haryana, where he runs a religious movement called Dera Sacha Sauda, which claims to have millions of devotees around the world.
Thousands of them had descended on Panchkula by Thursday evening, setting up camp outside the courthouse.
Troops and riot police had been deployed ahead of the verdict, 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.
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.
Fans: Supporters of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect squat in a public park near an Indian court in Panchkula ahead of the verdict
Lockdown: Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard near the court as thousands awaited the rape verdict
Devoted: Dera Sacha Sauda claims to have millions of followers around the world, but is based in the northern state of Haryana
Troops and riot police had been deployed ahead of the verdict, but violence broke out after the ‘guru’ was found guilty of rape
ProtestL Followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh gather on the roadside in Sirsa, where his organization is based, ahead of a court’s verdict in a rape case against him
‘The court convicted Baba Ram Rahim Singh on rape charges,’ prosecutor Harinder Pal Singh Verma told AFP by telephone after the closed hearing.
The rape case was brought against Singh 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.
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.
All that is gold: The 50-year-old is known for his flamboyant and ‘blinged up’ costumes
Accusations: The rape allegations first emerged in 2002, but it has taken 15 years for the ‘guru’ to be convicted of the assaults
Making enemies: Singh’s work has angered mainstream religious leaders in India, particularly Sikhs who say he insults and belittles their faith
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.