Chandigarh: A much delayed move by the Haryana government to use force to arrest controversial sect leader Rampal from his Satlok Ashram near Barwala Tuesday turned violent with his followers fighting pitched battles with security forces to prevent them from entering the ashram premises.

The whole area around the ashram resembled a battlefield.

Hundreds of people, including nearly 110 policemen, were injured as sect followers fired openly at the police, lobbed petrol bombs and acid pouches, besides hurling stones and bricks outside the ashram in Haryana’s Hisar district.

Ashram spokesman Raj Kapoor claimed that four women were killed in the police operation.

Haryana Director General of Police S.N. Vashisht denied the claim, saying: “No deaths have occurred in the (police) operation. A total of 109 policemen were injured.”

“Innocent people inside are being held hostage,” Vashisht said.

The police action came after a stand-off of nearly 10 days. The police launched the operation Tuesday afternoon to arrest the self-styled godman and produce him in the Punjab and Haryana High Court which has issued non-bailable warrants against him.

The 23-day-old BJP government in Haryana led by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar drew flak from various quarters for its inept handling of the Rampal episode. The Khattar government allowed hundreds of followers of the sect to assemble at the ashram over the last few days, before launching the operation to arrest Rampal.

Sect followers, who were shielded in the front by women and children, rained missiles from the rooftop of the ashram complex whose outer walls are about 25 feet tall.

Minor explosions were heard as petrol bombs were thrown when police in large numbers tried to enter the ashram. Sect followers set on fire a JCB excavator which had been brought to the site by security forces to break a wall of the ashram complex. Other vehicles were also set on fire or damaged.

Smoke could be seen on the roof of the ashram. A sect spokesman claimed, however, that Rampal was not in the complex and that he was in a hospital outside Haryana.

Police fired tear gas and used water cannons against the hundreds of followers.

Several media persons covering the stand-off and clash were injured when the police carried out an unprovoked attack on them. The cameras of many journalists were broken.

Haryana DGP S.N. Vashisht said the police attack on the media would be “looked into” after the operation against the ashram gets over.

“There was no intention or operational compulsion to attack the media. We will investigate and take action. It was easiest for us not to allow the media near the ashram. We permitted 86 reporters to reach the spot,” he said.

“We were taken ahead by the police itself and were covering the clash from a distance. Suddenly, the police came from behind us and attacked all journalists. The police attacked journalists with sticks mercilessly. Many were injured and cameras were broken or taken away,” said one journalist, who has been covering the stand-off outside the ashram for over one week.

The Broadcast Editors Association (BEA) said that the attack on the journalists looked “pre-meditated”.

“Till we arrest this criminal, we will not relent. Petrol bombs, stones, acid pouches and bricks were hurled (at security forces),” Vashisht said.

Asked about the whereabouts of Rampal, he said: “Our information is that Rampal is inside the ashram. Our strategy is to take out the baba (Rampal) and save the women and children.”

A number of followers had started leaving the ashram premises Tuesday morning before the police operation started. They claimed that they had been “forced” to stay inside the premises by the ashram authorities. The followers were from Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

Police sources said over 20,000 security personnel, including the Central Reserve Police Force, Rapid Action Force and Haryana Police, had ringed the ashram complex, which is spread over 12 acres of land.

Hundreds of Rampal followers, including women and children, have been camping outside his ashram for nearly a fortnight in a bid to prevent security forces from entering the complex.

The sect leader has been avoiding arrest and has failed to appear before the Punjab and Haryana High Court although non-bailable warrants were issued against him Nov 5.

Rampal’s supporters had indulged in vandalism in a court in Hisar in July this year when he was going there in connection with a 2006 murder conspiracy case. The high court took suo motu notice of the incident and summoned Rampal.

Supporters of the sect leader held a protest in New Delhi Tuesday and demanded a CBI probe into the allegations against him.

A five-member team of supporters also met President Pranab Mukherjee and submitted a memorandum requesting a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation.