A charismatic Indian “godman” whose conviction for rape last week sparked a wave of arson and looting was jailed for 20 years on Monday.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the flamboyant leader of the Dera Sauch Sauda sect, was convicted on Friday of repeatedly raping two women followers at his ashram, a complex of more than 600 acres set in the northern state of Haryana.
He received two 10 year sentences, to run consecutively, a Central Bureau of Investigation spokesman said. Earlier media reports suggested he had been sentenced for a total of 10 years.
Local media reported that Mr Singh broke down as the sentence was pronounced and had to be dragged weeping from the court, where the session took place under tight security.
The conviction unleashed a catalogue of violence by tens of thousands of his devotees, who had descended on the courthouse where the verdict was read, in which 38 were killed, more than 250 injured and railway stations, government offices and vehicles were set on fire.
On Monday the authorities were preparing for further trouble from the guru’s hardcore followers, thousands of whom remained holed up in the ashram compound in the town of Sirsa surrounded by thousands of troops and paramilitary police.
But in the initial hours after the sentencing, the religious leader’s heartland remained calm, with a heavy security force presence, curfew and the suspension of cell phone services. Schools were closed and public transport services halted.
Mr Singh’s conviction is a rare case where a charismatic Indian spiritual guru has been held to account. Mr Singh, who directed and starred in a big budget movie called MSG: Messenger of God and two sequels, had successfully converted his hold over followers into political influence.
During the 2014 national and state elections, Mr Singh supported Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, helping it wrest control of the state from the Congress party.
He has since received several grants of Haryana government funds, totalling about $150,000, for such activities as promoting sports. He was also publicly praised by Mr Modi for his support for the prime minister’s “Clean India campaign”.
The criminal investigation into Mr Singh began in 2002 after the chief justice in Haryana state received an anonymous letter from one of his followers, who detailed how she was repeatedly raped by the guru and claimed other female devotees had endured the same.
The Central Bureau of Investigation tracked down some of the guru’s alleged victims, persuading two to testify against him after promising them witness protection.
Mr Singh is also being tried in connection with the 2002 slaying of a journalist who helped expose the rapes and was shot dead in front of his house. Authorities are investigating claims that Mr Singh forced 400 male followers to undergo castration, allegations the religious leader denies.
Mr Singh’s conviction could lead to demands for more rapid progress in criminal prosecutions against other religious figures such as Hindu “godman” Asaram Bapu, who has been in jail since 2013 awaiting trial on allegations of raping a 16-year-old follower.