Police break up Baba Ramdev's anti-graft fast

NEW DELHI Sun Jun 5, 2011 9:59pm IST

Yoga guru Swami Ramdev speaks during a news conference in Haridwar June 5, 2011. Police broke up a mass fast against graft led by Ramdev on Sunday, risking more political headaches for the scandal-tainted government. REUTERS/Stringer

Yoga guru Swami Ramdev speaks during a news conference in Haridwar June 5, 2011. Police broke up a mass fast against graft led by Ramdev on Sunday, risking more political headaches for the scandal-tainted government.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Police broke up a mass fast against graft led by India's most famous yoga guru on Sunday, risking more political headaches for the scandal-tainted government.

A senior ruling party figure said the saffron-robed swami Ramdev had used the anti-corruption event to incite people.

Police detained the guru and flew him to Haridwar, the centre of his $40 million-a-year global yoga and health empire.

The campaign by Ramdev, who plans to launch a political party ahead of the 2014 general election, followed allegations of kickbacks at the Commonwealth Games and a telecoms scam that may have cost the government $39 billion.

Political analysts said the police action could spark protests by Ramdev's millions of supporters and dent the government's popularity in electorally important northern states.

Ramdev accused the police of brutality when they broke up the hunger strike which he and thousands of supporters started in New Delhi on Saturday in a marquee the size of four football pitches.

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

Police said 39 supporters of the guru and 23 policemen were injured in the pre-dawn raid.

"My hunger strike has not ended. I will continue fasting," Ramdev later told a news conference in his base of Haridwar, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas.

HUGE TV FOLLOWING

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.

Tapping into spiralling 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 part of daily life in India and can affect everything 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.

OPPOSITION SLAMS

The main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) slammed the Congress Party-led coalition government and called for a 24-hour protest.

India's leading communist party condemned police action, calling it "deplorable and short-sighted", while Mayawati, the chief minister of the country's most populous Uttar Pradesh state, asked for the Supreme Court to order a probe.

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

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

Hazare said he would hold a one-day fast on June 8 to protest against the police crackdown and would also boycott a meeting on Monday of the panel entrusted with drafting of the anti-graft bill.

Both Hazare and Ramdev's campaigns have underscored how India's traditional national parties are struggling to deal with the growing anger among middle class Indians increasingly fed up with graft.

(Additional reporting C.J. Kuncheria and Annie Banerji; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

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