Indian police search ashram of godman for explosives after bloody stand-off

Indian police keep watch as followers of self-styled 'godman' Rampal Maharaj leave the ashram at Barwala in the district of Hisar, some 175 kilometres (108 miles) north of New Delhi on Nov 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Indian police keep watch as followers of self-styled 'godman' Rampal Maharaj leave the ashram at Barwala in the district of Hisar, some 175 kilometres (108 miles) north of New Delhi on Nov 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

BARWALA, India (AFP) - Indian police were Thursday 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.

Police arrested self-styled "godman" Rampal Maharaj late Wednesday, more than 24 hours after they stormed the heavily guarded ashram in northern Haryana state using water cannon, tear gas and batons.

Around 100 devotees were injured in clashes with police, who found the bodies of four women and a child inside the ashram on Wednesday, although it remains unclear how they died.

A sixth follower died after being taken to hospital apparently suffering from a heart condition.

Rampal said he regretted the deaths, but denied police allegations he used his followers as human shields.

"I did not use them (as shields). They were acting on their own," he told reporters after being taken into police custody.

Rampal, who faces a series of charges including conspiracy to murder, barricaded himself into the ashram guarded by devotees armed with stones, petrol bombs and other weapons after a court issued a warrant for his arrest.

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 told AFP.

"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."

Police believe around 2,000 followers are still inside the 4.8-hectare compound, and officers using loudspeakers on Thursday urged them to come out.

Haryana Chief Minister M.L. Khattar said no one had died as a result of the police operation, although around 100 people are 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.

Thousands of people have poured out of the ashram since the police forced their way in on Tuesday, many saying they were held there against their will.

Jawan Singh said he had gone into the ashram in the hope that Rampal could cure his chronic back pain, but devotees prevented him from leaving.

"I came here hoping that I'll get healed. Instead it was a war-like situation here," the 34-year-old told AFP from the window of a bus that was 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." 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 clashes in 2006 in which one person was killed and scores injured.

Rampal, a former engineer who considers himself an incarnation of the 15th-century mystic poet Kabir, denies the charges.

He is due to appear before a judge later Thursday facing fresh charges of contempt of court, criminal conspiracy, illegal detention, rioting, obstructing government authorities and sedition.

Rampal claims his hundreds of thousands of followers across India have had chronic illnesses cured and "ruined families have again become prosperous" by devoting themselves to his teachings.

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".

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. They say they offer a pathway to enlightenment in return for spiritual devotion and often give donations to ashrams, temples and charity projects.