India guru Rampal's supporters clash with police in Haryana

Indian police use batons and water cannon to disperse supporters Image copyright AP
Image caption Police used water cannon and batons to try and disperse the guru's supporters

Thousands of supporters of a controversial Hindu guru have clashed with police outside his ashram in the northern Indian state of Haryana.

The 63-year-old self-styled guru, known as Rampal, is on bail after being accused in a 2006 murder case.

But authorities ordered his arrest on contempt charges after he failed to appear in court several times.

In his sprawling Satlok Ashram in Barwala town, supporters formed human chains to prevent his arrest.

Police fired tear gas shells and used bulldozers to try to break into the ashram to get to Rampal. The guru's supporters threw stones and fired at the police, reports said.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Supporters of the guru tried to prevent police from entering the ashram
Image copyright AP
Image caption They built barricades and threw stones at the police, who responded with water cannon and tear gas
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Police officers led away the guru's devotees who refused orders to move

Indian television channels showed photos of injured supporters being taken away in police vehicles. Several reporters present at the scene were also injured.

"We had cut off the electricity and water connection to the centre. Our strategy was to take out the Baba [Rampal] and save the people inside the ashram," Haryana director general of police N Vashisth told reporters.

Mr Vashisth accused Rampal of using "women and children as human shields" and said people who were inside the ashram had been asked to leave.

"Police have sealed the ashram premises. Our operation would continue. I can't say whether it will end today or tomorrow, we will conclude our operation only after we have arrested Rampal," the police chief added.

Who is Rampal?

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Rampal began his life as a junior engineer in the irrigation department in Haryana after picking up a diploma in engineering, according to his website.

Born in a farming family, Rampal was apparently of a "religious nature since his childhood". He began giving talks to groups of people in 1994. Encouraged by a growing number of devotees, he set up the Satlok Ashram in 1999. The year after that Rampal resigned from his government job.

The guru now has tens of thousands of devotees in several Indian states who have "given up alcohol, marijuana, smoking, meat, egg, and social evils like idol worship... fasting etc, baseless reverences" after becoming his followers, his website says.

Rampal claims that "thousands of people have got their chronic illnesses cured" and "ruined families have become prosperous again" after coming in contact with him.

Rampal's website details a number of cases against the guru. They relate to allegedly fraudulent purchase of land, conflicts with some devotees and an alleged case of murder involving the death of a man at another ashram in Rohtak. They dismiss all of these cases as false and fabricated.

Rampal is a tech-savvy guru - his website contains live streaming discourses and offers downloads of a number of his religious books. The website also contains video entitled "God has descended to Haryana".

The Punjab and Haryana High Court had set a final deadline for Rampal to appear in court on Monday in the contempt case.

Rampal ignored the summons and his lawyers said he was too ill to make the 250km (155-mile) journey to the court in Chandigarh, which serves as the capital of both states.

The judges criticised the government saying they "lacked the will" to arrest the guru and said he must be presented at court by Friday.

The guru has been accused of involvement in a murder case dating from 2006 in which a man died in a clash at another of his ashrams. He denies these allegations.

Many in India have taken to social media to criticise the scenes of violence at the ashram. Author and journalist Minhaz Merchant accused the authorities of "disgraceful ineptitude and callousness".

Image copyright Twitter

But many others supported the authorities' efforts to arrest the guru.

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