Defiant Indian guru vows to resume hunger strike
NEW DELHI – A television star and yoga guru leading tens of thousands of people protesting Indian corruption said he would resume a hunger strike Monday in a northern Hindu pilgrimage city after police ousted him from the capital.
Baba Ramdev, along with tens of thousands of supporters, began fasting Saturday in a massive tent camp in New Delhi, despite reaching an 11th-hour agreement with the government on his demands to battle graft.
Police swooped down on the protest camp early Sunday, using tear gas to break it up and triggering a stampede and clashes with rock-throwing protesters that left dozens injured on both sides. Police said they were forced by safety concerns to take action after more than 40,000 people showed up for the event, which was cleared for only 5,000.
Ramdev evaded police for nearly two hours by dressing in women's clothing, and he asked women supporters to form a protective ring around him while he refused police orders to leave the area, police said. He was briefly detained before flying to the northern state of Uttarakhand, where his sprawling ashram, or spiritual headquarters, is located. He had tried to go to the Delhi suburb of Noida to resume the fast there but was barred by authorities.
Ramdev called the crackdown a "blot on democracy and a conspiracy to kill me" and vowed to continue his hunger strike from Haridwar on the Ganges river. The main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, condemned the police raid and said the government should resign.
The protest campaign is part of a push by civil society to demand government accountability after months of scandal-plagued politics that have embarrassed officials with allegations of improper telecoms licensing, illegal land acquisitions and irregularities in staging last year's Commonwealth Games.
Ramdev and other critics accuse the government of failing to act against Indians who illegally stash money abroad, while doing little to end a widespread culture of corruption.
A recent report by Global Financial Integrity also riled the public by saying India had lost hundreds of billions of dollars since the 1940s as companies and the rich sent cash overseas to avoid taxes and hide ill-gotten gains. As a result, it said, the country's hundreds of millions of poor were being deprived of crucial resources and falling further behind the rich, exacerbating social tensions.
The orange-robed Ramdev — who preaches health and happiness while striking complex yoga poses on his wildly popular Indian TV show — jumped onto the anti-corruption campaign weeks ago when 73-year-old activist Anna Hazare captivated national attention with his own four-day hunger strike.
Ramdev joined Hazare under a white canopy during that hunger strike, which ended with the government establishing a committee to draft legislation on creating an anti-corruption watchdog.
Hazare, now a committee member, said Sunday that he will only attend meetings that are televised live "in view of government's barbaric actions, since its intentions to remove corruption have become suspect."
The ruling Congress party has faced opposition and public anger over recent scandals including the sale of cell phone spectrum in 2008 that reportedly cost the country tens of billions of dollars in lost revenue. The telecoms minister had to resign and is in jail pending a probe into the losses.
Congress has also come under fire for alleged mismanagement and corruption tied to the Commonwealth Games and the takeover of valuable Mumbai apartments intended for poor war widows by powerful bureaucrats and politicians' relatives. The country's top anti-corruption official was forced to resign this year after the Supreme Court ruled that graft charges he faced disqualified him from holding the office.