After days of stubborn resistance that turned Haryana’s Barwala town into a war zone, controversial religious leader Rampal was arrested from his fortified ashram in a late-night swoop Wednesday, ending a two-week-long tense stand-off during which six people died.
He was picked up by a team of senior police officials and commandos from Satlok Ashram complex in Barwala around 9.20pm, and taken to a nearby police station in an ambulance that was part of a convoy of 10 vehicles.
The operation was “very tough” since the forces had to deal with a hostile army of his “commandos”, PTI quoted Haryana police chief SN Vashisht as saying.
The 63-year-old is likely to be produced in the Punjab and Haryana high court Thursday, a day before the court’s deadline for the state government to produce him in a contempt case ends. Arrest warrants were issued against the ashram head for contempt after he failed to appear in a 2006 murder case.
As Barwala turned into a battlefield following clashes between Rampal's followers and policemen, the breakthrough came on a day Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar said the operations would continue until the religious leader was arrested.
"The mission (to arrest) has been completed successfully," IANS quoted Jawahar Yadav, officer on special duty to Khattar, as saying.
Not much resistance was offered by Rampal's supporters and his so-called 'private army' when he was finally taken into custody, a police officer told IANS. A source said Rampal's face was covered with a cloth when he was brought out.
As the news of his arrest started doing the rounds, a section of Barwala residents erupted in joy, with yongsters hitting the streets and dancing to drum beats. They started shouting slogans of “Haryana police zindabad”. A few policemen also joined them.
Police plan to clear and seal the ashram complex Thursday morning.
Earlier in the day, police slapped sedition charges on Rampal, a former engineer who says he's a devotee of Sufi mystic Kabir, and several of his followers while ruling out any negotiations.
Nearly 270 of Rampal's supporters, including 20 key functionaries of his ashram, and 250 members of his private army were detained after the fresh charges, including that of rioting, were invoked against them under Indian Penal Code.
By evening, a large posse of CRPF personnel were brought to the periphery of the ashram. The Centre had also sent 500 paramilitary personnel to help the operations amid an Intelligence Bureau (IB) report that fresh trouble was brewing.
Clashes had erupted in Hisar Tuesday as the Haryana government moved in to arrest Rampal to meet the Friday deadline set by the Punjab and Haryana high court for producing him in a contempt case.
Rampal was out on bail in a 2006 murder case, but it was cancelled in July after his supporters entered a court room and threatened lawyers. Rampal's website says the charges against him are "false".
The Punjab and Haryana high court had issued non-bailable warrants against Rampal three times since November 5. He was wanted on a series of charges including conspiracy to murder.
He has skipped court hearings more than 40 times since 2010, and most recently did not appear before the Punjab and Haryana high court again in the contempt case. Rampal's supporters had claimed he was too ill to make the 250-km journey from his ashram to the court in Chandigarh.
Casualties at ashram
Police discovered Wednesday five bodies at Rampal's ashram where thousands of people were holed up for days.
Authorities evacuated more than 10,000 people from the heavily guarded ashram on the outskirts of Hisar, but some 4,000 followers were still inside till Wednesday evening.
“Over 1,000 disciples are still holed up inside the ashram complex. We have allowed them a clear passage and waiting for them to come out voluntarily,” an SP-rank officer told HT after Rampal's arrest, requesting anonymity.
Police found the bodies of four women and one 18-month-old child, who appeared to have died of natural causes, but it was unclear how or when the four women lost their lives, police said. Another woman apparently suffering from a heart condition died after being taken to hospital.
"There were no bullet or other injury marks on the dead. The police have not yet entered the ashram. The autopsy will reveal the cause of deaths," said director general of police Vashisht.
Police, during their raid on Tuesday, had used water cannon and tear gas on the followers, who were armed with stones, petrol bombs and other weapons.
Narrating their sufferings
Many of those who managed to leave the ashram Wednesday narrated how they were prevented by Rampal's 'private army' .
"We had come to the ashram for a 'satsang' (religious gathering) a few days back. Later, we were asked to stay back and were not allowed to come out. The private commandos said that we will be safe inside and will be provided with food. However, we persisted that we needed to go out to get some medicines and somehow managed to come out this morning," Birender, a resident of Gwalior, who came out of the ashram in a group that included his mother, told reporters.
He claimed that while a "few thousand" followers of the engineer-turned-religious leader had managed to come out of the ashram since Tuesday, "a huge number, which could run into thousands, are still inside".
A middle-aged female follower from Uttar Pradesh said, "Many women with babies as young as two years old were also inside".
She added that ration supplies were running "very low" inside the ashram.
(with agency inputs)