NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The trial of a self-styled Indian “godman” accused of rape has triggered a security lockdown, with police closing schools and converting a cricket stadium into a jail in case his followers erupt into violence if he is found guilty.
Thousands of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s supporters have begun assembling close to the court in the state of Punjab, where he is on trial for raping two women in cases that date back to 2002. A verdict is expected on Friday.
“The verdict could lead to potential large-scale unrest and violence,” Ajay Kumar, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Law and Order, in Panchkula city, told Reuters.
Singh, a burly, bearded man who has scripted and starred in his own films, commands a near-devotional following - he claims in the millions - in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, where his Dera Sacha Sauda group is based.
He denies all the charges against him, and has called on his followers to remain peaceful.
“We will block mobile internet services if needed as concerns spread over the stockpiling of weapons including lathis (wooden sticks) at the different prayer centers,” Kumar said.
Trains would also be suspended for several hours, while a cricket stadium in state capital Chandigarh had been commandeered as a temporary detention centre.
In 2014, the attempted arrest of another guru on murder charges ended with his followers attacking police with clubs and stones.
Indian godmen can summon thousands of supporters onto 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 to have failed them.
But few are as controversial as Singh.
The top domestic security agency is investigating whether Singh 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.
He has also irritated the Sikh religious community by dressing like one of their gurus.
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 Rupam Jain and Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nick Macfie