The sentence was announced on Monday amid tight security in the northern town of Rohtak where the “guru of bling” has been held since his conviction on Friday, which provoked protests among his followers that left at least 38 people dead and more than 200 injured.
Tens of thousands of police enforced a lockdown in large parts of the northern states of Haryana and Punjab where Singh, the 50-year-old leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, has a mass following.
A lawyer for the victims earlier said Singh had been sentenced to 10 years in jail. In fact, he was given two consecutive 10-year sentences.
“He has been sentenced for 10 plus 10, which is a total of 20 years of imprisonment,” said Abhishek Dayal, spokesman for India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), after the sentencing hearing.
On hearing the sentence, Singh slumped down in his chair, sobbed, and asked the judge for forgiveness, according to reporters inside the court.
Singh was found guilty of raping two women 15 years ago at the headquarters of the sect, which has a vast following in Punjab and Haryana and claims to have 60 million followers worldwide. He denies the charges.
Some leaders of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party welcomed the sentence. “It’s a triumph for women’s rights and shows that no one is above the law,” said Subramanian Swamy, the former leader of the Janata party which merged into the BJP.
Anil Jain, who heads the BJP in Haryana, also welcomed it. “He deserves to be punished like anyone else because he committed the crime under the veil of being a ‘god man’, which is worse,” he said.
But lawyers for the women who brought the case said they had wanted a much harsher sentence and would appeal against it in a higher court, asking for a longer jail term.
Singh, one of the most powerful men in India, ran the 69-year-old sect from its ashram headquarters on a sprawling, 400-hectare (1,000-acre) Haryana property which includes a hotel, cinema, cricket stadium and schools.
The rape allegations surfaced in an anonymous letter sent in 2002 to the then prime minister, Atal Vajpayee. Scrutiny of the ashram grew when a journalist investigating the sect was shot dead the same year.
The CBI, India’s domestic security agency, alleges Singh was involved in murdering the journalist after suspecting he was responsible for helping to circulate the anonymous letter, according to the Hindustan Times. He faces a separate trial in that case and denies the charges.
Singh is one of only a few Indian gurus to openly back political parties. In 2014 he threw his support behind the Narendra Modi government, and announced last November that its controversial demonetisation policy was “in the national interest”.
In the decade that the rape trial has been running, Singh has continued courting both followers and controversy.
In 2014 he starred, encrusted in rhinestones, in the first of two hagiographic filmsabout his life, in which he was credited for 30 roles including director, producer and choreographer.
Ticket sales were initially strong – more than 150,000 attended the first film’s premiere – but reportedly flagged after the CBI went public with accusations that Singh had been organising “mass castrations” of his followers since at least 2000. He denies this.
Before the sentencing, train and bus services to Rohtak were suspended to prevent the guru’s supporters from gathering in the town, and a curfew was also imposed.
Local police said several layers of security were in place around the prison and that government troops had permission to use firearms if any violence erupted. All cars entering the town were being searched.