At least 28 people were killed and 250 injured today in widespread violence, arson and police firing triggered by the rape conviction of self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.
Within two hours of his conviction by a CBI court in Panchkula, the violence had left a trail of burnt vehicles, buildings and railway stations in Punjab and Haryana.
Hospitals were overwhelmed with the stream of injured people being brought in.
“We were not expecting the conviction. Baba has worked very hard for us. The fight has just begun,” said Rajesh, a follower, in Sirsa, where Ram Rahim is based. Women followers were seen moving around the streets of Sirsa with wooden sticks with some brandishing them furiously in the air.
At least 17 people were killed and 32 injured, Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehereshi told reporters. Vivek Bhadu, the chief medical officer of the Civil Hospital in Panchkula, put the number of injured at 200.
Police fired in the air, lobbed tear gas and let loose water cannons on the protesters to quell the violence, which spread beyond Panchkula to many places in Haryana, Punjab and even Rajasthan.
The injured included journalists and police personnel.
A reporter of CNN News 18 TV said a steady stream of ambulances was bringing scores of injured people to the hospital, soaked in blood. He described the scene as “war zone.” It was not clear if the injuries were due to police action or violence by Dera followers, which included a large number of women.
“The flow of injured is not stopping,” said the reporter in his dispatch, which also showed pictures of vehicles burning.
Ram Rahim is the chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda, a quasi- religious group, and was accused in 2002 of sexually exploiting two female followers. He was whisked away after the conviction and the sentencing will take place on Monday. He faces imprisonment of seven years to life imprisonment.
Curfew was imposed in Panchkuala and Sirsa, where the group’s headquarters is located. Internet services were also suspended.
A huge posse of Haryana police contingent, paramilitary forces and RAF barricaded all roads leading to the sprawling headquarters of Ram Rahim, who besides running the cult is into making and acting in movies, as well as running a range of businesses.
Security was also beefed up in parts of northern India, including New Delhi and Lucknow.
Although prohibitory orders were in place in Panchkula, it had little effect on the protesters, who also set fire to Malout and Balluanna railway stations in Punjab, according to the Northern Railways. Many motorcycles, cars and buildings, including an Income Tax building in Mansa in Punjab, were set on fire.
Six columns of Army, comprising a total of 500 to 600 soldiers were deployed in Panchkula, a suburb of Chandigarh.
The situation was worsening in parts of Punjab, mainly in Malwa region, the stronghold of Dera Sacha Sauda.
At least three OB vans of private television channels were damaged. Two vans were overturned by a mob.
The India Today Group’s TV channel showed pictures of its correspondent and cameraman being attacked while they were travelling in a van in Sirsa, the Dera’s headquarters. The camera captured images of the windshield and windows being struck by men with sticks.
The glass shattered and one of the occupants of the van was heard moaning. The video then showed his bloodied face.