BARWALA, India: Police discovered five bodies Wednesday after storming the ashram of a wanted guru in northern India where thousands of followers have been holed up for days, as a sixth supporter died in hospital.
The authorities made the discovery a day after they forced their way into the heavily guarded ashram northeast of New Delhi where they believe self-styled “godman” Rampal Maharaj, who is wanted on murder charges, is still hiding.
They found the bodies of four women and one 18-month-old child, director general of police SN Vashisht said. The child appeared to have died of natural causes but it was unclear how or when the four women lost their lives, he said.
Another woman apparently suffering from a heart condition died after being taken to hospital, Vashisht told reporters.
“All dead bodies have been sent to the hospital where they will undergo a post-mortem to ascertain the exact cause of their deaths,” he said.
Riot police on Tuesday stormed the ashram, which has been guarded by hundreds of followers for days after a court ordered the arrest of their guru on charges including conspiracy to murder.
Police used water cannon and tear gas on the followers, who were armed with stones, petrol bombs and other weapons, officers and television footage showed.
Thousands of followers poured out of the ashram overnight Tuesday, but police said they believed another 5,000 were still inside the inner sections of the compound sprawled over 4.8 hectares (12 acres).
“We have already saved around 10,000 lives and around another 5,000 people are inside. We will save their lives and arrest the wanted man,” Vashisht said.
Some who fled claimed they had been held inside against their will, while police claimed they had been used as human shields to protect the guru.
“What started as a trickle hasn’t yet stopped and we have dropped off around 10,000 people at nearby bus and train stations,” assistant police superintendent Jashandeep Singh said of the followers.
“The people who left the ashram mostly said that they were being held against their will, as a shield for the guru against any police action,” Singh told AFP from outside the ashram in Barwala town.
Police said they were checking those leaving the ashram in case Rampal, who considers himself an incarnation of the 15th-century mystic poet Kabir, was hiding in the crowd.
Police are seeking Rampal’s arrest after he repeatedly refused court orders to appear to answer charges including conspiracy to murder, inciting mobs and contempt of court.
They accuse Rampal of ordering his disciples to fire on villagers during clashes in 2006 in which one person was killed and scores injured.
Rampal, an engineer by trade whose website says the charges against him are “false“, says his disciples must obey his instructions and may not worship traditional gods or engage in “unnecessary charity.”
Several supporters said they had to fight their way out of the ashram, while others said they lost their children in the melee.
“I can’t trace my daughter who was with me inside the ashram... I somehow came out of the complex, but am very worried about her,” Roop Rani told Hindi news channel ABP.
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. -AFP