Hundreds of armed supporters of a controversial guru have clashed with baton-wielding riot police who tried to storm his fortified ashram and arrest him in northern India, officers have said.
Police fired tears gas and water cannon at devotees of the self-styled “godman” on Tuesday, as more than a 100 officers suffered bullet and other injuries at the compound in Haryana state.
Supporters of 63-year-old Rampal Maharaj have spent days guarding the compound outside Hisar city and have been accused of using women and children as human shields. Hisar is 175km north of New Delhi, the capital.
Police have not yet located Maharaj but have surrounded the compound, vowing to continue the operation until he is arrested.
“We had prior information that they had stones, petrol bombs, weapons, batons and sticks and acid pouches,” director-general of police SN Vashisht told reporters in the nearby city of 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. 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,” he added.
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.
Maharaj has repeatedly defied court orders to appear in court to answer charges including conspiracy to murder, inciting mobs and contempt of court, according to local media reports.
New Delhi protest
Devotees described scenes of panic inside the building, with some saying they were stopped from leaving by more senior supporters as police moved in, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) 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 told PTI.
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.
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.
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.
For many Indians, gurus play an integral role in daily life, saying they offer a pathway to enlightenment, in return for spiritual devotion and, often, donations to ashrams, temples and charity projects.