Hundreds of armed supporters of a controversial guru clashed yesterday with baton-wielding riot police who tried to storm his fortified ashram and arrest him in Haryana, officers said.
Police fired tear gas and water cannon at devotees of the self-styled “godman” who have spent days guarding the sprawling compound outside Hisar city.
More than 100 officers have suffered bullet and other injuries at the compound where supporters of 63-year-old Rampal Maharaj are accused of using women and children as human shields.
“We had prior information that they had stones, petrol bombs, weapons, batons and sticks and acid pouches,” Director-General of Police S N Vashisht told reporters in Chandigarh.
“The police tried to break down the wall of the ashram today because we believe that the people who are inside are not really supporters but are being used as human shields.
“We will not stop until we catch this criminal,” he added.
He said the authorities have received several phone calls from people inside the ashram, saying they wanted to leave but were being prevented.
“There are no deaths in the operation. A total of 109 policemen were injured in the operation, including gunshot injuries to nine policemen,” Vashisht said.
“Rampal and his supporters are instigating followers to resist police. We have asked people to leave the ashram. People called from inside and said they wanted to leave but were being stopped,” the DGP said.
Maharaj has repeatedly defied court orders to appear to answer charges including conspiracy to murder, inciting mobs and contempt of court, according to reports.
Television footage showed chaotic scenes, with police armed with sticks dragging away supporters, including women, and bulldozers driving towards the ashram’s high outer walls.
Devotees described scenes of panic inside the building, with some saying they were stopped from leaving by more senior supporters as police moved in.
“There are so many people still inside and the vast majority of them want to leave. But they are not being allowed to leave,” one woman who managed to flee said.
Police have not yet located Maharaj but have surrounded the compound, vowing to continue the operation until he was arrested.
“We have also given an ultimatum to those holed inside that they can come out if they want to, they would be given a safe passage,” Vashisht said.
Police in recent days have cut off water and electricity and blocked roads to prevent deliveries of food to the ashram to try to flush out the guru and his flock.
Ambulances were seen racing towards the ashram in the town of Barwala late Tuesday. Media were stopped from entering the area.
The guru’s counsel has cited ill health as a reason for his failure to appear three times in the Haryana High Court. But an official helping with the case accused him of openly defying the court.
“Baba Rampal has raised a private army of supporters who are openly confronting with the police, the government and the administration,” said Anupam Gupta, an “amicus curiae” (friend of the court) - a party who offers information in a case.
“He has openly proclaimed that he is above the law and judicial systems,” Gupta told reporters.
“Our guru is a holy man. It is our duty to protect his life. We will kill and fight till we die to save him,” a devotee said.
Supporters also protested in New Delhi to proclaim their leader’s innocence, as police looked on.
“We expect nothing less than justice for our guru, who is innocent...he is just not someone who can do any of the things for which he is charged,” said Nathu Lal at the protest in the centre of the capital.
Police accuse Maharaj of ordering his disciples to fire on villagers during clashes in 2006 in which one person was killed and scores injured.
India has been rocked by several scandals involving immensely popular “godmen,” who claim mystical powers. Last year one was charged with sexually assaulting a schoolgirl.
On his website Maharaj, an engineer by profession, says he follows the 15th-century mystic poet Kabir, who has many devotees in India and abroad.
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