Police break up Indian yoga guru's hunger strike

AP News
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Posted: Jun 05, 2011 8:53 AM
Police break up Indian yoga guru's hunger strike

Indian police fired tear gas early Sunday to break up a hunger strike by a charismatic yoga guru demanding an end to endemic corruption, forcibly removing him and thousands of his followers.

An ensuing stampede by angry, rock-throwing supporters of Baba Ramdev injured more than 60 people, including 23 police, said Dharmendra, a senior New Delhi police officer who uses one name.

Police said officers detained Ramdev, who has millions of followers across India, for security reasons.

"More than 40,000 people had turned up at the venue, and it was not possible to provide security to them," said Rajan Bhagat, a police spokesman in New Delhi.

Ramdev was later released and flew to the northern Indian town of Dehradun near his sprawling ashram, or spiritual headquarters, Bhagat said.

Ramdev said he would continue his hunger strike and organize nationwide protests this week against the police action. "It's a blot on democracy and a conspiracy to kill me," he said.

He accused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government of reneging on a promise to take swift action against Indians who have stashed millions of dollars illegally in safe havens abroad.

He also said he evaded police for nearly two hours by dressing in women's clothes _ a loose white shirt and trousers _ during the police raid.

Ramdev and tens of thousands of supporters began hunger strikes Saturday across India and in several cities in the United States, Europe and Africa.

The police clampdown early Sunday came hours after the government and Ramdev announced an agreement on steps to battle corruption.

Television stations reported that police sealed off the venue and used tear gas and canes to disperse Ramdev's followers, injuring some people. Television images showed police firing tear gas and angry people attacking security forces with stones.

Nitin Gadkari, the president of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, condemned the police raid and said his party would hold countrywide protests.

For years, Ramdev has contorted his body through a series of complex yoga poses, drawing tens of millions of people to his daily television show.

As he launched the hunger strike Saturday, he vowed to battle the pervasive culture of corruption in a country where everything from getting a driver's license to setting up a business involves paying bribes.

"There is a powerful anger in the people of this country. They want urgent action," he said.

Ramdev told his followers later Saturday that the government had agreed to his demands and that he was waiting for a written assurance before ending his protest.

His demands include immediate steps by the government to bring back millions of dollars illegally stashed abroad by Indians and the imposition of tough penalties on those who continue to put their money in safe havens.

Kapil Sibal, a government negotiator, said Saturday he would soon give Ramdev a written assurance. But he later criticized the guru for continuing the protest despite an agreement with the government.

That angered Ramdev, who announced that his hunger strike would continue until the government acted on its assurances.