NEW DELHI- Hundreds of stone-throwing supporters of a controversial guru clashed Tuesday with police who tried to storm his fortified ashram and arrest him in northern India, an officer said.
Police fired water cannon and baton-charged devotees of the “godman”, who have spent days guarding the ashram outside Hisar city, some 175 kilometres (108 miles) north of the capital, the officer said.
The guru, 63-year-old Rampal Maharaj, has repeatedly defied court orders to appear to answer charges of conspiracy to murder, inciting mobs and contempt of court, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
“We were asked to arrest and produce him in court on Friday,” an assistant superintendent of police told AFP.
“When we went there, his supporters started hurling crude bombs and pelting stones at us. We were helpless,” the officer, who requested anonymity, told AFP by phone from Hisar.
“We had to open water cannons. There was some baton charging as well.”
Television footage showed chaotic scenes, with police firing tear gas at the supporters and bulldozers driving towards the ashram’s outer walls.
Supporters also fired several shots from inside the ashram, according to local media reports, although this could not be confirmed.
A police officer said it was unclear how many people have been injured, with reports of hundreds of devotees, including women and children, still holed up inside.
“We can’t say how many are injured at the moment. The situation is very serious, we are all at the ground,” deputy superintendent Amit Dahiya told AFP.
India has been rocked by a several scandals involving immensely popular self-styled “godmen” including one who was charged last year with sexually assaulting a schoolgirl.
For many Indians, “godmen” play an integral role in daily life. They say they offer them a pathway to enlightenment in return for spiritual devotion and often donations to their ashrams, temples and charity projects.
When Sathya Sai Baba, one of the most prominent Indian gurus, died in 2011, he was given a state funeral. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and huge crowds of followers paid their last respects.