Police were yesterday scouring the ashram of a controversial guru for explosives after his arrest ended a bloody stand-off with thousands of followers and a long siege during which six people died.
Officers finally gained access to the main building in the vast complex where self-styled “godman” Rampal Maharaj had been holed up for over a week, guarded by devotees armed with stones, petrol bombs and other weapons, until his arrest on Wednesday night on murder charges.
Thousands of followers have poured out of the heavily guarded ashram since police forced their way in on Tuesday using water cannon, tear gas and batons.
But around 3,000 more, including young children, remained inside the 12 acre compound in Haryana because they were afraid to leave.
Families were separated by a large concrete barrier, with men on one side of a vast hall where followers slept on mattresses on the floor, and women and children on the other. CCTV cameras had been set up around the building to monitor their movements.
“They said that those who left earlier were beaten by police and arrested... We decided not to leave after that,” said Ajay Kumar Mandal, who had been at the ashram with his wife and children since November 4.
“I’ll leave now. As for the conditions, they were very good,” he said.
Around 100 devotees were injured in clashes with police, who found the bodies of four women and a child inside, although it remains unclear how they died.
A sixth follower died after being taken to hospital apparently suffering from a heart condition.
Jawan Singh said he had gone into the ashram in the hope that Rampal could cure his chronic back pain, but instead found himself at the centre of a running battle with police.
“I came here hoping that I’ll get healed. Instead it was a war-like situation here,” the 34-year-old said from the window of a bus taking people away from the compound.
“The guards manning the complex gate didn’t allow us to come out. They told the people to go back in.”
Rampal told reporters after his arrest that he regretted the deaths, but denied police allegations he used his followers as human shields.
Police say they have arrested more than 500 devotees, including 250 members of a “private army” dedicated to his protection.
“It was a tough operation, we had to deal with hostile supporters,” police inspector Anil Kumar said.
“At the moment we are trying to clear the ashram, the clearing operations are on, our personnel are inside the ashram. They are trying to find if any explosives have been hidden there.”
Devotees came from across India and Nepal to see Rampal, a former engineer who considers himself an incarnation of the 15th-century mystic poet Kabir.
He claims to have cured chronic illnesses and says “ruined families have again become prosperous” by devoting themselves to his teachings.
Followers quoted in media have said they were given Prasad - or holy food offerings -made from milk Rampal had bathed in, and told this was the key to his “miracles.”
Disciples must give up alcohol, smoking, meat, eggs, adultery and gambling, while singing and dancing is banned along with worship of “any other god or goddess.”
Haryana Chief Minister M L Khattar said no one had died as a result of the police operation, although 100 were being treated for injuries.
“Our plan was to achieve this (arrest) without a single person having to lose his life. We have been completely successful in this,” he said on the NDTV network.
Police sought Rampal’s arrest after he repeatedly refused court orders to appear to answer charges including conspiracy to murder, contempt of court and inciting mobs.
He is accused of ordering his disciples to fire on villagers during 2006 clashes in which one person was killed.
Rampal appeared briefly in court yesterday and was remanded in custody until November 28.
India has been rocked by several scandals involving immensely popular “godmen”, mostly Hindu ascetics who claim to possess mystical powers. Last year one was charged with sexually assaulting a schoolgirl.
For many Indians, gurus play an integral role in daily life and are seen as offering a pathway to enlightenment in return for spiritual devotion.
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