New Delhi (August 28, 2017): In India, controversial guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping two of his female followers.
Lawyers said he was handed two separate 10 year sentences which will run consecutively.
A judge was flown in by helicopter Monday to sentence Singh, who is being held in Rohtak, in the northern state of Haryana. Ahead of the sentencing, a security cordon was placed around the city and the prison converted into a virtual fortress, surrounded by hundreds of security forces.
Police were given orders to shoot on sight while the army was placed on standby. Roads were lined with barbed wire and soldiers stationed at checkpoints to avoid a repeat of the rampaging that left 38 people dead after Rahim was convicted last Friday.
Schools and colleges in Haryana as well as Punjab, the states where Singh has a large following, were also shut down as a precaution.
During last week’s rioting, Singh’s followers set fire to government buildings, cars and buses, while journalists and police officers were attacked.
The once-powerful and well-connected 50-year-old guru, who claimed a following of more than 50 million, broke down when the sentence was announced. Defense lawyers had argued for a lenient sentence, citing his social work and said they would appeal his conviction.
Also Monday, the army conducted a flag march as a curfew was imposed for the town of Sirsa, where the self-styled “godman” ran a virtual empire from his sprawling headquarters.
Fearing more violence after his sentencing, police surrounded the Sirsa complex and his other centers, detaining about 100 people in the process and asking his thousands of followers to leave the area. While many complied, thousands of his devotees, many believing their guru was framed, remained inside the facility.
“As per law they have either been sealed or shut down,” said Navdeep Singh Virk, the head of police in Rohtak. “We need to clamp down on the organizational capability of the “deras” [centers] in the region.”
The heavy security arrangements were made after the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, in Haryana was criticized for failing to prevent last week’s rioting.
Singh made films and music albums, rode motorcycles and drove fancy cars and at the same time won a following by casting himself as a social reformer, helping drug and alcohol addicts, and providing poor and sick people with food and medicine. He was dubbed the “guru in bling” for his flamboyant style of dress and jewelry.
The case has turned the spotlight on the controversial guru’s high-profile political connections. He had supported the BJP in the 2014 elections and was one of 36 people in India with the highest level of security cover.
In a weekly radio address on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Violence will not be tolerated in any form,” and that “those who have taken the law in their hands or taken to violence will not be spared, whoever they are.”
The rape case was not the only criminal case against Ram Rahim. He also faces charges of conspiracy in two murder cases including that of journalist Ram Chander Chhatrapati, who was probing the rape allegations, which were first made in 2002 in an anonymous letter to then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The journalist’s son, Anshul Chhatrapati, told reporters that he has taken heart from the guilty verdict and said he hoped his father too could get justice. “This is a good beginning and I hope he gets stiff punishment in the other cases also,” he said.
Dozens of gurus or “godmen” in India have tens of thousands of devotees, usually among the poor and marginalized sections of society.