India detains hundreds, cancels more than 300 trains after deadly ‘guru’ protests

PANCHKULA (AFP): Indian authorities have arrested hundreds of people and canceled more than 300 trains passing through two northern states after at least 29 people were killed in violent protests following the conviction of a self-styled ’guru’.

Security forces were on “standby” outside the spiritual leader’s headquarters where some 10,000 followers remained holed up, the Director General of Police in Haryana state, Baljit Singh Sandhu, told India Today news station.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of a social welfare and spiritual group with a wide following in Punjab and Haryana states, was found guilty on Friday 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 29 people were killed in Panchkula town where the court returned its verdict on Singh and more than 200 people were injured, mainly in Haryana state. The protests, about 250 km (155 miles) from the Indian capital New Delhi, was one of the biggest this year related to a spiritual leader. About 524 people had been arrested, Ram Niwas, a top Haryana administrator, told Reuters.

Authorities said they were bracing for Singh’s sentencing on Monday when there could be more violence. A spokesman for the northern division of Indian Railways said 340 trains have been canceled on Saturday as a precaution.

“We’re monitoring the situation but we may have to cancel more trains,” Neeraj Sharma told Reuters. Security personnel were still guarding Panchkula, which was among the worst affected towns during the violence, as some shops started to reopen and people came out of their homes.

“I was just speaking with an army general to continue patrolling in Sirsa,” said Niwas. “We’ve asked everyone to continue effective patrolling, because the (sentence) will be announced the day after.” Singh is also under investigation over allegations that he convinced 400 of his male followers to undergo castration. He denies those charges.

´Guru in bling´

The 50-year-old self-styled “godman” is known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for bejewelled costumes, although the source of his apparently vast wealth is unclear.

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 (CBI) 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. He also stood trial for conspiring to the murder of a journalist in 2002. He describes his sect as a social welfare and spiritual organisation.

Dera to challenge verdict: Indian media

The Times of India reported that the Dera Sacha Sauda has decided to challenge the “unjust” decision of the special CBI court. In a statement in Hindi, signed by spokesperson Dilawar Insaan, the Dera also appealed for peace amid widespread violence that has already claimed 17 lives after the verdict was pronounced earlier today.

“This is unjust. We will appeal against the judgment,” the statement said, adding “Dera Sacha Sauda is dedicated to the betterment of humanity. We request all to maintain peace.”