Indian police arrested controversial self-styled "godman" Sant Rampal on murder charges on Wednesday, following a day of clashes at his ashram during which five women and a baby were found dead and hundreds were left injured.
Security forces detained the guru in a raid following a tense week-long standoff and an earlier aborted attempt to storm the compound which resulted in heavy fighting with his supporters. He is now expected to be charged with crimes including rioting, arson, contempt of court, and waging war against the state.
Violence had broken out on Tuesday as police tried to move in on the complex, located in the northern state of Haryana. Another 500 paramilitary troops were rushed to the state as reinforcements on Wednesday.
Water cannons and tear gas were fired by police, while the guru's supporters responded by throwing rocks, petrol bombs, and bags of acid. Attempts to break through a wall were halted because of a fear that it was loaded with explosives.
The bodies of four women were handed over to authorities on Wednesday morning. Another woman was rushed to hospital, but died during treatment. The final confirmed casualty was an 18-month-old baby.
Police said they did not consider the deaths to have resulted from the violence. "We believe they were sick and died because of lack of medical attention on time," regional administrative commissioner M.L. Kaushik said.
63-year-old Rampal has frequently been described as a "self-styled godman." His website says that if devotees follow his instructions "all of their miseries disappear and they attain peace of mind." In a long list of instructions "for those who want to become disciples," it states that criticizing the guru, singing and dancing, and unnecessary charity are all prohibited.
He was wanted in relation to a 2006 murder, a case in which he is accused of ordering his supporters to open fire on villagers, killing one and injuring six. A judge issued a warrant for the guru's arrest last week after he allegedly ignored 43 separate court summonses to date. His lawyers said he was too ill to attend the most recent court hearings — scheduled for November 5 and November 10.
DNA India reported that 15,000 followers were initially congregated within the 12-acre compound, and that 5,000 still remained inside after several thousand left the area on Wednesday morning. At least 270 people were arrested — charged with crimes including rioting, illegal detention, and waging war against the state.
Some of those who escaped told AP that they had been held as human shields against their will. "They closed and locked the gates inside the compound and would not let us out," said Birender Satya, a man who had traveled from central India to hear Sant Rampal's preaching.
Shriniwas Vashisht, director-general of police in Haryana, said earlier on Wednesday that their operations would only end with Rampal's arrest, but added: "They know that we will not allow innocent women and children to be caught in the crossfire and they are taking advantage of that."
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, another Indian spiritual leader and the founder of The Art of Living, tweeted that he had tried to phone Rampal to "talk some sense," but "his secretary first agreed to connect and then kept disconnecting."
He added that it was important that spiritual leaders don't begin to believe they're above the law.
Sampal is now due to appear in court on Thursday.
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