Hit to India's rising democracy? Popular guru's anticorruption fast turns violent

New Delhi police forcibly dispersed followers of guru Baba Ramdev, who called for a mass hunger strike against government corruption.

Indian police officers remove protesters from the site where renowned yoga guru Baba Ramdev was holding a hunger strike in New Delhi, June 5. Police officers swooped down early Sunday on the venue of the hunger strike by the charismatic Indian yoga guru and forcibly removed him and thousands of his supporters.
Manish Swarup/AP
Renowned yoga guru Baba Ramdev speaks during his hunger strike against corruption in New Delhi, India, Saturday, June 4. The charismatic and controversial yoga guru is using his popularity to fuel a political movement that he says will root out India's endemic corruption.

India has made democratic advances in the past decade; it has a vibrant press, civil society, and an educated population. But it appears unsympathetic to peaceful protest.

The Indian government cracked down this weekend on peaceful supporters of one of the country's most popular yoga gurus after he announced he would lead a mass fast to protest against corruption rampant in the Indian government. The crackdown highlights what appears to be a disconnect in India's democratic advancements.

On Saturday night, police used tear gas and batons to break up a crowd of 60,000 supporters of Baba Ramdev in central Delhi, leaving at least 30 people injured. Authorities in the capital have also invoked for a week a British Raj-era law prohibiting public meetings of five or more people for the purpose of protest.

India has been rocked by a series of high-profile corruption scandals over the past year, some implicating the ruling Congress party and its allies. A growing anticorruption movement is starting to galvanize wide support, which has many looking to Mr. Ramdev to lead a Gandhi-type counter effort. But some have questioned his motives.

"I would hardly describe Ramdev as a Gandhian," says Nikhil Dey, an Indian social activist. He adds that Ramdev has laid out no plan on how to combat corruption other than grandiose pronouncements on the return of "black money" stashed in foreign bank accounts to India. Ramdev might be using Mahatma Gandhi's form of nonviolent protest to take a stand against corruption, but he is unlikely to inhabit the same position in the collective Indian psyche, he says.

The police raid

Ramdev claims that during Sunday night's reportedly peaceful events, Delhi police dragged and beat his supporters, including hundreds of women and children, and that his stage had been set on fire.

The government says that because Ramdev had sought permission for a gathering of just 5,000 people for a yoga camp, police stepped in to disperse the crowds that they say posed a security risk.

During the raid, Ramdev fled his tent and attempted to evade police but was detained early on Sunday morning. He's now based at his sprawling ashram in Haridwar, northeast of New Delhi.

Popularity and suspicion

Ramdev enjoys wide popularity, particularly among India's rural masses, and his television program attracts around 30 million viewers each day. While the educated upper classes view him with a degree of suspicion, his followers are those that count politically – after all, it is the underprivileged masses that make up the bulk of India's voters.

And Ramdev's political motivations are not unclear: already receiving indirect support from right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposition party, the yoga guru has indicated he will contest 2014 parliamentary general elections.

Educated Indians question some of his ideas and beliefs, such as a desire to ban 500 and 1000 rupee notes ($12, and $22) and his claims that yoga can cure cancer and HIV. Critics have also questioned Ramdev's own transparency.

As with other Indian spiritual men before him, Ramdev’s enormous support base comes predominantly from the nonurban India that remains doggedly under-developed. But he is also extremely wealthy, with a network of ashrams and alternative medicine centers, a private jet, and an island in Scotland, and no one quite seems to know the provenance of his fortune.

"We feel that if you go on an anticorruption campaign, you have to be transparent about what you have," says social and political activist Aruna Roy, who is a member of the ruling Congress party's National Advisory Council.

Despite her government affiliations, Ms. Roy insists the right to peaceful agitation is vital, and invoking the ban on protest across Delhi "shows an exaggeration apprehension on the part of the government. I assume they are afraid of a large mobilization that will break into violence."

"Hunger strikes invoke concern because they are a nonviolent protest in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi," says Mr. Dey, who is Roy's colleague at her nongovernment organization to support transparency, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.

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