PANCHKULA, India (AP) — Security forces on Saturday patrolled the streets of a north Indian state where rampaging mobs left at least 30 people dead and more than 250 others injured, after a court declared a quasi-religious sect leader guilty of raping two of his followers.
Authorities lifted the curfew in the town of Panchkula, the main trouble spot, after the night passed relatively peacefully and the area was cleared of protesters, said police officer Pradeep Kumar.
On Friday, mobs set fire to government buildings and attacked police and TV journalists in the town, smashing the windshields of news vans and breaking broadcast equipment.
Police initially used tear gas and water cannons and then fired bullets in the air in an attempt to control the surging mobs as they vandalized bus stations and government vehicles.
Haryana state police chief B S Sandhu said 28 people died, six of them due to bullet wounds, and more than 250 others were injured. More than 1,000 of the guru’s supporters were detained in on charges of arson and destruction of public property, he said.
The Press Trust of India news agency said another two people were killed in the town of Sirsa, where the headquarters of the sect is located.
The special court announced the guilty verdict after hearing closing arguments in the 15-year-old case against the guru, who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan.
The guru, who had denied the charges of raping the two women at his ashram in 2002, was flown by helicopter to a jail in the nearby town of Rohtak because district officials feared they would be overrun by his supporters. His sentence will be announced Monday.
Violence also broke out elsewhere in Haryana and the neighboring state of Punjab, as well as in the capital, New Delhi, police said. Railway stations in the towns of Malout and Balluana were ablaze, and two coaches of an empty train parked in New Delhi’s Anand Vihar station were set on fire.
A curfew was imposed in at least four districts of Punjab, said Amrinder Singh, the state’s chief minister.
A spokesman for the guru’s sect, Dera Sacha Sauda, urged his supporters to remain calm.
“I just want to request everyone to maintain peace at the moment,” said Dilawar Insan. “We will explore what legal options are available to us.”
The sect claims to have about 50 million followers and campaigns for vegetarianism and against drug addiction. It has also taken up social causes such as organizing the weddings of poor couples. Such sects have huge followings in India. It’s not unusual for their leaders to have small, heavily armed private militias protecting them.
Clashes in 2007 between Dera Sacha Sauda followers and members of the Sikh faith left at least three people dead in north India.
In 2014, six people were killed when followers of another religious leader, guru Rampal, fought pitched battles with police who were attempting to arrest him after he repeatedly failed to appear in court in connection with a murder trial.
In a televised appeal on Thursday, Ram Rahim Singh asked his supporters not to resort to violence, but some said they would not tolerate a verdict that went against their leader.
“I consider guru-ji to be only next to God,” farmer Malkit Singh said as he squatted on the ground in a park, saying Ram Rahim Singh had cured him of a decadelong addiction to drugs.
“There is a God above,” he said. “Our guru-ji follows the path of truth.”
George reported from New Delhi. Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.