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Sikhs Call for General Strike Over 'Blasphemous' Costume

AMRITSAR, India -- Streets were deserted and shops closed across the northern Indian state of Punjab after Sikh leaders called for a general strike Tuesday in the wake of more than a week of clashes with a quasi-religious sect that have left one person dead, police and religious leaders said.

Thousands of police officers deployed in full force across Punjab, India's only Sikh-majority state, maintaining an uneasy calm.

The clashes erupted after the leader of the sect, known as Dera Sacha Sauda, dressed up as a 17th-century Sikh guru at a public function and posed for newspaper advertisements in costume -- an act many Sikhs considered blasphemous.

In the eight days since, Sikh protesters have repeatedly blocked roads, clashed with Dera supporters and marched through the streets of Punjab's cities brandishing traditional swords and daggers, blades that Sikhism dictates all its followers carry.

At least one person has been killed and hundreds injured in the clashes, although details of how the man was slain remain unclear.

There were no reports of violence Tuesday, said a senior police official.

The state's Sikh top elected official, Parkash Singh Badal, called for an apology from Dera leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, also a Sikh, while Giani Joginder Singh, a Sikh high priest, has demanded all Dera branches in Punjab be shut down.

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