Police question Indian guru after standoff arrest

Hindu Guru Police Raid
Hindu Guru Police Raid

NEW DELHI (AP) - Police on Friday started questioning an Indian guru after he was arrested at his sprawling ashram with more than 400 followers following a 10-day deadly standoff.

The self-styled guru Sant Rampal appeared in court in Chandigarh, Haryana state capital, on Thursday. The judge gave police five days to question him, said prosecutor Anupam Gupta.

Rampal had repeatedly ignored orders to answer a 2006 murder charge against him. Police have filed additional criminal charges against him and his supporters over the standoff that left six people dead and about 200 others injured.

For more than a week, Rampal's followers, some of whom were armed, had fought off riot police attempting to enter the fortified estate about 175 kilometers (110 miles) from New Delhi. On Wednesday, police managed to get in and took him away in an ambulance.

Police were investigating the deaths of six people during the standoff.

Nearly 15,000 supporters of the 63-year-old Rampal were evacuated from the compound. Another 4,000 left the ashram on Thursday as police took over the complex and began searching the area, said S.N. Vashisht, the director-general of state police.

The guru's followers on Wednesday handed over the bodies of four women who apparently died inside the 12-acre (5-hectare) complex. Another woman and an 18-month-old child died in a hospital after leaving the ashram. The circumstances of the deaths were not clear and autopsies were being conducted.

Gurus and Hindu holy men are immensely popular in India, with millions of followers. People often consult them before making important personal decisions. But the enormous power wielded by the self-styled holy men has led to scandals in which they have been accused of exploiting devotees.

In September last year, another controversial spiritual guru, Asaram Bapu, was arrested on a rape charge filed by a teenage girl in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan. He is still in custody and facing a trial.

Vashisht said many of the thousands of people holed up with Rampal were held against their will or used as human shields to prevent police action.

Authorities had tried to flush out Rampal by cutting off electricity and water to the compound.

"They closed and locked the gates inside the compound and would not let us out," said Birender Satya, who had traveled from central India with his mother to listen to Rampal's preaching.

Rampal and 38 others have been charged with murder and other offenses after a clash between his supporters and another group killed one person in July 2006. He was freed on bail, which was canceled after his followers entered a courtroom and threatened lawyers in July.

Since 2010, Rampal, a former engineer, has ignored 43 court summonses, seeking exemptions each time. The court set a final deadline for him to appear in court on Monday, which he ignored.

His supporters said he was too ill to make the 250-kilometer (155-mile) journey from his ashram to the court in Chandigarh.