Indian police took tough action on Sunday to end a hunger strike by a celebrity yoga guru and break up protests by thousands of his followers in New Delhi against corruption in Asia’s third-largest economy.
In an early morning raid, stick-wielding security personnel used teargas to disperse peaceful demonstrators from a large tented enclosure in Delhi’s old city, driving away supporters who had joined Baba Ramdev’s hunger strike in what has become a nationwide cause célèbre.
Mr Ramdev was hurriedly flown out of the capital to Haridwar, a holy city at the foot of the Himalayas where his ashram is located.
The heavily bearded, saffron-robed guru had barely completed 24 hours of the hunger strike before the authorities swooped.
“A guru who teaches yoga should not teach politics to his followers of 50,000 people at the site,” said Kapil Sibal, education minister.
“The permission [to gather] was for yoga exercises, but he violated it.”
Speaking on arrival in Haridwar, Mr Ramdev said “innocent people” had been “beaten up” by the police.
The Congress party-led government has been unnerved by Mr Ramdev’s protest. It fears that a charismatic spiritual leader’s championing of the anti-corruption cause could trigger widespread middle-class anger about poor governance and graft.
Hunger strikes are a powerful weapon in the world's largest democracy. Used by Mahatma Gandhi, the liberation leader, to put pressure on British colonial rulers in the run-up to India’s independence 64 years ago, social activists are increasingly using fasts to highlight concerns about corruption.
Manmohan Singh’s administration has been rocked in recent months by scandals, the worst of which is a telecoms scandal that an official audit claimed cost the state as much as $39bn.
Political analysts were surprised that New Delhi initially tried to pander to Mr Ramdev before cracking down on his initiative.
Four cabinet ministers, including finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, were sent to Delhi’s international airport to meet the guru’s corporate jet last week. Negotiations then continued over a list of his demands, which included returning untaxed “black” money from foreign bank accounts.