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After Raid, Yoga Guru’s Protest Becomes Firestorm

Jun 5, 2011

A sobbing yoga guru vowed on Sunday to continue his hunger strike against corruption and blamed the governing Congress Party for a chaotic, earlymorning raid in which thousands of his followers were dispersed by police officers wielding nightsticks and tear gas.

Swami Ramdev, the Indian yoga guru, spokeduring a news conference in the northern Indian town of Haridwar on Sunday.
Swami Ramdev, a guru with a large following in India, had started a mass hunger strike that began Saturday in New Delhi. But less than 14 hours later, amid the tumult of the raid, Swami Ramdev was detained by officers and later flown to the state of Uttaranchal, where he was taken to his ashram near the city of Haridwar.

Appearing later on national television, he described how he tried in vain to escape the police raid by dressing as a woman and covering his flowing black beard with whitecloth.

“The government wanted to kill me,” he said. He added: “My hunger strike is not broken. I will continue. My agitation will continue.”

The unexpected developments quickly transformed what had been a quirky mixture of yoga sit-in and political protest into a political firestorm. Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, the country’s main opposition party, blasted the CongressParty for mishandling the hunger strike and described the police action as “a shameful chapter in the democracy of this country.”

Nitin Gadkari, president of the BJP, said the party would begin a 24-hour demonstrationon Sunday night in New Delhi at the Rajghat,the funeral site of Mahatma Gandhi, father of independent India. Meanwhile, L.K.

Advani, a powerful BJP leader, described thepolice raid as “naked fascism” and called fora special session of parliament to address governmental corruption.

“I feel that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the president of the Congress Party owe an apology to the nation,” he said.

But Congress leaders were hardly apologeticon Sunday and instead accused Swami Ramdev of trying to deliberately stir up trouble as a proxy for the BJP as well as for right-wing Hindu groups. “You cannot allowpeople like Ramdev to run riot in the capital,” said Digvijay Singh, a powerful Congress Party leader who has been outspoken in his criticism of the swami. “Hewas trying to incite people. Therefore, the action of the police is justified.”

Meanwhile, other Congress leaders blamed Swami Ramdev for deliberately violating a secret agreement to call off his hunger strike on Saturday afternoon. The swami had focused his protest on the issue of “black money,” the untold billions of dollars in misappropriated funds stashed in foreignbanks. Last week, government ministers met with him several times to explain governmental initiatives on the issue, part of their effort to head off the hunger strike.

Kapil Sibal, the government minister who has been the Congress Party’s point man on the issue, said the government delegation actually struck a deal with the swami on Friday, in which the government pledged to take certain actions on black money, while Swami Ramdev agreed that he would launch his hunger strike on Saturday morning but then call it off by the afternoon of the same day.

But when Swami Ramdev continued with his fast into Saturday evening, Mr. Sibal appeared before reporters brandishing a copy of Friday’s written agreement and accusing the yoga guru of breaking their deal. Swami Ramdev responded angrily that Mr. Sibal was deceiving the public. Hours later, police arrived at the massive encampment in New Delhi where thousandsof Swami Ramdev’s followers were gathered.

Police officials say Swami Ramdev had been granted a permit for the campsite on the basis that he would be conducting a yoga meditation session with 5,000 people. But Rajan Bhagat, a Delhi police spokesman, said officers arrived on Sunday morning to revoke the permit because the crowd had surpassed 50,000 people. Officers also wereworried about security concerns since Swami Ramdev was calling on more people to come to New Delhi to participate in the hunger strikes.

Mr. Bhagat also denied that police instigatedthe confrontation. He said some people began pelting officers with stones after the police demanded that everyone return home. Officers then used nightsticks and tear gas to disperse the crowd; Mr. Bhagat said 23 police officers and 39 civilians suffered minor injuries in the ensuing scuffle.