NEW DELHI (Reuters) – A northern Indian town imposed a curfew and ordered thousands of followers of a self-styled “godman” to home as he headed to court on Friday for a decision in a rape trial that has raised fears of mass unrest.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of a social welfare and spiritual group, commands a following that he claims in the millions, many of whom have been in the streets since Thursday, protesting his innocence.
Singh, a burly, bearded man who has scripted and starred in his own films, is accused of raping two women followers in a case dating back to 2002 at the headquarters of his Dera Sacha Sauda group in the town of Sirsa.
The town ordered an indefinite curfew to stop his followers from gathering but thousands had already left for the town of Panchkula where a court was due to give its verdict.
Singh drove in a convoy of cars from his Sirsa headquarters to the court down a deserted highway, accompanied by hundreds of police.
Ram Niwas, a senior government official, said mobile internet services had also been suspended in the states of Haryana and Punjab to stop people from spreading rumors and causing unrest. The army was on standby.
In 2014, the attempted arrest of another guru on murder charges ended with his followers attacking police with clubs and stones.
Singh denies the rape charge against him and called on his followers through a video message to remain peaceful. “We all must respect the law and maintain peace,” he said.
Indian godmen can summon thousands of supporters on to the streets at the drop of a hat. Their systems of patronage and quasi-religious sermons are hugely popular with people who consider the government has failed them.
But few are as controversial as Singh.
Besides the rape charges, Singh is also under investigation over allegations that he convinced 400 of his male followers to undergo castration, allegations he denies.
A variety of reasons have been given for why the men agreed to castration, including promises of becoming closer to god.
Singh’s two films, “Messenger of God” and its sequel, include sequences in which he fights off villains and tosses burning motorbikes into the air.
Reporting by Manoj Kumar; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nick Macfie