A revered spiritual figure in India was found guilty of rape on Friday, leading thousands of his followers to sow chaos across the states of Punjab and Haryana in protest.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh leads the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, a group known for its devotion to social welfare. He was accused of raping two women at the sect’s headquarters back in 2002 after an anonymous letter detailing the sexual assaults was reportedly sent to former Indian Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee.
Singh’s followers, who believe in his innocence, took to the streets across Haryana as well as in Delhi, the capital, clashing with law enforcement and setting fire to police stations, offices, trains and buses, according to HuffPost India. Security forces responded with water cannons and tear gas.
At least 29 people died during Friday’s clashes and hundreds more were injured in the town of Panchkula, where the trial took place, Reuters reported.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the unrest and violence “deeply distressing.”
Singh is expected to be convicted on Aug. 28. The minimum jail time for this type of case is seven years but can extend to life imprisonment.
Referring to himself as “Saint Dr. MSG” on social media, Singh boasts a massive cult following. He also claims to have written, directed and starred in several films, according to the Hindustan Times.
The reporting of sexual assaults has risen in India in the last few years following several high-profile gang rape incidents that have demonstrated the severity of the problem of sexual violence in the country.
“There is no magic formula to deal with the problem of rape,” Indira Jaising, a former national additional solicitor general, told the BBC in 2013. “There’s a bias that operates in the mind of decision makers — stereotyping women, blaming the victim, trying to find out if she invited the rape.”