Fast led by yoga guru prompts India to weigh move against corruption
By Rama Lakshmi,
NEW DELHI — After a nationwide protest led by a popular yoga guru, Indian officials said late Saturday that the government has agreed to set up a panel to consider enacting a law to curb the deposit of illegally acquired funds in secret bank accounts abroad. But tens of thousands of Baba Ramdev’s supporters continued their anti-corruption hunger strike in New Delhi and other cities, saying they want a law, not a panel.
Tourism Minister Subodh Kant Sahai told reporters that a letter has been sent to Ramdev assuring him that tainted money sent abroad by Indians will be declared a “national asset.”
“We hope Baba Ramdev will fulfill his part of committing to end the agitation once he has the written assurance,” Sahai said of the latest protest action in an eight-month anti-corruption campaign triggered by a long list of scandals.
But the guru and a large crowd of his followers sitting on their yoga mattresses in a tent set up in Old Delhi refused to give up their fast until all of his demands were agreed to. Among those are the establishment of fast-track courts to try those accused of corruption and the withdrawal from circulation of higher-denomination currency, such as 500- and 1,000-rupee notes, on the grounds that they facilitate illegal hoarding.
The Associated Press reported that hundreds of police officers forcibly removed Ramdev and thousands of supporters early Sunday for what they said were security reasons, then later released the guru. The Press Trust of India news agency reported that nearly 30 people were injured.
With a flowing black beard and hair tied in a bun, Ramdev has been called the rock star of yoga. His daily two-hour television session has been the most watched show in India since 2003. As he teaches, he unleashes diatribes against corruption, international companies, plummeting moral values and homosexuality. Ramdev’s views appear to resonate with millions of Indians who are anxious about traditional cultural practices slipping away as India embraces a more Western lifestyle.
His critics, however, note the expense of the elaborate infrastructure at the protest site in the capital, including 550 water taps, dozens of fans and a large, colorful tent. Ramdev arrived in New Delhi on Thursday in a private plane, which also drew criticism. One member of the ruling Congress Party, Digvijay Singh, called it a “five-star protest.”
Ramdev began his protest Saturday with the chanting of “Om,” yoga and breathing exercises and a defiant message to the government. But by evening, the government and the guru were embroiled in mutual recriminations, each side accusing the other of breaking promises.
Kapil Sibal, a senior government official engaged in negotiations with the guru, released a letter that he said was written by Ramdev’s aide and contained a pledge from the guru to end the fast within 24 hours.
“This government has always reached out, but can also rein in. If we are accommodating, we can also be firm,” Sibal told reporters.
Ramdev said that the letter was written under pressure from the government. “We were forced to write the letter,” he said. “This is nothing but betrayal.”
Surendra Pal, a chemistry professor participating in the hunger strike, said that the government was trying to discredit the yoga guru.
“The government is full of corrupt liars. They are trying to make Baba Ramdev look bad,” Pal said.
Ramdev’s is not the first hunger strike against corruption in India this year. In April, hundreds of Indians protested against graft, and many activists fasted until the government agreed to consult the public in the writing of a new anti-corruption law. But some activists threatened to quit the government panel this week if the prime minister’s office and the chief justice of the Supreme Court were not included under the purview of the proposed Citizens Ombudsman Bill.
The issue of illegal earnings deposited in secret foreign banks and global tax-free havens has led to a public outcry in the past year. Last year, a bank in Liechtenstein handed New Delhi officials a list of 26 Indians who hold accounts containing undeclared wealth. In March, the Supreme Court rebuked the government for failing to crack down on the practice, calling it “a pure and simple theft of national money.”
“We are talking about a mind-boggling crime,” the court added. “This is the plunder of the nation.”
Since October, a string of corruption scandals has rocked Singh’s government. The most notable scam involved former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja, who was convicted of selling business licenses to selected cellphone companies at throwaway prices, allegedly costing the nation about $39 billion. Raja and another lawmaker are now in prison, along with senior executives from telecommunications companies.
Another politician from Singh’s Congress Party, Suresh Kalmadi, is also in prison after being convicted of financial irregularities in organizing last year’s Commonwealth Games.