14 killed in Indian protests after godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh convicted of rape

 25 Aug 2017 - 15:54

14 killed in Indian protests after godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh convicted of rape
A follower of Indian religious leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh pleads for his safety after being hit with a stick during clashes between the controversial guru's followers and security forces in Panchkula on August 25, 2017. AFP / Money Sharma

By Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

PANCHKULA:  Violent protests erupted in India on Friday, killing at least 14 people, after a court convicted a self-styled “godman” of raping two women, angering thousands of his supporters who said he was innocent, police and officials said.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of a social welfare and spiritual group, was found guilty of raping two followers in a case dating back to 2002 at the headquarters of his Dera Sacha Sauda group in the northern town of Sirsa.

Supporters rampaged in response, attacking railway stations, petrol stations and television vans in towns across the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, witnesses said.

At least 14 people were killed, most of them in Panchkula town where the court returned its verdict on Singh, a federal interior ministry official said. More than 200 were wounded in the two states, he said.

Dozens of cars were burning in Panchkula town while a body lay on a roadside. Television footage showed frantic scenes outside a hospital in Panchkula, with medical staff hurriedly transferring injured patients from ambulances on to wheelchairs and stretchers. Smoke could be seen rising in another part of town.

Protests also erupted in New Delhi and in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan. Supporters of the godman set fire to some buses and two empty train coaches in the capital.

Singh commands a following that he claims is in the millions. Supporters started gathering in the streets outside the court in Panchkula on Thursday.

“The court has convicted Ram Rahim Singh of rape charges,” Kohal Dev Sharma, a lawyer at the court said.

“Justice has finally prevailed.”

Singh, a burly, bearded man who has scripted and starred in his own films, denied the charges. He had called on his followers through a video message to remain peaceful.

A.K. Dhir, one of his lawyers, said Singh was innocent and his followers had every right to express their outrage.

Singh’s sentence will be announced later in the month, media reported. Sharma said he faced a minimum of seven years in prison.

Television channels showed motorcycles, cars and buses in flames as hundreds of police personnel in riot gear watched helplessly. The mob also toppled a TV outdoor broadcasting van, while several news channels said their journalists were targeted.

The chief minister of Haryana state, Manohar Lal, said in a Twitter post that the administration was monitoring the situation closely and strict action would be taken against people trying to disrupt peace.

Some Indian “holy” men can summon thousands of supporters on to the streets. Their systems of patronage and sermons are hugely popular with people who consider the government has failed them.

In 2014, the attempted arrest of another guru on murder charges ended with his followers attacking police with clubs and stones.

(Additional reporting by Manoj Kumar, Rupam Jain, Aditya Kalra, Neha Dasgupta, Krishna N.Das; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nick Macfie)