Indian city barricaded as 'rape guru' awaits sentencing

Sirsa (India) (AFP) - Supporters of an Indian guru ended a tense standoff with soldiers Sunday after the "godman" was convicted of rape, but authorities are bracing for more trouble on the eve of his sentencing after rioting by devotees left 36 dead.

Thousands of followers of Ram Rahim Singh had congregated in the spiritual headquarters of his sect in the northern state of Haryana over the weekend and refused to leave, despite calls from police and troops for them to disperse.

Singh's loyalists had gone on a rampage in many other parts of the state after the court decision Friday.

On Sunday, followers began trickling out from the compound in the town of Sirsa one by one under army guard.

Hundreds of soldiers and riot police had blocked approaches to the premises spread over 1,000 acres (404 hectares) and were urging those holed up inside to surrender peacefully.

A curfew imposed in Sirsa, where soldiers patrolled empty streets, was briefly lifted Sunday morning to allow Singh's followers to leave the headquarters as spiritual anthems blared from megaphones.

Indian authorities have been on high alert since rioting and arson broke out minutes after Singh -- who has starred in films and claims to have 50 million followers -- was found guilty of raping two of his devotees.

Police said at least 36 people were killed as tens of thousands of followers took to the streets, attacking television vans and setting fire to dozens of vehicles.

Prime Minister Narendra 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," Modi said in his monthly radio address.

"Those who take law in their hands or take to violence will not be spared, whoever they are."

But his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also in power in Haryana, has come under heavy fire for failing to prevent the outbreak of violence and allowing the 50-year-old guru to travel in a luxury chopper to jail.

Critics say state authorities grossly underestimated the risk posed by the 200,000-strong army of Singh devotees who poured onto the streets vowing to defend their spiritual leader who they consider innocent.

- "Father can do no sin" -

Authorities are taking no such chances ahead of Monday, when Singh will be sentenced in a prison-side court hearing in Rohtak. He could face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The city has been heavily fortified ahead of the ruling, with roads blocked by barbed wire and residents warned to stay indoors.

"We have made multi-layered arrangements so that nobody is able to reach the venue (prison) or enter Rohtak district itself," police deputy inspector general Navdeep Singh Virk told Indian broadcaster NDTV.

"I am fully confident everything will go on peacefully and there will be no untoward incident tomorrow (Monday)."

As a precautionary measure, all senior members of Singh's Dera Sacha Sauda sect have been placed under "preventive detention", he added.

The guilty verdict, and police response to the rioting that followed, enraged many of Singh's supporters.

"Our father can never do any sin," said devotee Trilok Insaan at a shop in Sirsa adorned with posters of a heavily-bearded Singh.

"This is a conspiracy. Authorities issued a 'shoot at sight' order at innocent devotees, which is totally wrong."

India has been rocked by numerous scandals involving popular ascetics claiming to possess mystical powers, and Singh is no stranger to controversy.

He is known as the "guru in bling" because of his penchant for bejewelled costumes, and is often seen sporting flamboyant leather jackets and riding customised superbikes.

In 2015 he started a film franchise portraying him as MSG or the 'Messenger of God', performing miracles, preaching to thousands and beating up gangsters while singing and dancing.

His last flick 'MSG - The Warrior Lion Heart' was released last year, with the guru playing a secret agent fighting aliens and UFOs.

But he has previously been accused of encouraging 400 followers to undergo castration at his ashram so they could get closer to god.

He also stood trial for conspiracy over the murder of a journalist in 2002.

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