New Delhi – An Indian court on Monday sentenced controversial spiritual guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh to 20 years in prison for raping two female followers of his popular Dera Sacha Sauda sect.
Riots erupted on Friday when the Singh was convicted of the charges, leaving 38 people dead.
He is accused of raping the two women at the sprawling headquarters of his hugely popular sect in the northern state of Haryana in a case that dates back to 1999.
“He has been sentenced for 10 plus 10, which is a total of 20 years of imprisonment,” said Abhishek Dayal, spokesman for India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), after the sentencing hearing.
The sentences were pronounced amid intense security at a prison in the northern town of Rohtak where the guru, who calls himself Dr. Saint Gurmeet Singh Ram Rahim Insan, has been held since his conviction.
A lawyer for the victims earlier told AFP that Singh, 50, had been sentenced to 10 years in jail. In fact, he was given two consecutive 10-year sentences.
Authorities had imposed a security clampdown on Rohtak due to fears of a repeat of Friday’s violence, when tens of thousands of his supporters set fire to cars and clashed with security forces.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the violence but his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also in power in Haryana, was criticized for failing to anticipate the riots.
Police took no chances Monday in Rohtak, where mobile internet was been cut, roads barricaded with barbed wire and soldiers deployed to man checkpoints.
More than 100 of Singh’s senior loyalists had been placed in detention as a precautionary measure, said Rohtak police chief Navdeep Singh Virk.
He said his officers would use “whatever force is required” against the guru’s devotees should they again resort to violence.
A judge was flown in by helicopter to sentence the spiritual leader, known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for bejeweled costumes.
The rape case was brought after an anonymous letter was sent to then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002, accusing Singh of repeatedly raping the sender and several other women in the hugely popular sect.
A judge asked the federal Central Bureau of Investigation 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.
Utsav Singh Bains, a lawyer for the victims, said there could be dozens more cases of abuse involving women at the sect.
“We believe there are at least 48 more victims who were sexually abused and who may have been killed or are too scared to come out and testify against Ram Rahim,” he told AFP by phone.
Singh also stood trial for conspiracy over the murder in 2002 of a journalist investigating the rape allegations. He denied the charge and the case is ongoing.
Over the weekend thousands of followers congregated in the spiritual headquarters of his sect at Sirsa, despite calls from police and troops for them to disperse.
Devotees eventually began trickling out one by one from the compound Sunday, under the supervision of hundreds of soldiers and riot police.
Modi said Sunday it was “natural to be worried” as the violence even briefly reached the capital New Delhi.
“Violence is not acceptable in the nation, in any form,” he said in his monthly radio address.
“Those who take law in their hands or take to violence will not be spared, whoever they are.”
Haryana authorities came under fire grossly underestimating the risk posed by the army of devotees after violent protests in many parts of the northern state on Friday.
Followers of the self-styled “godman” continue to insist upon his innocence.
Religious sects like Dera Sacha Sauda have huge followings in India. These sects and their leaders inspire intense devotion among their believers and also wield considerable political clout. Many maintain private militias for their protection.
The sect campaigns for vegetarianism and against drug addiction. It also organizes blood-donation and tree-planting drives. Singh’s sect describes itself as a social welfare and spiritual organization but he is no stranger to controversy.
In 2015 he was accused of encouraging 400 followers to undergo castration at his ashram so they could get closer to god.
The bling-loving guru, who claims about 50 million followers, is fond of red leather jackets, bejeweled hats, bicep-baring T-shirts – and cinema.
He has started a film franchise in which he stars as the “Messenger of God,” or MSG, with divine powers to save the world. In his most recent film, he plays a secret agent armed with a twirled moustache and an assortment of swords to fight aliens and UFOs.