NEW DELHI (AP) — Indians shouted patriotic slogans and listened to a rousing speech from a charismatic yoga guru who began fasting Thursday to pressure the government to bring back billions of ill-gotten gains — so-called black money — citizens have stashed in foreign banks.
Supporters of Baba Ramdev jammed traffic across New Delhi as they walked to the sprawling Ramlila fairgrounds and buses from nearby states converged on the capital. About 20,000 people pledged their support for Ramdev's campaign to wipe out tax evasion and endemic corruption in India.
Squatting on the ground and fanning themselves with bits of cardboard in the sweltering monsoon heat, supporters cheered as Ramdev spoke.
"I am not against any political party. My protest is only to end black money and to bring back to this country what rightfully belongs to the people of India," he announced from a 20-foot high platform constructed at the end of a vast tent.
Though poor acoustics made it difficult to hear Ramdev, his supporters were unfazed, saying they already knew what he stood for.
"He is our hope for the future. He will save this country from the politicians," said Amulya Kumar, a farm laborer from Bihar, who was holding a small bundle of clothes and food.
Along with his teenage nephew, Kumar had traveled two days by train from Bihar's poverty-stricken Munger district for the rally.
Millions of Indians tune in every day to watch Ramdev perform yoga exercises on his popular TV show. In the past few years he has transformed his popularity as a yoga guru to highlight his campaign against corruption.
Ramdev said he would not eat for three days and outlined his demands: a robust ombudsman law to keep checks on government, a strong and independent Central Bureau of Investigation and efforts to act against tax evasion and illegal money sent to banks abroad.
The government said Thursday said a committee was working on a draft of the ombudsman bill, which would be placed before Parliament next month. India's finance ministry is in the process of tightening laws to curb the generation of black money and its illegal transfer abroad.
The protest comes less than a week after the latest hunger strike by anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare failed to attract the huge crowds that had turned out for his past protests. Hazare and his supporters said they would give up agitating and join politics instead.
Middle-class Indians fed up with corruption had flocked to Hazare's initial protests last year, which Ramdev also supported. But the government dragged its feet on his demand for an ombudsman, and apathy among wealthier Indians sapped the cause.
Ramdev's support, however, comes from the far more politically active rural poor, angry that they have not benefited as promised from the country's economic rise.
However, Ramdev, whose real name is Ramkishan Yadav, has himself come under cloud after amassing a fortune in donations that run into millions of dollars. He has not explained the sources of his wealth or disclosed whether he pays taxes. Last month, Ramdev's assistant was arrested on charges of cheating and forgery to obtain a passport.
Ramdev denies all allegations of financial wrongdoing.
Security was tight at the protest. Police squads patrolled the periphery of the grounds and paramilitary soldiers scrutinized visitors as they were scanned by metal detectors to enter the grounds.
Thousands of young volunteers in white T-shirts with Ramdev's image printed on it helped manage the swelling crowds, shepherding people into roped enclosures erected to prevent stampedes. They distributed bottles of water to the thousands of elderly supporters, while ambulances and firefighters kept watch.
An army of volunteers prepared vats of spicy potato curry and deep-fried bread in a vast makeshift kitchen set up to provide free lunch to the protesters.