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Riots Erupt in India After Guru's Rape Conviction -- Update

27 Aug 2017 7:10 am
By Corinne Abrams in Mumbai and Vibhuti Agarwal in New Delhi 

More than 35 people died in northern India Friday in violent protests triggered by the rape conviction of a popular spiritual leader.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, who claimed tens of millions of followers, was convicted of raping two women at his ashram in 2002 by a special court in the northern state of Haryana. He denied the charges.

Mr. Insan was taken into custody and could be given a seven-year prison term when he is sentenced on Aug. 28, prosecutor H.P.S. Verma said.

Thousands of the spiritual leader's supporters had gathered around the court in Panchkula ahead of the verdict. Following the decision, clashes broke out between supporters and authorities.

Indian authorities on Friday reported 26 dead and more than 250 injured. On Sunday afternoon, the Associated Press reported 36 dead. Prabhjot Singh, deputy commissioner of police in Haryana's Sirsa district, said, "Most of the deaths happened as a result of clashes between police and supporters."

Vivek Bhadu, chief medical officer at a government-run hospital in Panchkula, said most of the deaths were from bullet wounds.

Television footage showed vehicles burning, a crowd tipping over a broadcast TV van and a group attacking another truck with sticks and other objects. The government declared a curfew in the region, and troops were dispatched to areas where there were flare ups of violence. More than 15,000 Indian police and paramilitary soldiers were patrolling the area where clashes started, according to the Associated Press.

Some trains through the affected area were canceled, while phone companies in some areas said they had been told to temporarily turn off data and text messaging capabilities.

Further clashes took place in the city of Sirsa, the location of the headquarters of Dera Sacha Sauda, the social welfare and spiritual organization that Mr. Insan heads. And in New Delhi, train carriages and buses were set alight, police spokesman Madhur Verma said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for calm. "The instances of violence today are deeply distressing. I strongly condemn the violence & urge everyone to maintain peace," he wrote on Twitter.

India is home to many spiritual leaders with vast numbers of followers. When gurus face court cases or convictions, believers often say they have been framed by rivals. Sometimes, as on Friday, frustrated followers' skepticism of court decisions erupts into violence.

Mr. Insan's representatives didn't answer calls or emails Friday. Before the verdict, Mr. Insan told his followers to abide by the law.

"I've always respected the law. Although I have pain in my back, I will still obey the law and go to the court. I have firm faith in God. Please be calm everyone," a tweet posted Thursday on Mr. Insan's verified Twitter account said.

Mr. Insan has said that he adheres to no single religion and aims to teach "ultimate spirituality." His organization, which uses iconography from Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, claims to have more than 60 million followers. Mr. Insan has built up popularity by appearing in movies and music videos wearing colorful outfits and headdresses.

Dera Sacha Sauda, which was founded in 1948 by a spiritual leader from Baluchistan in what is now Pakistan, preaches against drugs, alcohol and prostitution.

Mr. Insan became the head of the group in 1990, according to Dera Sacha Sauda's website. Mr. Insan legally changed his last name to Insan, which means human, from Singh in 2007. Many of his followers, who consider him a god, also changed their last names.

Karan Deep Singh in New Delhi contributed to this article.

Write to Corinne Abrams at corinne.abrams@wsj.com and Vibhuti Agarwal at vibhuti.agarwal@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 27, 2017 03:10 ET (07:10 GMT)

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