A popular yoga guru retreated to his plush ashram Sunday claiming the Indian government was out to kill him after police forcibly removed the televangelist from a “fast-unto-death” hunger strike against corruption and scattered tens of thousands of his followers.
The showdown in New Delhi had been building for days, after the saffron-robed, barefoot guru Ram Krishna Ramdev, known as Baba Ramdev, went ahead with his threat to lead a mass hunger strike in the capital.
Police in protective gear moved in early Sunday, using truncheons and tear gas against his followers and sparking panic in and around the massive tent they’d put up at the Ramlila Ground.
By afternoon police were still closely guarding the empty tent and the hospital where injured supporters were taken, in a bid to prevent further gatherings. As an uneasy calm ensued, both sides were left wondering whether they’d overplayed their hand in a political showdown that’s bordered on farce.
“Whether Ramdev is really fighting corruption or just looking for publicity is a question,” said Pran Chopra, a political analyst. “But there’s no justification for destroying the meeting. The government very badly mishandled it.”
In the land of Mahatma Gandhi, who famously used fasting as a pressure tactic against the British colonial rulers, hunger strikes remain an effective political threat.
But Ramdev, who has vowed to launch another fast, is hardly Gandhi. His two trusts own 1,000 acres of prime land and enjoy at least $245 million in annual revenue, allowing him to travel by private plane and retreat to a private island off Scotland. His controversial claims include statements that homosexuality, and AIDS, can be “cured” through yoga.
Ramdev’s huge following — up to 20 million tune in daily to his early morning television in India alone — as well as support from right-wing Hindu nationalists have led to dreams of his own party.
All of which has made Ramdev a threat to the ruling Congress party, for which corruption is a sensitive issue. India has weathered a rash of graft scandals involving billions of dollars over the last year in the telecommunications, sports and defense sectors.
The midnight police swoop on Baba Ramdev and his supporters has prompted a flurry of reactions from almost all political parties and prominent leaders.
A majority of the Opposition bigwigs called the crackdown brutal and undemocratic.
Some of the harshest comments came from Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati.
Mulayam said the UPA government has “lost its mental balance and is attacking its own citizens”. It was the Congress, he said, which was the ” biggest thug”, referring to party leader Digvijaya Singh’s jibe at Ramdev.
In another article the publication also says “the government’s midnight swoop on Baba Ramdev was prompted by the home ministry’s assessment of a huge swelling of numbers at the Ramlila Maidan on Sunday.”
The campaign by Ramdev, who plans to launch a political party ahead of the 2014 general election, followed allegations of kickbacks at the Commonwealth Games and a telecoms scam that may have cost the government $39 billion.
Political analysts said the police action could spark protests by Ramdev’s millions of supporters and dent the government’s popularity in electorally important northern states.
Ramdev accused the police of brutality when they broke up the hunger strike that he and thousands of supporters started in New Delhi on Saturday in a marquee the size of four football pitches.
“The permission was for a yoga camp for 5,000, not for 50,000 people for agitation. We have cancelled the permission and asked them to move out,” said Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat.
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