x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Police use tear gas to break up Indian yoga guru's corruption protest

At least 100 injured as camp containing thousands of followers of Baba Ramdev , who had started a fast in response to a series of high-level corruption revelations,in India, was closed by Delhi police.

Indian police officers remove a supporter from the site where the yoga guru Baba Ramdev was holding a hunger strike in New Delhi. AP Photo
Indian police officers remove a supporter from the site where the yoga guru Baba Ramdev was holding a hunger strike in New Delhi. AP Photo

NEW DELHI // Indian police using loudspeakers, batons and tear gas evicted an influential yoga teacher on a hunger strike against corruption, as well as thousands of his supporters, early yesterday morning.

During the predawn raid at the camp, fans of Baba Ramdev tried to protect him by forming a human chain around him before the saffron-robed holy man leapt from the stage into a sea of followers who tried to carry him on their shoulders.

At least 100 people were injured in the melee, including 77 critically, according to hospital officials quoted in The Times of India newspaper.

Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told reporters: "We had given permission for only 5,000 people to attend his yoga camp but 50,000 turned up. We had not given any permission for a public agitation."

Opposition parties and anti-graft campaigners spoke out against the government's raid, saying it was heavy-handed in its approach after talks broke down between the Mr Ramdev and members of the ruling party late on Saturday night.

The Delhi police chief, Dharmendra Kumar, denied force was used against women and children. He said police used tear gas when Mr Ramdev resisted arrest and flower pots and chairs were tossed at police.

Mr Ramdev began his fast in response to a series of high-level corruption revelations, including the jailing of ministers and company executives over the sale of permits for mobile phone spectrums in 2008. A government auditor estimated it may have cost the exchequer US$31 million (Dh113m). Allegations of corruption were also linked to last year's Commonwealth Games where construction delays and bickering between the politically appointed heads led some international athletes to withdraw from the games.

A similar hunger protest in April by another activist, Anna Hazare, who joined Mr Ramdev on stage in a show of support on Saturday, has tapped into the country's growing anger against widespread corruption in general and corrupt politicians.

Mr Ramdev's 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. He also wants the death penalty on those convicted of taking bribes.

Mr Ramdev, whose real name is Ramkishan Yadav, draws tens of millions of people to his daily yoga television show. He rose to fame from an illiterate family, owns a "peace" island in Scotland and heads a business empire known for bottled ayurvedic remedies.

He also runs luxury cruises that incorporate lessons in the ancient Indian practice of yoga. His enterprises have generated revenue of 11 billion rupees ($245 million) since 1995, he told the Indian Express newspaper in an interview.

Such is his influence over millions of followers that, upon his arrival in Delhi on Friday by chartered plane, he was met at the airport by several federal government ministers who urged him to stop his "fast unto death", while promising to take his list of demands seriously.

More than 50,000 people gathered on Saturday in the Ram Lila Grounds of the city, where elaborate tents with fans and furniture were set out.

Surendra Sharma, 60, an astrologer and palm reader, said he was napping when police began their raid. "After I was tear gassed, I managed to somehow find my way to my motorcycle," Mr Sharma said. "I could hear the police telling people, 'go out, go out'."

After the raid, the grounds were deserted with police allowing small groups inside to collect their belongings.

Outside, followers tried to regroup and start fresh protests.

Mr Ramdev vowed to intensify his campaign, which has the backing of the main opposition party and several far-right Hindu nationalist groups.

"My fast is not over yet and I will continue with my satyagraha [civil resistance]," he told reporters from his residence in the town of Haridwar in northern India where he flew on Sunday morning.

"We will observe a 'black day' to protest the conspiracy and we will intensify our anti-corruption campaign across the country," he said.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg News