Embattled Indian Spiritual Leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Since Friday, the northern states of India erupted in major unrest and riots developed, following his conviction in a 2002 rape case.
Thousands of riot police have been deployed to defuse hundreds of violent incidents that have left at least 38 people dead and nearly 250 injured. The army has also been put on alert, and police say they have been given "shoot on sight."
In response to Friday's clashes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said, on Twitter, “I strongly condemn the violence & urge everyone to maintain peace."
The clashes had broken out in the town of Panchkula, near Chandigarh, in Haryana state following the verdict and spread to neighboring Punjab and the capital Delhi. The government authorities imposed curfews in three of the major cities in Punjab, including Sirsa – the headquarters of the group – and also shut down Internet services in many nearby cities.
The 50-year-old spiritual leader and head of Dera Sacha Sauda – a self-described "Indian religious cult group, and non-profit social welfare organization" – has been convicted of raping two women followers 15 years ago at the headquarters in the northern town of Sirsa.
The organization has close to 50 branches throughout the country, boasting 60 million followers – mainly from Haryana, Punjab and New Delhi.
In Punjab, hundreds of train services were canceled on Friday following the eruption of riots. Curfews were imposed in three of the largest cities and a ban on firearms was imposed.
Televised footage showed smoke billowing above a railway station and petrol pump in Punjab that was allegedly set ablaze by the cult leader's supporters.
Many cult leaders in India have enormous influence over their followers, who include wealthy businessmen and political leaders.
Nearly 200,000 followers of Singh amassed in the city of Panchkula, Haryana ahead of the verdict to support the leader.
Dera Sacha Sauda said in a statement that it felt "wronged" and would appeal to a higher court to challenge the ruling.
“What has happened with us is something that has happened to gurus through history,” it said in a statement. “Dera Sacha Sauda is dedicated to the betterment of humanity. We request all to maintain peace.”
Security forces cordoned off a jail in Rohtak city, 44 miles from New Delhi, where Singh was being held, and the judge who convicted him held a special hearing inside the prison on Monday afternoon to decide the punishment.