Stake Out

The rogue godman of Hisar

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The high voltage drama at Barwala town ended with Rampal’s arrest and crowds of dismayed followers
He called himself Jagat Guru and an incarnation of Kabir, and in discourses to followers, said that to reap the benefits of true bhakti, they must have faith, patience and follow rules. When it came to saving his own skin, those words went out of the saintly window. Sant Rampal, as his followers call him, is yet another godman who decided that he was only beholden to himself, and that his followers were merely a sacrifice towards that end. The 11-day standoff between the Haryana Police and Rampal, at the fortress-like Satlok Ashram situated on the outskirts of Barwala town in Hisar district, ended with his surrender at 9.15 pm on 19 November. A day before his arrest, however, a massive showdown took place between the Haryana police and Rampal’s private army, called Baba’s Commandos. They fired bullets, threw petrol bombs and even hurled acid pouches at the police who had arrived to arrest their guru. The tragedy is that six people lost their lives in the face-off— including five women and one infant— before Rampal gave himself up.

We reach Barwala at midnight on 18 November to find a deserted town. The silence of the dark is only broken by the sirens of police vans roaming this small city just 200 km from Delhi. Checkposts stop every vehicle, only allowing them past after the occupants are thoroughly frisked. As we near the Ashram, the signs of the desperate war called by the godman become readily apparent. On both sides of the road are hundreds of vehicles, all destroyed or damaged; luxury SUVs, media OB Vans, small cars, buses, all of them mere shells of themselves. About 700 metres from the Ashram, the police have blocked the highway going to Chandigarh and Ambala. These barriers are pulled aside only for police vehicles to enter or leave the Ashram.

Ram Chander Panchal, who runs an ironworks shop in Sonepat, is waiting a hundred metres away from the barricade. His wife Kavita, daughter Sapna, and his son-in-law had arrived four days ago to participate in a Satsang. Panchal has no news of them. After watching what happened here on TV, he had left for Barwala in the evening. “My family follows Sant Rampal. They regularly come here,” he says. “We call him God but no God would use his followers to protect himself.” He checks every bus that emerges from the Ashram, asking for news of his family.

The police are relentlessly flushing people out of the Ashram. “There are more than 10,000 inside. We are trying to ensure they safely return to their homes,” says a police officer involved in the operation. At 2 am this night, Barwala Railway Station is swarming. There is no train until 5 in the morning, and families with children and elderly folk sit huddled together. Every ten minutes, another police-escorted bus arrives and a hundred more descend from it. A police constable stands at the gate and releases them one by one while video capturing it on his mobile phone. “Every person is being searched before taking the bus,” he says. As soon as the bus stops, people run towards it in the hope of finding family members.

“Is Akhilesh in the bus?” shouts Guddi, a mother with three children who had come to the Ashram four days ago from Delhi, along with her husband Akhilesh and their children. While they were boarding a bus, the police took Akhilesh away. “He called me half an hour ago to say that he has been taken to the police station. His cellphone was switched off after that. Where would I go without him with my kids?” she asks. Since the police had not been able to enter the Ashram, they were interrogating young people about the situation inside.

“We were requesting Baba’s men to let us go, but they threatened us, ‘If you go outside, police will kill you’. They locked all of us in,” says Kunam Chand, a farmer from Churu, Rajasthan, who had come with his wife, one-and-a-half-year old son, elder mother and sisters. “Some people were throwing stones outside. Some even asked me to join them. I told them, ‘Even if I die, I will go out,’ and came towards the gate.” The police rescued them.

Some of them are angry with the police, like 36-year-old Priya Lamba from Jammu. “I am yet to figure out what heinous crime our guru has done that the government is torturing us. I was very ill and not able to sleep properly for the last five years,” she says. “Ever since I visited the Ashram in July, with his blessings, I can properly sleep now. He is God to me.”

Within half an hour, the small station runs out of space. Ram Murti, the sub- inspector in charge of the Government Railway Police at Barwala, has to call the Railway SP and IG of Police to divert the vehicles to the nearby Jind and Hisar railway stations. Interestingly, no one who comes out of the Ashram can confirm having seen Rampal inside. “It was only his VCDs playing on large screens. We did not see him,” says Kunam Chand. But the cops are sure Rampal is still holed up inside.

At the end, the police recovered six dead bodies from the Ashram: five women and one child. “All this has happened because of one person who hardly cares about the life of any other person. He will be dealt with in the strongest possible way,” said SN Vashisht Haryana’s Director General of Police S N Vashisht

It took 15 years for Rampal to reach a level where, using a wide support base that extends to nearby states, he could hold law-and-order in Haryana to ransom for half a month. A junior engineer in the state government, he was born to a family of farmers in Thanana village, Sonepat. There is no clarity on whether he resigned, as he claims, or was dismissed because of carelessness in work. But while in government service, he came in touch with one Swami Ramdevanand and became his disciple. He started giving religious discourses on his own, and by 1999 had become famous enough to start his own ashram in Rohtak. His fame grew in several districts of Haryana. His discourses were mainly the writings of Kabir, the 15th century poet whose reincarnation he claimed to be.

His present troubles began in July 2006 when he made derogatory remarks about Swami Dayanand Saraswati of the Arya Samaj. A clash between his supporters and Arya Samaj followers resulted in one death. He was booked for murder with 24 others and arrested. After being released on bail, he shifted his base from Rohtak to Barwala in Hisar. The 12-acre ashram has been his fort since then. In April 2008, the Punjab and Haryana High Court granted him an exemption from making an appearance at the Rohtak court, allowing him to depose before it via video conferencing from the Hisar court in July this year. His supporters nonetheless created a ruckus, and after both the Hisar and Rohtak courts took the matter to the High Court, contempt proceedings were initiated against Rampal and his close aide Ram Kanwar. Despite 42 court orders, the two did not bother to answer summons. On 5 November, the court issued a non-bailable warrant against him. His lawyer claimed that he was unwell but it didn’t stop the court reissuing the warrant twice—on 10 and 17 November.

While Rampal enjoys great support in Haryana and other states, he has few followers among locals in Barwala. “You won’t find any local person visiting his Ashram,” says Nek Chand, a tea stall owner. “They all come from nearby states. We don’t consider him a saint.” On 18 November, when the clash took place, a meeting of 15 villages around Barwala town had ended with a decision to support the police. The night he was arrested, locals celebrated, with people dancing in the streets.

What Rampal leaves behind are many confused followers; some still vehement in their faith, others with profound doubt. His website says: ‘Do not criticize your Guru even by mistake, nor hear it. To hear means if someone says false things about your Guru Ji, then you do not have to fight, rather should think that he is speaking without thinking i.e. is telling a lie.’ Those taking this advice will be a lot less now.