By Rupam Jain Nair
Indian police on Wednesday deployed water cannon and a baton charge in storming the hermitage of a self-styled religious leader who is resisting arrest for murder, discovering six bodies in an operation to evacuate thousands of his followers.
Police brought out 10,000 people, many held against their will, from the hermitage of Satguru Rampalji Maharaj, a controversial guru who is based in Haryana, 170 km northwest of the capital New Delhi.
Thousands were still holed up in the sprawling compound, which suffered huge damage after police breached a human chain of men, women and children in a bid to arrest the 63-year-old Rampal.
“The godman was using his devotees as a human shield,” senior police officer S.N. Vashist told reporters.
Police officials said the bodies of five women and one infant had been found. There were no bullet marks or injuries on the dead and they did not die in the rescue. Their bodies will be sent for postmortem examinations.
Tensions rose last week after a judge ordered Rampal’s arrest over a 2006 murder case, in which he is accused of telling supporters to open fire on villagers, killing one and injuring six.
The guru has ignored more than 40 summons to go to court. His followers had said he was not in the 12-acre (5-hectare) walled compound, but receiving medical treatment at an undisclosed location.
Rampal heads a sect that worships the 15th-century poet and mystic Kabir, who is known for a message of tolerance that is followed by people of varied faiths.
Some of those evacuated told police they had been held against their will for days, and given little food or water.
“We are trying to restrain the use of force because we know that many followers are being compelled to fight by Rampal,” said Vashist. “He is trying to avoid arrest in every possible way.”