ROHTAK, India: An Indian judge sentenced a self-styled “godman”, whose followers went on a deadly rampage after he was convicted of rape last week, to 10 years’ jail on Monday, but a shoot-to-kill order, curfew and heavy police presence kept protesters at bay.
Tens of thousands of police enforced a lockdown in large parts of the northern states of Haryana and Punjab where Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, 50, has a mass following.
Police in Haryana issued orders to shoot protesters on sight ahead of the sentencing and ordered the hearing to be carried out inside the prison where Singh was being held.
Hundreds of followers went on the rampage when he was convicted on Friday, attacking train stations, buses and television vans.
At least 38 people were killed and more than 200 injured, triggering criticism that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party, which also governs the state of Haryana, was either unable or unwilling to act against Singh’s followers.
“The court has ordered 10-year jail term for the accused,” Ram Niwas, a bureaucrat in charge of law and order in Haryana, told Reuters.
The case dates back to 2002 when two women followers accused Singh of rape at the headquarters of his Dera Sacha Sauda organization in the town of Sirsa.
Singh, also known as the guru of bling for the bejeweled costumes he wears in self-produced films, faced a minimum of seven years under new tough rape laws.
Singh’s lawyer, A.K. Panth, said his client was innocent and would appeal. Vipassana Insaan, a spokeswoman for the Dera Sacha Sauda, urged Singh’s followers to respect the court’s order.
“Our legal battle will not end here. Our client is absolutely innocent,” said Panth.
Indian TV channels reported that Singh broke down after the sentence was passed and refused to move out of the court room, saying he was innocent.
The prison in the town of Rohtak, 66 km (40 miles) from New Delhi, was transformed into a fortress, with journalists banned from approaching within a mile (1.6 km) and roads were lined with barbed-wire barricades.
- Umashankar, a special commissioner in Haryana, said a curfew was in force in the town of Sirsa and parts of Rohtak.
Nirmaljit Singh Kalsi, an official in Punjab, said paramilitary forces were patrolling public places to maintain order.
“We will not withdraw forces today… the situation can easily go out of hand even now,” said Kalsi.
Singh’s conviction in a rape case is the latest in a series of cases involving spiritual leaders who have been accused of sexually abusing followers, amassing untaxed money and finding favor with politicians.
The case has highlighted the Indian heartland’s fascination with spiritual gurus, who enjoy immense influence for their ability to mobilize millions of followers.
Singh claims more than a million followers on his website.
In 2015, Singh started a film franchise portraying him as MSG or “Messenger of God”, performing miracles, preaching to thousands and beating up gangsters while singing and dancing.
Singh also faces charges of murder in two separate cases and is accused of castrating 400 men inside his ashram to help them get closer to God.—Reuters