Self-styled guru Rampal has skipped court hearings more than 40 times since 2010 (file photo)
Haryana Police have finally arrested controversial religious leader Rampal from his ashram in Hisar with the violent standoff ending on Wednesday night. But the two days of confrontation between thousands of Rampal supporters and the police could have been avoided if the state administration had taken action earlier.
The self-styled guru is a former engineer who claims to be an incarnation of 15th century Sufi mystic Kabir.
Rampal was out on bail in a 2006 murder case, but his bail was cancelled in July after his supporters entered a courtroom and threatened lawyers. Rampal's website claims 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 in a contempt case. Rampal's supporters had claimed he was too ill to make the 250-km journey from his ashram to Chandigarh.
The High Court issued non-bailable warrants against Rampal three times since November 5, and pulled up the state government for not enforcing the warrant. Finally on Monday the High Court set a deadline for the government to produce him in court by Friday. This forced the administration to move against Rampal on Tuesday, leading to clashes in Hisar between Rampal's followers and policemen. His supporters threw stones and opened fire when police tried to raid his ashram.
According to the Hindustan Times, the Haryana government failed to contain the situation in several ways:
First of all, there was a complete intelligence failure. Police had no definitive idea about the number of people, firearms and petrol bombs inside the heavily-fortified ashram. It also failed to read Rampal’s followers’ defiant mood when it tried to arrest him on Tuesday.
The district administration failed to stop the build-up of weapons and people even after the High Court’s non-bailable warrants against Rampal on November 5. The sect announced a three-day religious discourse on November 7-9, which allowed disciples, including women and children, to congregate inside the ashram and be used as a human shield.
The Haryana government showed a lack of political will with no effective back channel of negotiations to defuse the confrontation.
When the initial operations went haywire in the face of stiff resistance from the followers entrenched inside the ashram, policemen allegedly assaulted journalists outside the ashram, reportedly injuring several of them and breaking their equipment.
Nevertheless, the government showed it meant business by announcing on Wednesday that the operations would continue until the religious leader was arrested. Police also slapped sedition charges on the 63-year-old guru and several of his followers, and ruled out any negotiations.
In the face of hardening political resolve, the resistance finally caved and the police succeeded in arresting Rampal inside the ashram.
The bodies of four women and a child were subsequently found at the site. A fifth woman, aged 20, died at a local hospital after leaving the ashram. The causes of their deaths have not been revealed. Police say the bodies did not "bear any injuries".
Of the thousands of people inside the ashram, many were devotees who had come to attend the monthly satsang, or prayer gathering, at the ashram and had been caught in the standoff.