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



Troops lined the streets of a city in north India Friday after tens of thousands of distraught devotees of an Indian sect leader dubbed the "guru in bling" headed there to await a verdict in his rape trial.

Thousands of troops have been deployed to prevent violence in Panchkula, where a special court set up by India's federal investigations agency will pronounce its verdict later Friday.

Ram Rahim Singh, who describes himself on Twitter as a "spiritual saint" and "all-round sportsperson", is accused of molesting two female devotees in a case that dates back to 1999.

The 50-year-old self-styled "godman", who denies the allegations, is known as the "guru in bling" for his penchant for bejewelled costumes, although the source of his apparently vast wealth is unclear.

He heads the Dera Sacha Sauda, a spiritual movement based in the north Indian state of Haryana that claims to have millions of followers in India and abroad.

The rape case was brought against him after an anonymous letter was sent to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee accusing him of repeatedly raping the sender and several other women in the sect.

A judge asked the Central Bureau of Investigations to look into the accusations, but it took years to trace the alleged victims and it was not until 2007 that two women came forward and filed charges.

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.

Followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the controversial head of religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS), gather on the roadside in Sirsa, where his organization is based, ahead of a court's verdict in a rape case against him

He describes his sect as a social welfare and spiritual organisation.

Messenger of God

Supporters gathered in Panchkula credited him with turning their lives around, with some saying his organisation had helped them kick an addiction to alcohol.

"I've been part of the Dera movement for two decades and in that time I have not touched a drop," said Gajendere Singh, a recovering alcoholic who said he was aged around 60.

"Before joining, people did not pay me much attention. But after, I had a support network."

Singh's work has angered mainstream religious leaders in India, particularly Sikhs who say he insults and belittles their faith.

There were protests in the Sikh-dominated state of Punjab over Singh's 2015 appearance in a film entitled "MSG: The Messenger of God", which showed him performing miracles, preaching to thousands and beating up gangsters while singing and dancing.

Singh was driven from his home town to the court in a vast convoy that Indian media said was made up of over 100 vehicles.

Television images showed devotees lining the streets, many of them sobbing uncontrollably.

Roads leading to the court have been barricaded off and three stadiums set aside as makeshift prisons in case of trouble after the verdict.

Asked whether she thought there would be violence Narindra Kaur, a devotee, said that would depend on the verdict.

"We don't know how people have managed to stay so patient," said Kaur, a civil servant.

"Now it all depends on the verdict."