Mobs rampaged across Haryana on Friday, leaving at least 30 people dead and more than 350 injured, while tensions flared in other parts of northern India after a court declared quasi-religious sect leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh guilty of raping two of his followers.
Officials said the rioting erupted in Panchkula, 250km north of Delhi, minutes after the special CBI court convicted the 50-year-old of the crimes committed in 2002.
Singh, a burly, bearded man who has scripted and starred in his own films and travels in a fleet of bullet-proof cars, commands a massive devotional following (he claims in the millions) in Punjab and Haryana, where his Dera Sacha Sauda group is based.
Horrifying: The dead body of a follower of Indian religious leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh lays on the street next to burning vehicles following clashes between his supporters and security forces,
In 2002 a Dera sadhvi (follower) wrote an anonymous letter to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee saying she was raped by the Dera chief.
The Punjab and Haryana high court acted on the letter and directed the CBI to register a sexual exploitation case against the Dera chief in 2002.
When the investigation started 18 followers were questioned and two of them levelled allegations of rape against the spiritual leader.
One follower said that rape was 'justified' on the grounds that it would 'purify' women.
The victim said in her statement that when she entered the Dera chief's 'chamber', the doors automatically closed and she found him watching a pornographic movie on a big screen.
Supporters attacked railway stations, petrol pumps, buses and television vans as the Army was called in to restore order.
Shocking photos showed bodies lying in the middle of the road, ringed by burning vehicles, as scores of security personnel marched past.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court ruled that if Singh's followers are found involved in causing loss to properties, the damages will be recovered from the Dera.
The quantum of sentence against Ram Rahim, who enjoyed 'Z' category security, will be pronounced on Monday, but experts say he faces at least seven years in prison.
Facing a barrage of attacks from the Opposition and on social media, chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar admitted that there were lapses but asserted appropriate action was being taken.
The rape allegations surfaced in an anonymous letter sent to the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002.
Scrutiny of the ashram grew when a journalist investigating the sect was shot dead the same year. The trial in Panchkula triggered a security lockdown, with police closing schools and converting a cricket stadium into a jail in Chandigarh.
Authorities in Haryana and Punjab had suspended internet services to curb social messaging in a bid to contain anticipated unrest.
In 2015, Ram Rahim was also accused of encouraging 400 followers to undergo castration at his ashram so they could get closer to God.
The CBI chargesheets, main and supplementary, have mentioned names of 24 female disciples who left the Dera after being sexually abused. This reporter established contact with four victims through a former Dera aide, Gurdas Singh Toor, who spent six years with the sect and had access to the Baba's 'secret place', called goofa (a cave), where girls were raped and tortured.
Two rape victims have revealed that he would ask his close female disciples to deploy three to four beautiful sadhvis as sentries to guard the cave through the night.
The sect leader allegedly picked a new victim each day. One victim even accused Singh of raping schoolgirls.
Following the conviction of Gurmeet Ram Rahim in a rape case, arson was reported from various parts in the national Capital. An alert was also sounded on the outskirts of Delhi in Ghaziabad and Noida, where section 144 was imposed.
Areas of West Delhi, Outer Delhi and South-West Delhi remained tensed since Friday evening.
A senior police officer said security in all bordering areas in Delhi has been stepped up.
'An alert has been issued in all police stations and sufficient arrangements have been made to tackle any untoward incidents,' said a senior police officer from of outer Delhi.
'Few properties were set on fire in areas of Khyala and Manglapuri in West Delhi. Two buses were set on fire in Jahangirpuri, two in Jyoti Nagar and one in Badarpur.
'Also, Rewa Express stationed in the yard at Anand Vihar railway station was set on fire after the verdict,' a senior police officer said. 'In Khyala, we arrested two men.
They tried to set a DTC bus on fire, but managed to burn only some seats. In Badarpur, some miscreants had barely set a seat on fire when local police prevented further arson. The situation is under control,' said Madhur Verma, Delhi Police PRO.
In Punjab, Dera supporters set on fire Moga, Malout and Balluanna railway stations in Punjab.
Dera protesters tried to torch a school in Rajpura in Patiala but police controlled the situation. There have been 64 instances of violence in Punjab till last reports came in.
In Barnala, a telephone exchange was torched by Dera protesters in Chananwal village. A power house and the tehsil office was torched in Sangrur, Punjab.
As a precautionary measure, the government sounded an alert in all adjoining districts of Uttar Pradesh to ensure that the violence doesn't spill over.
Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh sent out a message asking all Punjabis to maintain peace and harmony in the state. He said he won't allow anyone to disturb peace and tranquility.
Curfew was imposed in Punjab's Bathinda after reports of violence. Incidents of stone-pelting was reported at several places near the Dera ashram.
Police resorted to lathicharge to disperse the crowd. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and L-G Anil Baijal too urged everyone to stay calm and maintain peace.