Indian police clash with armed followers of wanted 'godman'
Security officials drag an activist along the ground in Hisar, some 175kms north of New Delhi, on November 18, 2014, during a confrontation between supporters of controversial guru Rampal Maharaj and security forces (AFP Photo/)

Hundreds of armed supporters of a controversial guru clashed Tuesday with baton-wielding riot police who tried to storm his fortified ashram and arrest him in northern India, officers said.


Police fired tear gas and water cannon at devotees of the self-styled "godman" who have spent days guarding the sprawling compound outside Hisar city, 175 kilometres (108 miles) north of New Delhi.

More than 100 officers have suffered bullet and other injuries at the compound in Haryana state where supporters of 63-year-old Rampal Maharaj are accused of using women and children as human shields.

"We had prior information that they had stones, petrol bombs, weapons, batons and sticks and acid pouches," director-general of police SN Vashisht told reporters in the nearby city of Chandigarh.

"The police tried to break down the wall of the ashram today because we believe that the people who are inside are not really supporters but are being used as human shields.

"We will not stop until we catch this criminal," he added.

Maharaj has repeatedly defied court orders to appear to answer charges including conspiracy to murder, inciting mobs and contempt of court, according to local media reports.

Television footage showed chaotic scenes, with police armed with sticks dragging away supporters, including women, and bulldozers driving towards the ashram's high outer walls.

- 'Private army' -

Devotees described scenes of panic inside the building, with some saying they were stopped from leaving by more senior supporters as police moved in, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency.

"There are so many people still inside and the vast majority of them want to leave. But they are not being allowed to leave," one woman who managed to flee told PTI.

Police have not yet located Maharaj but have surrounded the compound, vowing to continue the operation until he was arrested.

"We have also given an ultimatum to those holed inside that they can come out if they want to, they would be given a safe passage," Vashisht said.

Police in recent days have cut off water and electricity and blocked roads to prevent deliveries of food to the ashram to try to flush out the guru and his flock.

Ambulances were seen racing towards the ashram in the town of Barwala late Tuesday. Media were stopped from entering the area, an AFP photographer said.

The guru's counsel has cited ill health as a reason for his failure to appear three times in the High Court. But an official helping with the case accused him of openly defying the court.

"Baba Rampal (Maharaj) has raised a private army of supporters who are openly confronting with the police, the government and the administration," said Anupam Gupta, an "amicus curiae" (friend of the court) -- a party who offers information in a case.

"He has openly proclaimed that he is above the law and judicial systems," Gupta told reporters.

Supporters also protested in New Delhi to proclaim their leader's innocence, as police looked on.

"We expect nothing less than justice for our guru, who is innocent...he is just not someone who can do any of the things for which he is charged," said Nathu Lal at the protest in the centre of the capital.

Police accuse Maharaj of ordering his disciples to fire on villagers during clashes in 2006 in which one person was killed and scores injured.

India has been rocked by several scandals involving immensely popular "godmen", mostly Hindu ascetics who claim mystical powers. Last year one was charged with sexually assaulting a schoolgirl.

On his website Maharaj, an engineer by profession, says he follows the 15th-century mystic poet Kabir, who has many devotees in India and abroad.

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 donations to ashrams, temples and charity projects.