A mysterious cult at the centre of deadly clashes in India was running its own pseudo-government, army, court and a prison where torture was the norm, a senior police officer said Saturday.
Some 3,000 followers of the sect clashed with police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh during an eviction operation, leaving 24 people dead, including two senior officers.
The secretive sect had occupied a 270-acre (109-hectare) stretch of parkland since late 2014, with the site almost entirely closed off to the outside world, the top police inspector general of the region said.
“They set up a township of sorts with all kinds of people. Gradually, they started running a self-government,” DC Mishra said, after officers seized documents and other evidence from the camp.
“They set up a court which pronounced punishments and jail barracks where inmates were tortured.”
“Children as young as eight years old were being given training in arms.”
Police in the city of Mathura came under fire overnight Thursday from members of the sect, who were armed with automatic weapons and hurled crude explosive devices during the violence.
Mishra said the cult was being run by self-styled Hindu godmen whose aim was to drive followers towards a kind of “religious terrorism”.
“They were also planning to come out with their own currency soon and they did not believe in the Indian constitution,” he said.
Later Saturday, the state police chief said Ram Vraksha Yadav, one of the key leaders of the Swadhin Bharat Vidhik Satyagrah sect, had died during the clashes Thursday.
“Yadav’s body identified by associates. Family intimated for final confirmation,” Javeed Ahmed tweeted.
In postings on social media, the sect’s followers describe themselves as political and social revolutionaries. Their demands include the abolition of elections and cheaper fuel for everyone.
In several videos posted on YouTube, Yadav can be seen pledging allegiance to Indian independence hero Subhash Chandra Bose and the Azad Hind Fouj (Indian National Army), a rebel movement founded by Bose to combat British colonial rule.
“The leaders duped their followers into believing that they will attain nirvana and get to meet an incarnation of Bose,” Mishra said.
Bose disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1945.
Police have arrested more than 300 people following the bloody raid, although the sect’s four main leaders are still believed to be on the run.
The state’s Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav announced compensation of two million rupees ($30,000) each for the families of the slain policemen.
The government will ensure speedy prosecution of all those accused in the violence, his office posted on Twitter.
India is home to hundreds of semi-religious sects which are often led by charismatic self-styled “godmen”. In 2014, hundreds of armed supporters from another sect clashed with police in the northern state of Haryana during a raid to arrest their leader who faced murder allegations. At least six people died in the violence.