Rampal: The ashram that turned into a violent fort

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An ashram in northern India has seen pitched battles between thousands of supporters of a controversial Hindu guru and police trying to arrest their leader - but many are now trickling out, writes Atish Patel in Barwala town.

As you approach the vast Satlok Ashram in Barwala, in Haryana state, it is hard to miss the thick, beautiful mist shrouded around the trees and crops in the distance.

But edging closer you will see vehicles lying abandoned on the side of the road with their windows smashed and others tipped over.

There is one road that leads to the ashram and that has now been blocked by the police.

The vehicles were used by the guru's supporters to form a barricade outside the ashram's main gate and police had to use bulldozers to get past them.

On Tuesday, stone-throwing supporters of the self-styled guru, known as Rampal, fought pitched battles with police here.

Image copyright AFP

On Wednesday, police officers, dressed in riot gear and equipped with shields, were spread out across the farmland that surrounds the sprawling ashram.

The ground in front is littered with polythene bags, discarded clothes, papers, steel tumblers and even shoes - all testimony to the violence that has unfolded here.

Police say they believe Rampal is hiding somewhere in the imposing fortress-like ashram.

They want to arrest the 63-year-old guru who is on bail after being accused in a 2006 murder case. He faces contempt charges after failing to appear in court several times.

His followers have come from across India. Thousands are reported to still be inside the ashram to offer him protection and prevent his arrest, but slowly, many, fearing for their lives, are leaving.

Among them is Manoj Gothwal who travelled to the ashram from the western state of Gujarat with his sister, brother-in-law and nephew.

'Scared for our lives'

Mr Gothwal decided to make the visit to attend a series of spiritual classes led by Rampal.

"He [Rampal] says everyone is a good person and everyone is equal and we should respect all. That's something I liked about his teachings," he said.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rampal has tens of thousands of supporters

But as the situation at the ashram worsened with police closing in and a dwindling supply of food, Mr Gothwal and his family decided they wanted to leave. He made it out early Wednesday morning.

"We were scared for our lives when the police attacked yesterday [Tuesday] with tear gas," he said.

"People in the ashram were lying on the floor and children were crying. And I was asking myself, 'Will I live or die?'," he added.

I ask Mr Gothwal, who has been a Rampal devotee for about a year, if he plans to continue to be a Rampal follower.

"It's hard to tell right now," he says, but adds that his goal was to come to the ashram "for knowledge and to become a better person. And that's been achieved".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Thousands of supporters have left the ashram since Tuesday's violence

On Wednesday, as more devotees were driven away in police trucks from the ashram, locals in Barwala town clapped and cheered on the streets.

Rampal is not a popular figure in the town.

Krishna Kumar, a restaurant owner in the town, compares the guru to al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

"He's like Bin Laden, using violence in god's name," he said.

Others agree and say that unlike other spiritual leaders in India, he has done nothing for the local community.

"He's a thug. He's done nothing for us," said farmer Banaram, who goes by one name and has land neighbouring Rampal's huge compound.

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