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India police clash with armed supporters of wanted 'godman'

Thousands of supporters of the self-styled 'godman' have surrounded his premises in a bid to prevent police from arresting him for repeatedly ignoring court summons.
Police try to disperse supporters of Sant Rampal at Hisar in Haryana yesterday. Bansilal Basniwal / AP Photo
Police try to disperse supporters of Sant Rampal at Hisar in Haryana yesterday. Bansilal Basniwal / AP Photo

NEW DELHI // Indian police armed with tear gas, batons and bulldozers stormed an ashram on Tuesday where a controversial guru was believed to be holed up, surrounded by thousands of supporters who vowed to prevent his arrest.

The guru, Sant Rampal, has repeatedly ignored court summons to appear for questioning in the 2006 killing of a villager by his supporters.

Two officers were wounded by what appeared to be live firing coming from the ashram, where supporters including women and children were holed up, director general of police SN Vashisht said.

“We had prior information that they had stones, petrol bombs, weapons, batons and sticks and acid pouches,” Mr Vashisht said.

“Two of our policemen were hit by bullets and are admitted to hospital. It is still a live situation. We will not stop until we catch this criminal,” he said.In recent days, devotees of the self-styled “godman” have formed a human chain around the sprawling compound in Haryana state in an attempt to prevent police from entering.

Television footage showed chaotic scenes, with police armed with sticks dragging away supporters, including women, and pushing a media crew. Bulldozers were also seen driving towards the ashram’s high outer walls.

Police were attempting to ensure women and children inside the compound were not caught in the clashes, Mr Vashisht said.

“It is our hope that the innocents trapped inside the Ashram can be taken out safely.”

Devotees described scenes of panic inside the building, with some saying they were stopped from leaving by more senior supporters as police started moving in, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

“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.

Mr Rampal, 63, an engineer-turned-guru, was granted bail in the 2006 case, but it was cancelled in July after his supporters entered a court room and threatened lawyers.

Since 2010, Mr Rampal has ignored 43 court summons, seeking exemptions each time. The court set a final deadline for him to be present in court on Monday, which he also ignored.

Anupam Gupta, a court-appointed mediator, said Mr Rampal faces arrest for not heeding the court summons.

“Rampal has said that he is above the law of the country. The guru and his supporters have openly challenged the government and the judicial system,” Mr Gupta said.

Mr Rampal’s supporters say he is too ill to make the 250-kilometre journey from his ashram outside Hisar city to the court in the state capital, Chandigarh.

District authorities cut off water and power to the ashram two days ago and blocked food deliveries in an attempt to disperse the protesters. Police also issued orders banning people from gathering near the ashram, but they were ignored by Mr Rampal’s supporters, who occupied the ground outside the compound.

Police issued warnings on megaphones before firing tear gas into the ashram complex, and television reports showed several bloodied people being carried away by police. India has been rocked by several scandals involving immensely popular “godmen”, mostly Hindu ascetics who claim mystical powers. Last year, one was charged with sexually assaulting a schoolgirl.

On his website Rampal, an engineer by trade, says he follows the 15th-century mystic poet Kabir, who has many devotees in India and abroad. Rampal says he became a guru after years of failing to attain “mental peace” and “complete salvation” by visiting temples and worshipping gods.

For many Indians, gurus play an integral role in daily life. They say they offer a pathway to enlightenment in return for spiritual devotion and often donations to ashrams, temples and charity projects.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse

Updated: November 18, 2014 04:00 AM