Police discovered five bodies on Wednesday after storming controversial religious leader Rampal's ashram in Haryana where thousands of people have been holed up for days, but failed to arrest him following two days of a dramatic operation because of fears of violent retaliation by followers.
Authorities evacuated more than 10,000 people from the heavily guarded Satlok Ashram on the outskirts of Hisar, but some 4,000 followers were still inside where, sources said, they were running out of food and water. Police said they could not launch a full-scale assault because devotees were using women and children as human shields.
"We cannot launch a full-scale assault as many innocents are still trapped inside. More than 10,000 have come out safely so far and police have managed to save many lives," said state director general of police SN Vashisht.
Police have slapped sedition charges on 63-year-old Rampal, a former engineer who says he's a devotee of Sufi mystic Kabir, and several of his followers while ruling out any negotiations with him. Purushhotam Das, a close aide of Rampal, was arrested outside the ashram on Wednesday, the second day of a police operation to hunt for the religious leader.
Nearly 270 of Rampal's supporters, including 20 key functionaries of his ashram, and 250 members of his private army have been detained after the fresh charges, including that of rioting, were invoked.
Security forces tried to raid the ashram on Tuesday to arrest Rampal, who is wanted on a series of charges including conspiracy to murder, but were thwarted by his supporters who fired with country-made weapons from inside. Police used water cannon and tear gas on the followers, who were armed with stones, petrol bombs and other weapons.
Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar said the operation would continue until Rampal was arrested. "Serious charges of sedition against Rampal & several followers by Haryana Police. Operations to continue till he is arrested from Ashram," he tweeted. "Govt. & Police are committed to ensure strict compliance of High Court orders, priority is to uphold the law without loss of innocent lives," he said in a second tweet.
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.
The dead have been identified as Savita, 31, of Delhi, Santosh, 45, of Rohtak, Raj Bala, 70, of Bijnore and Malikit Kaur, 50, of Sangrur in Punjab.
Twenty-year-old Rajni was rushed to Hisar hospital from the ashram at around 4am with heart ailment, but died four hours later.
Vashisht said the deaths did not occur in Tuesday's police action which came after Rampal evaded arrest, even though the Punjab and Haryana high court has issued non-bailable warrants against him three times since November 5.
"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," Vashisht said.
A home ministry official said the Centre was sending 500 paramilitary personnel to Haryana to deal with the law and order situation at Satlok Ashram, a sprawling 12-acre compound which suffered huge damage after police breached a human chain of men, women and children in a bid to arrest Rampal.
"We are mobilising the force from nearby areas and they will reach the spot soon," an official said.
As the standoff continued, an Intelligence Bureau report warned of more violence if police tried to arrest Rampal, saying the situation at the ashram continued to be tense.
"There is all likelihood of further violence in case police attempt to get the ashram vacated and arrest Rampal," the report said. "In view of apprehension of retaliation by the inmates of the ashram, there is need for police to tread cautiously."
Vashisht said Rampal was still inside the ashram and asserted that police will continue its "operation".
"There is no possibility of negotiations... There is not even any plan. He is accused of serious crimes. My suggestion to him is that he should surrender before the law," Vashisht said, while addressing a press conference in Chandigarh.
Tensions rose after Haryana's top court rapped the state government on Monday for failing to arrest Rampal who has repeatedly defied court orders to appear before it on charges of conspiracy to murder, inciting mobs and contempt of court.
The standoff took a violent turn on Tuesday as the Haryana government moved in to arrest Rampal to meet a 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".
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 a contempt of court case. Rampal's supporters say he is too ill to make the 250-km journey from his ashram to the court in Chandigarh.
Narrating their sufferings
Many of those who managed to leave the ashram narrated how they were prevented by the 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.