India braces for violence ahead of verdict in guru's rape trial

2017-08-24 22:45
An Indian army soldier stands guard. (Dar Yasin, AP, file)

An Indian army soldier stands guard. (Dar Yasin, AP, file)

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Panchkula - Several cities in north India were under a security lockdown on Thursday ahead of a verdict in a rape trial involving a controversial and hugely popular spiritual leader.

Tens of thousands of followers of the flamboyant guru, or leader, of the quasi-religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda have gathered in the town of Panchkula where a special court is set to announce a verdict on Friday.

The guru, who calls himself Saint Dr Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, has denied the charges of raping two of his female followers.

The case was investigated by India's top agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and a special CBI court will announce the verdict.

While a security blockade has been put up around the court complex, beyond it thousands of followers squatted along the roads. Men and women, some with children and babies, had spread out blankets and bedsheets and settled down to wait for the verdict.

Nearly 6 000 police and paramilitary soldiers have spread out in Panchkula alone and thousands more have fanned out in nearby areas fearing violence in the event of a guilty verdict. More troops have been kept on standby.

Spiritual empire

In Panchkula and the neighbouring city of Chandigarh three sports stadiums have been set aside to act as makeshift prisons in case of violence, police said.

Chandigarh has also sealed its border for the next two days to prevent the violence from spilling over.

The sect claims to have 50 million followers and runs a spiritual empire that promotes vegetarianism and campaigns against drug addiction.

Religious sects like the Dera Sacha Sauda have huge followings in India. It's not unusual for leaders of these sects to often have small, heavily armed private militias protecting them.

In 2007, clashes between the Dera Sacha Sauda followers and members of the Sikh faith in north India had left at least three people dead.

In 2014, six people were killed as followers of another popular religious leader, guru Rampal, fought pitched battles with police who were attempting to arrest him for contempt of court after he repeatedly failed to appear in court in connection with a murder trial.

On Thursday, police were checking all vehicles entering Haryana state where both the court house and the guru's ashram are located.

People carrying food and bedding, and therefore likely to be joining the swelling crowds around the courthouse, were being turned away.

Local administrators have asked that schools, colleges and offices remain closed on Thursday and Friday. All public transport in and around the town will also remain off the roads.

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