India cracks down on hunger strike led by yoga guru
By Rama Lakshmi,
NEW DELHI — Public outrage over the recent police crackdown against anti-corruption demonstrators rose across India on Sunday as people continued their protests, even shutting down rail traffic.
The public anger threatened to further sully the sagging image of the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been battling a series of corruption scandals involving his colleagues.
Shortly after midnight Saturday, police used canes and tear-gas shells to drive away tens of thousands of people in New Delhi who were on a nationwide hunger strike against corruption, led by popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev. A government official said permission had been granted to hold the protest for a day and that Ramdev and his followers had exceeded that. The protesters resisted orders to disperse and threw stones at police, creating panic and a near-stampede at the demonstration site.
Ramdev was ordered to leave the Indian capital and taken on a special plane Sunday morning to Dehradun, a northern city at the foothills of the Himalayas. He later traveled to his sprawling ashram in Hardwar.
Huge crowds thronged the ashram shouting slogans, as a tired-looking Ramdev arrived. He said his fast was not over and that his followers would continue to protest the police action across India.
“The kind of atrocities on the people last night, I never imagined,” Ramdev said. “They dragged women about and beat them. I asked the police there, ‘How can you behave like this mothers and sisters?’ The government has betrayed us.”
As Singh’s supporters justified the police action, his political opponents seized the opportunity to demand his resignation.
“What happened last night is a shameful chapter in the history of Indian democracy. It was a barbaric act by the police against citizens who were protesting peacefully against corruption,” said Arun Jaitley, a member of parliament with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which announced a daylong sit-in against the government’s action.
Anna Hazare, a 73-year-old activist who led a fast in April to demand that the government enact a stringent anti-corruption law, condemned the police action. Hazare had earlier hesitated to join Ramdev in his hunger strike. But Sunday, he said that Indians should teach the government a lesson and that Singh is answerable to the country on the the violence.
“They beat up women? This is a stigma on our democracy. All Indians must condemn it,” Hazare said. “There will be a revolt across India to teach this government a lesson.”
Ramdev’s protest was the latest in a series of anti-corruption campaigns that Indians fed up with big-ticket graft have staged in recent months. He and his followers have demanded that illegally acquired wealth deposited in foreign bank accounts be declared national wealth and brought back.
“I will continue my hunger strike from my ashram. People can join me in my protest here,” Ramdev told reporters. He read the names of people he said had been injured in the police action, and urged his supporters to protest for two days. “Our protest will be countrywide, it will be peaceful, and we will educate the people about the government and police atrocities.”
Ramdev has a massive following across India with millions of dedicated viewers of his daily morning television programs in which he advocates yoga and herbal medicines and attacks Western lifestyle and homosexuality. In 2009, Ramdev launched a political movement against corruption and began mobilizing citizens in his yoga camps.
“A guru who teaches yoga should not teach politics to his followers of 50,000 people at the site. The permission was for yoga exercises, but he violated it,” said Kapil Sibal, who was part of a team that was negotiating with Ramdev on his demands until Saturday.
The ruling Congress party leaders have criticized Ramdev for his ties with Hindu nationalist groups. One Congress party leader called Ramdev a “thug” and a “fraud.”
But Ramdev has said that yoga cannot be limited to physical exercises, that it also a way to cleanse the soul and the society.