The operation to arrest Sant Rampal after flushing out his supporters from the Satlok Ashram in Haryana’s Hisar district began around 12:10pm on Tuesday following the directive of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. However, police failed to enter the Ashram premises despite a four-hour long operation during which the Ashram’s 20-feet-long boundary wall was breached. The operation was finally suspended midway owing to risk of explosion in an underground LPG dump in the area.
The stand-off left at least 105 police personnel and 85 followers of Sant Rampal injured. While two of the injured policemen received gunshot injuries, a woman follower of the Sant sustained burns. The injured were admitted to Hisar’s civil hospital and a few of them were discharged after first-aid. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar called an emergency meeting of officers and took stock of the situation.
Meanwhile, electricity, water and ration supply to the ashram remains cut-off. “Despite the fact that there were children inside, we had to take this step. All the roads leading to the ashram have been sealed. We shall not pull back till we capture Rampal”, said P K Mahapatra, Additional Chief Secretary (Home).
Haryana police chief S N Vashisht said the operation would continue till Rampal is arrested. “This morning, we received a phone call informing that a large number of followers were forcibly held hostage by Rampal’s ‘commandos’. The call’s authenticity was verified and it was found to be genuine. A case was also registered in this regard. During the operation, we provided safe passage to a large number of devotees and 10 buses filled with (the Sant’s) followers were dispatched from the Ashram to safe locations”.
While Vashisht claimed no casualty took place, Ashram spokesperson Raj Kapur said: “Eight bodies, including those of four women, are lying inside the ashram. Because of the barbaric action initiated by the police, innocent people have lost lives”. Vashisht refuted Kapur’s allegations. “We have ensured that no innocent is harmed. So far, no such casualty has come to our notice,” the DGP said.
At 1:20pm, the advancing policemen had to retreat in haste following a ‘warning’ from the Ashram. A voice blaring from loudspeakers said the Sant’s supporters were ready to shoot. “Hat jao. Aur paas aoge to goliyaan chalengi. Sat Guru Maharaj Rampal ki jai,” it said. Impeded by their own inability to shoot back, police retreated into the fields next to the ashram. However, they advanced again, amid loud explosions from teargas shells, gunshots, and crude bombs.
Senior police officers in charge of the operation told the Indian Express that it was proving difficult to advance because the Sant’s supporters had a “height advantage”. “It seems they have been preparing for this battle for a long time and have an endless supply of stones and bricks. All of this is coming down at us from the first and second floors of the ashram. Our tear gas cannot reach there, and because we are not firing back, our forces are finding it difficult to advance,” a senior DSP-level officer said.
Giving details of the operation, Vashisht said: “As per our information, armed men trained by retired army and police officers are present inside the ashram. These men, who call themselves Rampal’s commandos, have licensed arms and ammunition. Most commandos, dressed in black and sporting a black bandana, were also armed with shields”.
Intelligence sources also said members of the ashram were using wet sand to diffuse tear gas shells, and many were flung back at the police. “We tried to enter the ashram by breaking a 20-feet wall, but had to suspend the plan because followers started throwing petrol bombs at us. We found there was an LPG dump underground and the petrol bombs can trigger a blast.Thus, we changed our strategy”, Vashisht added.
When police launched the strike at noon, they were stopped by around 50 supporters of the Sant, who poured diesel on themselves and threatened the policemen with self-immolation. “A few of these men were also holding mashaals in their hands. Thus, we started with water canons. Not even a single person could self-immolate,” Vashisht said.
Regarding the security personnel’s next step, a senior CRPF official said: “It is most likely that we will try to enter the ashram in the morning. There are still thousands of supporters inside, many of whom are innocent and risks can’t be taken at night, though we are not ruling out anything. What is complicating the situation is that villages nearby, who are against Rampal for his stand against idol worship and the Arya Samaj are also becoming increasingly agitated and want to get involved.”
Several mediapersons were injured in Tuesday’s face-off between police and Sant Rampal’s supporters. This apart, cameras of many private electronic news channels were broken. “Earlier I got two phone calls that they (mediapersons) were stopped from entering the operational area. There were 86 reporters and I permitted each one of them inside. It has been brought to my notice that some mediapersons were injured in the stone pelting…I have seen on news that one was beaten up by police. I assure you that the matter will be investigated,” DGP said.
Press Council condemns
Press Council of India chairperson Justice Markandey Katju condemned the alleged police action against mediapersons and sought a thorough probe. “Media freedom is a guaranteed fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Therefore the attack by the police on mediapersons in Hisar is totally unacceptable in a democracy,” Katju said, adding that police personnel found responsible for the act should be punished. ENS