24 dead after violence erupts when Indian police try to clear park squatters from obscure sect

Indian police patrol during clashes with members of a sect said to have been living illegally at the Jawahar Bagh park in Mathura, on June 2, 2016.
Indian police patrol during clashes with members of a sect said to have been living illegally at the Jawahar Bagh park in Mathura, on June 2, 2016.PHOTO: AFP
Indian members of a sect said to have been living illegally look on following clashes with police after they were evicted from the Jawahar Bagh park in Mathura on June 2, 2016.
Indian members of a sect said to have been living illegally look on following clashes with police after they were evicted from the Jawahar Bagh park in Mathura on June 2, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) - Violence erupted in India when the police tried to clear squatters belonging to an obscure sect from a city park and at least 24 people were killed including two policemen, officials said on Friday (June 3).

Police began the operation to clear the park in Mathura, 140 km south-east of the capital, New Delhi, on Thursday after a court ordered about 3,000 people out of the area.

The court had directed the authorities to clear the squatters, who had lived in the park since 2014, after they ignored orders to leave.

Squatting on public land is common in Indian cities, where poor people often have nowhere else to live.

The authorities often let squatters stay because they are backed by powerful, well-connected people who offer politicians votes in return for leaving the squatters alone.

Mr Debashish Panda, the principal home secretary in Uttar Pradesh state, where Mathura is located, told Reuters that the police had initially responded to gunshots with tear gas and rubber bullets but returned fire when the two police officers, including a superintendent, were killed.

Other officials said it was not immediately clear how the squatters were killed. Domestic media reported that at least 11 died in a blaze during the clashes.

Officials believe the squatters belong to a sect which media described as a self-styled revolutionary group with a bizarre list of demands including the axing of the position of prime minister, replacement of the Indian currency and cheap fuel.

The group emerged from among followers of a powerful religious figure who died four years ago, according to reports.

Uttar Pradesh police chief Javeed Ahmed told reporters at the scene the group had set fire to their tents before abandoning the camp after the clashes.

"Subsequent searches by the police revealed that the activists of the group ... had stored firearms and other weapons, including grenades," he said.

About 200 of the squatters were arrested.

The Uttar Pradesh chief minister ordered an inquiry.