At least 32 people have died after deadly protests erupted in northern India. Thousands of followers of controversial sect leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh have protested the guru’s rape conviction.

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Indian guru’s rape conviction triggers riots

Violent protests broke out in northern India on Friday after a famous Indian guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, was found guilty of rape.

A special court in Panchkula in the state of Haryana convicted the flamboyant sect leader of raping two female worshipers back in 2002 at his sect’s headquarters in the town of Sirsa. His sentence, which is expected to be a jail term of between seven and 10 years, was scheduled to be announced on Monday.

The verdict triggered violent clashes across Panchkula between police and groups of Ram Rahim’s supporters, leading to the deaths of at least 32 people and injuring more than 200 others.

Read more: The dark side of India’s self-styled godmen

Six columns of the Indian Army were deployed in Panchkula to help police and paramilitary contain violent mobs, according to local media reports.

Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar promised strict action against those involved in the violence.

Briefed @rajnathsingh ji. Situation is being monitoring extensively, strict action will be taken against those who try to disrupt peace.

Ram Rahim’s organization Dera Sacha Sauda described the verdict as “unjust” and said it would appeal against the judgment, local media outlets reported. The Dera also asked its supporters to maintain peace.

Violence on the streets of PanchkulaRam Rahim’s organization has appealed for peace.

Guilty verdict triggers violent arson attacks 

As word quickly spread of the verdict, a restive crowd of Ram Rahim’s followers outside the court began throwing stones and attacking journalists and media vans. That later escalated into arson attacks and destruction of public property, including government buildings.

Authorities responded by firing tear gas and water cannons into the enraged crowd. There were also unconfirmed reports that police had fired into the air to disperse the protesters.

Angry mobs also attacked police in the town of Sirsa, where Ram Rahim’s ashram, or base, is located. The protests quickly spread to parts of the neighboring state of Punjab and Delhi, where supporters of the self-proclaimed “godman” set some buses and two empty train coaches on fire.

Thousands of Singh's supporters gather in a public park in Panchkula to wait for the verdictThousands of supporters gathered in a public park in Panchkula to wait for the verdict

Followers flock to Panchkula

Panchkula had braced itself for violent protests after tens of thousands of Ram Rahim’s followers descended on Panchkula and camped overnight in parks, plazas and on the streets across the town.

Authorities had deployed some 15,000 police and paramilitary officers, and even blocked internet services across several cities in northern India in the lead-up to Friday’s verdict. Officials said they had also blocked off roads into Panchkula and set aside three cricket stadiums to use as temporary prisons in case of unrest. Public transport was suspended and schools and offices were closed as a precaution.

“The verdict could lead to potential large-scale unrest and violence,” Ajay Kumar, assistant police commissioner in Panchkula, told Reuters earlier.

Such cases against high-profile gurus have prompted violence in the past. In 2014, the attempted arrest of a religious leader facing murder charges, guru Rampal, ended with his followers attacking police with clubs and stones.

No stranger to scandal

It’s not the first time Ram Rahim has attracted controversy. In 2015, the flamboyant sect leader was accused of encouraging 400 of his male followers to undergo castration, apparently so they could get closer to god. He also stood trial for conspiracy over the murder of a journalist in 2002.

Religious sects like the Ram Rahim’s Dera Sacha Sauda command huge followings in India, particularly among people who have become disillusioned with the government.

The group, which is based in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, claims to have 50 million members, promotes vegetarianism and campaigns against drug addiction.

Its website describes Singh as a saint as well as an author, inventor, philosopher, philanthropist, peace activist and “the ultimate humanitarian.” The guru has featured in pop music videos, as well as in his own action films, where he can be seen fending off villains and flinging burning motorbikes into the air.

Ahead of the verdict, the bearded guru had urged his supporters not to resort to violence. “I have always respected the law,” he wrote on Twitter. “Even though I have a backache, still, abiding by the law, I will go to court. I have full faith in God. Everyone should maintain peace.”

nm, dm/rt (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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