As night descends on Barwala in Haryana’s Hisar district, an uneasy truce has been called. The supporters of “godman” Sant Rampal — many of them armed with guns and petrol bombs — are hunkered down in his ashram. Just across the narrow road, 4,000 security personnel are waiting. After waging a pitched battle for four hours, the two groups seem to have suspended operations till daybreak. The security personnel are waiting to arrest Rampal and produce him in court, while his followers are determined to stop them.
Read live updates: Godman Rampal’s supporters clash with police
A little over 15 minutes into the truce, one of Rampal’s followers breaks ranks and walks. hesitatingly, towards the security barricade. As he steps over spent tear gas shells, broken bottles and stones, the security forces erupt in cheer. They applaud his every step. Police standing close to the ashram call out to others to follow suit. Minutes later, another man sneaks out of the ashram. This continues, till at least 60 have left the ashram.
“I came from Jaipur on November 7. Every day, they would ask us to stay at the ashram for one more day. In the last two days, they prevented us from leaving, and threatened that the police would kill us,” said Mani Ram, one of those who left.
All through Tuesday afternoon, security forces laid siege to the 12-acre ashram, forcibly removing supporters and tearing down walls and barricades with bulldozers. Rampal’s supporters retaliated with gunshots and crude fire bombs. A four-hour operation and several injuries later, Rampal was nowhere to be found. His supporters claimed he was never inside the ashram.
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But Haryana DGP S N Vashisht said Rampal was still in the ashram. The ashram’s spokesperson, Raj Kapur, claimed otherwise. “Baba Rampal has already been shifted out of the ashram and is undergoing treatment in a private hospital outside the state,” he said.
At the Hisar railway station, at least 50 women, who were taken away from the ashram by the police earlier, are waiting. “We wanted to leave earlier but couldn’t. When the police came today, we were sitting outside the ashram. They picked us up. But I can’t leave because my husband and two children are inside. The women and children are being made to sit outside the ashram in shifts so that the police don’t attack.
The ashram people have purposely separated families to make it harder for us to leave. I will stay here until they come out safely,” said Laxmi, a resident of Gonda. The police have cordoned off the railway station.
Many women claimed the ashram officials had tried to prevent them from leaving. “I came for his satsang on November 7, but wanted to leave when the situation worsened. I wanted some medicines from the polyclinic, but it has run out of supplies. The men didn’t let us leave although there was no food. Children are suffering inside because of the number of people — over 20,000. They also threatened that the Baba would not bless us,” said Dhanno Devi.
Using women and children as “human shields” for the last week or so was only the first of the many tactics adopted by Rampal’s supporters. In fact, they put up such a strong resistance on Tuesday that despite the four-hour siege, not a single policeman could enter the ashram. The administration only succeeded in removing the front gate. As night fell, the police suspended all operations. Sources said they would intensify their efforts on Wednesday.
After the Punjab and Haryana High Court issued a fresh non-bailable warrant against Rampal on Monday, security personnel were brought in through the night, in preparation for an assault on the ashram on Tuesday afternoon. With their own “commandos” armed with sticks, crude petrol bombs and even guns, Rampal’s supporters watched as the police closed in on Tuesday morning.
Police officials said many ashram inmates were firing from weapons intermittently. Two policemen suffered bullet injuries. “According to the information we have, they have made 120 weapon trenches along the windows, from which they are firing local weapons, as well as .315 calibre rifles. Two personnel have been hit by bullets so far and have been rushed to hospital,” said a CID officer assisting in the operation.
According to the DGP, at least 105 police personnel were injured on the first day of the crackdown. He said 85 followers of the ashram also sustained injuries, including a woman who suffered burns. In addition, nearly a dozen mediapersons sustained injuries following the alleged assault by police personnel, who reportedly broke some of their cameras and mobile phones.
While the DGP denied any casualty, Raj Kapur claimed, “There are eight bodies lying inside the ashram, of which four are women. It is only because of the barbaric action initiated by the police that innocent people have lost their lives”.
Denying this, Vashisht said: “We have ensured that no innocent person is harmed. So far, no such casualty has come to our notice”.
Police officers said they would continue to “put pressure” on people to leave, and said it was unlikely that “they would attempt to enter the ashram at night”.
“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. We can’t take risks at night, though we are not ruling out anything. What is complicating the situation is that the surrounding villages, who are against Rampal, are also becoming increasingly agitated and want to get involved,” said a senior CRPF officer.