Indian cities in lockdown as 'guru in bling' awaits rape verdict

Panchkula (India) (AFP) - Tens of thousands of supporters of a controversial Indian guru marched Thursday on a city where he is standing trial for rape, alarming state authorities who redoubled security and suspended mobile internet services.

A court at Panchkula in the northern state of Haryana is expected Friday to deliver a verdict in the case against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, dubbed the "guru in bling" for his penchant for garish clothes and jewellery.

Indian investigators allege Singh, the charismatic spiritual head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, molested two female worshippers, a charge he and his supporters deny.

More than 100,000 of his supporters have thronged cities across Haryana and Punjab in a show of solidarity, prompting authorities to deploy 15,000 paramilitary officers and block internet services.

"A meeting was held today and we made a decision to suspend mobile internet and data services for the next 72 hours," Ram Niwas, Haryana's additional chief secretary, told reporters.

Roads into Panchkula, where a special court will issue a judgement into the allegations stretching back to 2002, were blockaded, and three stadiums set aside as makeshift prisons in case of trouble, officials said.

But tens of thousands of Singh's supporters were already camped out across the city, where schools and offices were closed as a precaution.

Ravi Kumar, 25, said he wanted to ensure "nothing unfair" was done to Singh, who has featured in action movies and music videos.

"He does so much good for humanity and they still trouble him by calling him here without a reason," Kumar told AFP.

The self-styled "godman" urged his supporters against violence and said he would personally appear in court Friday.

"I have always respected the law. Even though I have a backache, still, abiding by law, I will go to court. I have full faith in God. Everyone should maintain peace," Singh posted on Twitter on Thursday.

India has been rocked by numerous scandals involving popular ascetics claiming to possess mystical powers, and Singh 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.

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

On its website the group describes Singh as a saint as well as an author, inventor, scientist, philosopher, philanthropist, peace activist and "the ultimate humanitarian".

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