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Indian city on high alert after protests at guru's conviction

Hundreds of troops are patrolling a northern Indian city hit by protests after sect leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted of rape. At least 32 people died in violent demonstrations against the court decision.

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Indian guru's rape conviction triggers riots

Indian soldiers were on high security alert in the northern Indian city of Panchkula on Saturday, a day after thousands of people violently protested a court's decision to convict famous Indian guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of rape.

Police said calm had been restored to the city following Friday's protests, with some restrictions on public assembly still in place. At least 32 people were killed and more than 200 injured in clashes that broke out between police and groups of Ram Rahim's supporters after the verdict was announced.

A special court in the town in Haryana state convicted the flamboyant sect leader of raping two female worshipers back in 2002 at his sect's headquarters in the town of Sirsa. His sentence, which is expected to be a jail term of between seven and 10 years, was scheduled to be announced on Monday.

 Read more: The dark side of India's self-styled godmen

Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar promised strict action against those involved in the violence.

Ram Rahim's organization Dera Sacha Sauda described the verdict as "unjust" and said it would appeal against the judgment, local media outlets reported. The Dera also asked its supporters to maintain peace.

Violence on the streets of Panchkula

Ram Rahim's organization has appealed for peace

Guilty verdict triggers violent arson attacks 

As word quickly spread of the verdict on Friday, a restive crowd of Ram Rahim's followers outside the court began throwing stones and attacking journalists and media vans. That later escalated into arson attacks and destruction of public property, including government buildings.

Authorities responded by firing tear gas and water cannon into the enraged crowd. There were also unconfirmed reports that police had fired into the air to disperse the protesters. 

Angry mobs also attacked police in the town of Sirsa, where Ram Rahim's ashram, or base, is located. The protests quickly spread to parts of the neighboring state of Punjab and Delhi, where supporters of the self-proclaimed "godman" set some buses and two empty train coaches on fire.

Thousands of Singh's supporters gather in a public park in Panchkula to wait for the verdict

Thousands of supporters gathered in a public park in Panchkula to wait for the verdict

Panchkula had braced itself for violent protests after tens of thousands of Ram Rahim's followers descended on the city and camped overnight in parks, plazas and on the streets.

Such cases against high-profile gurus have prompted violence in the past. In 2014, the attempted arrest of a religious leader, guru Rampal, who was facing murder charges, ended with his followers attacking police with clubs and stones.

No stranger to scandal

It's not the first time Ram Rahim has attracted controversy. In 2015, he was accused of encouraging 400 of his male followers to undergo castration, apparently so they could get closer to God. He also stood trial for conspiracy over the murder of a journalist in 2002.

Religious sects like Ram Rahim's Dera Sacha Sauda command huge followings in India, particularly among people who have become disillusioned with the government.

The group, which is based in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, claims to have 50 million members, promotes vegetarianism and campaigns against drug addiction.

Its website describes Singh as a saint, as well as an author, inventor, philosopher, philanthropist, peace activist and "the ultimate humanitarian." The guru has featured in pop music videos, as well as in his own action films, where he can be seen fending off villains and flinging burning motorbikes into the air.

Ahead of the verdict, the bearded guru had urged his supporters not to resort to violence. "I have always respected the law," he wrote on Twitter. "Even though I have a backache, still, abiding by the law, I will go to court. I have full faith in God. Everyone should maintain peace."

tj/jlw (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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