Unrest, deaths, over rape conviction of Indian religious leader


A follower of 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.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has a vast rural following in Punjab and Haryana states, where frenzied mobs burned down gas stations and train stations and torched vehicles after a local court on Friday found him guilty of raping two women in a 2002 case.

Bains said the prosecution wanted the court to jail Singh for life - the maximum possible sentence for rape in India - given that there were two victims and one was a minor.

Security forces used water cannons in an attempt to disperse the crowd as more than 15,000 paramilitary troops and police officers were deployed in the town of Panchkula, near Chandigarh.

As news of Singh's conviction spread there were reports of violence in several districts of neighboring Punjab state and on the outskirts of the capital Delhi, which borders Haryana.

Television channels showed motorcycles, cars and buses in flames as hundreds of police personnel in riot gear watched helplessly.

Train services were cancelled through the area, leading to delays across northern India, and schools and colleges were closed.

Tens of thousands of supporters of the sect leader had camped in Panchkula for days waiting for Friday's court verdict.

Authorities ordered internet and mobile phone services shut down across Haryana and Punjab as a security precaution.

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The unrest appears to have affected public transportation into Saturday.

After hours of clashes between demonstrators and police, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Friday, "The instances of violence today are deeply distressing". It took years to develop formal charges against the leader, even after two women gave statements under oath in 2009 and 2010.

It's not the first time Ram Rahim has attracted controversy.

In addition to the rape conviction, he's also under investigation for allegedly convincing 400 of his male followers into castration. He also stood trial for conspiracy over the murder of a journalist in 2002.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of a social welfare and spiritual group, commands a following that he claims in the millions, many of whom have been in the streets since Thursday, protesting his innocence.

Anticipating a verdict in the case, the guru's followers had streamed into the part of Haryana state where the decision was announced.

Its website describes Singh as a saint as well as an author, inventor, philosopher, philanthropist, peace activist and "the ultimate humanitarian".

Singh's two films, "Messenger of God" and its sequel, include sequences in which he fights off villains and tosses burning motorbikes into the air.

Ahead of the verdict, the bearded guru had urged his supporters not to resort to violence.