Thousands of supporters of a controversial Indian guru convicted of rape begin leaving his headquarters in Sirsa, in northern India Sunday, ending a tense standoff with soldiers.
Followers of Ram Rahim Singh, who calls himself Saint and is the leader of a quasi-religious sect, responded to an appeal by authorities to disperse after staging a violent protest, which left at least 36 people dead and nearly 300 wounded.
Singh is to be sentenced on the rape conviction Monday, and officials had feared more trouble if his supporters remained in the compound.
Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds and eventually resorted to firing warning shots in the air in an attempt to control the rioters.
Police spokesman Surjit Singh urged the followers, who had holed up at the guru's headquarters in Sirsa, in Haryana state, to go home.
"There are no instructions to security forces to enter the headquarters and forcibly clear it,'' Singh told the Associated Press on Saturday.
Hundreds of security forces remain in the town, and a curfew has been imposed in Sirsa.
A spokesman for the guru's Dera Sacha Sauda sect on Friday urged his supporters to remain calm.
“I just want to request everyone to maintain peace at the moment,” said Dilawar Insan. “We will explore what legal options are available to us.”
Indian investigators alleged that Singh, dubbed the "guru in bling,” molested two of his female worshippers – a charge that he and his supporters deny.
Many popular ascetics claiming to have mystical powers in India, including Singh, have been linked with scandals and controversy.
In 2015, Singh, leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, was accused of encouraging 400 followers to undergo castration at his ashram so they could get closer to God.
Singh also stood trial for conspiracy to murder a journalist in 2002.
But his supporters have stood firm, referring to him as "the ultimate humanitarian" on the group's website.