PANCHKULA, India, Aug 26, (Agencies): Hundreds of troops Saturday patrolled a northern Indian city hit by deadly clashes that killed at least 32 people after thousands protested a court’s decision to convict a controversial spiritual leader of rape.
The army was deployed in Haryana state’s Panchkula city after tens of thousands of followers of guru Ram Rahim Singh went on an angry rampage, attacking television vans and setting fire to dozens of private vehicles.
Security forces were put on high alert to ensure there was no repeat of the violence that erupted Friday afternoon, minutes after a special court pronounced the self-styled guru guilty of raping two of his followers.
Mobile phone services were disrupted in some parts of Haryana and neighbouring Punjab state, where authorities had earlier imposed a curfew following the clashes.
Although the curfew was lifted in Panchkula Saturday, restrictions on public assembly remained in place.
Haryana police chief B.S. Sandhu told AFP Saturday at least 32 people had died with the toll likely to rise as some of the wounded were being treated for serious head injuries.
“The toll within the state is at least 32 dead and around 200 injured including about 50 police and security personnel,” said Sandhu.
“Some of the injured didn’t come to the hospitals fearing that they could face police action or arrests for involvement in the violence,” he said.
Official sources told AFP earlier that at least 32 people had died, with most of the fatalities caused by gun shots. The 50-year-old Singh is known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for bejewelled costumes and claims to have more than 50 million loyal followers worldwide.
The rape case was brought against him after an anonymous letter was sent to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 accusing him of repeatedly raping the sender and several other women in the sect.
A judge asked the Central Bureau of Investigations to look into the accusations, but it took years to trace the alleged victims and it was not until 2007 that two women came forward and filed charges.
Some 200,000 members of Singh’s sect had gathered in Panchkula in a show of support a day before the verdict, which enraged his followers, with many saying they were in a state of shock.
“I have been with dear Ram Rahim Singh for around 14 years. I can bet that all the allegations against our guru are false,” said Rajkumar, a shopkeeper from Haryana who was undergoing treatment at the hospital.
“He can’t do any wrong … He works to rid the world of all its troubles,” he told AFP, his head heavily bandaged.
Ajay Garg, a doctor in Panchkula, blamed the police for allowing the situation to spiral out of control.
“Our family was very scared. We went to the third floor of our house. They (mobs) were out of control and even damaged my car which was parked outside,” he told AFP.
Singh’s Dera Sacha Sauda sect, whose headquarters are located in nearby Sirsa town, said it would appeal the verdict.
“This is unjust. We will appeal against the judgement,” it said in a statement. The sprawling Sirsa premises, spread across nearly 1,000 acres (404 hectares), include schools, sports facilities, a hospital and a cinema hall — thanks to Singh’s love for the silver screen.
Militants killed three Indian policemen in the Kashmir valley after storming into a police camp on Saturday in their biggest strike on a government compound in the disputed region in nearly a year.
One of the militants, who entered the camp in Pulwama town of southern Kashmir, was also killed in the ensuing gunfight, said a senior Indian army officer who declined to be named.
The army and police are jointly trying to dislodge the militants and have evacuated families from the camp’s residential block, Lieutenant General J S Sandhu of the Indian army told Reuters.
The attack on the police complex is the biggest on a state security facility since Sept. 18 last year, when armed militants broke into an army camp near the de facto border, called the Line of Control (LoC), in Uri, killing 18 army personnel.
The exact number of militants inside the compound is not known, India’s federal home ministry said in a statement.
Indian troops have killed 134 militants, including 7 top commanders, this year, officials said. Majority of these militants were eliminated in the last two months after security forces doubled down on an offensive in south Kashmir and along the LoC.
Last year, 150 militants were killed in Kashmir.
About 79 militants crossed the LoC into Indian Kashmir in July, according to Indian officials.
India accuses Pakistan of training and arming militants, and helping them infiltrate across the LoC dividing Kashmir. Pakistan denies those allegations.
The South Asian rivals fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Muslim-majority Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.