India police break anti-graft yoga guru hunger strike

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 05, 2011 4:43 AM
India police break anti-graft yoga guru hunger strike

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Police swooped on India's most famous yoga guru on Sunday, using teargas and batons to break up a fast against graft, risking more political headaches for scandal-tainted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Swami Ramdev began his hunger strike with tens of thousands of followers at a tent in New Delhi on Saturday. Less than 24 hours into the fast, police detained him and flew him to near Haridwar in northern India, center of his global yoga business.

Media said at least 30 people were injured in the pre-dawn raid at a tent where his followers, from poor villagers to foreign tourists and civil servants, had gathered. Some Ramdev supporters threw stones at police.

"The permission was for a yoga camp for 5,000, not for 50,000 people for agitation. We have canceled the permission and asked them to move out," said Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat.

Ramdev's campaign was already an embarrassment for a Congress party-led coalition hit by graft scandals including allegations of kickbacks at the Commonwealth Games and a telecoms scam that may have cost the government up to $39 billion.

The eviction could harden Ramdev's stance, spark protests by his millions of supporters and dent the government's popularity in the electorally important northern states of India, where Ramdev is hugely popular.

Ramdev's followers said the campaign would go on.

"He told us to organize peaceful protest throughout the country against the police brutality. He asked us to question why innocent people were beaten up at 1 am ," Swami Sampurunand, one of Ramdev's organizers, told local media.

HUGE TV FOLLOWING

The saffron-robed Swami Ramdev, who rose from an illiterate family to host a television show with 30 million viewers, carries such weight in India that four government ministers met him when he arrived by private jet in New Delhi.

Negotiations to end the protest appeared to be making ground on Saturday. But New Delhi is a city run by the ruling Congress party and the sweep by police will likely be seen as a politically motivated against the guru.

Tapping into spiraling voter anger at corruption as Asia's third largest economy booms, the guru has called on the government to pursue billions of dollars in illegal funds abroad and the withdrawal of high denomination bank notes.

Graft has long been a part of daily life from getting an electricity connection to signing business deals, but the latest scandals - that have seen a minister jailed and business billionaires questioned - are unprecedented.

Investors worry the latest troubles will again force the government to pay less attention to reform bills, such as making it easier for industry to acquire land, postponed due to opposition protests over graft causing parliamentary deadlock.

The main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) slammed the government and called for a 24-hour protest, while Congress leaders said police action was justified.

But senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh, who had earlier questioned the Swami's luxurious lifestyle and called it a "five-star" protest, accused Ramdev of inciting people.

"Now you can't allow people like Ramdev to run riot in a capital like Delhi. Some laws, some rules have to be followed," Singh said. "And where as he has taken permission for yogic shivir (camp), what was he doing there?...he was trying to agitate people."

Some analysts said the government may try to paint the protest as political.

"The movement was going to the BJP's hands," political commentator Amulya Ganguly said. "The government will claim it is a BJP movement."

Ramdev, who turned an ancient spiritual tradition into a mass healing movement, runs a $40 million-a-year global yoga and health empire and says he can cure cancer.

Critics say he is linked to a radical Hindu nationalist group.

Ramdev's fast came after a similar one by social activist Anna Hazare, whose April campaign rang a chord with millions of Indians and forced the government to make legislative concessions on an anti-corruption bill that effectively gives India an independent ombudsman to battle graft.

Both campaigns have underscored how India's traditional national parties are struggling to deal with the growing anger at middle class Indians increasingly fed up with graft, leaving a political vacuum that figures like Ramdev can fill.

(Reporting by Devidutta Tripathy; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)