Tensions escalated in northern India after a court on Aug. 28 sentenced cult leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh to 20 years in prison for rape. At least 38 people have died amid rioting by his followers since he was convicted on Aug. 25. Following the widespread violence, Singh was moved to a jail in Rohtak district of Haryana state. Singh was given 10 years of imprisonment on each count for raping two of his women followers 15 years ago. The women were among those considered nuns of his sect, Dera Sacha Sauda. They were living inside its headquarters in Sirsa, Haryana state, when attacked. The court also ordered Singh to pay 1.4 million rupees (US$ 21,875) to each of the victims as compensation and also pay a three million rupees fine. The court observed that Singh's victims had put him "on the pedestal of God" and revered him. Singh had committed a breach of the gravest nature by sexually assaulting gullible followers, the judge said. His conviction and sentence caused tensions in the five northern states of Haryana, Punjab, New Delhi, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. After the verdict, some 150,000 of the cult's followers went on a rampage destroying property, looting shops and setting fire to vehicles. Haryana state closed all educational institutions Aug. 28. "We cannot move out and everyday life is hampered," said Father Remy Cardozo, principal of the St. Xaviers's Senior Secondary School in Sirsa. He told ucanews.com that he had to postpone ongoing exams at his school. "I cannot take a risk of running a school with around 3,000 students in such a situation," he said adding that uncertainty continued over when the schools could again function normally. Army, paramilitary forces and police were deployed in huge numbers in Sirsa, Panchkula and Rohtak districts of Haryana to control the violence. The case began in 2002 when the two victims wrote an anonymous letter to the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, detailing sexual abuse that they and other women suffered at the hands of Singh. Condemning the recent rioting, current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said that violence in the name of faith would not be tolerated. "No one has the right to take the law into one's own hands, in the name of one's beliefs," he said.
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"The law will fix accountability and the guilty will unquestionably be punished." Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of Indian bishops' conference, told ucanews.com that "such violence cannot be accepted in a modern society." If court judgments were not accepted, civilized life would become impossible, he added. Singh has over 60 million followers, mostly from north India, and at a number of ashrams in different parts of the country, where his followers listen to his spiritual messages. He has strong political connections too. In the 2014 Haryana state elections, Singh was reported to have asked his followers to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), leading to the party's win in the state elections. The BJP also rules in a coalition nationally. Singh also has two murder charges against him as well as another case over the castrating of some 400 of his male followers. His headquarters includes a hotel, cinema, cricket stadium and schools.