Indian police break up yoga guru's anti-corruption protest
Indian police have used teargas and batons to break up a mass anti-corruption protest led by India's most famous yoga guru, in the latest high-profile clash between authorities and campaigners.
At least 30 people were injured, several seriously, in chaotic scenes in the capital, Delhi, after talks between the government and the saffron-robed guru Swami Ramdev to end the protest broke down.
Just as senior government figures appeared on TV threatening "firm action", police appeared and started to disperse tens of thousands of demonstrators, many from rural areas or small towns, who had gathered under tents in the centre of the capital. Some of Ramdev's supporters threw stones at police.
Ramdev, who rose from a humble background to run a £20m empire of ashrams and alternative medicine, was arrested while trying to disguise himself in women's clothing, and was flown to the northern city of Haridwar, where he has his headquarters.
"You could not imagine a government handling it more clumsily," said Professor Jayati Ghosh, a respected Indian analyst and economist.
Ramdev, whose television channel draws audiences of up to 30 million and whose international network of ashrams includes one on a Scottish island, had begun fasting "unto death" on Saturday morning.
The incident is likely to further embarrass the ailing government of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and fuel broad public anger over a series of corruption scandals.
Corruption has long been a problem in India. Paying small bribes is a part of everyday life and senior ministers, bureaucrats, military officers and other officials are repeatedly found to have made vast sums illicitly.
The issue has become a focus of frustration with the current government, a coalition led by the Congress party. One recent scam may have cost the country as much as £25bn.
Leaders of India's main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata, (BJP), attacked the Congress party and said the police action had been "a shameful chapter in the democracy of this country".
Ramdev criticised the Congress president, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, saying she did not appear to love Indians, a charge frequently made by the rightwing in India.
Congress party figures alleged that Ramdev was linked to opposition parties including extremist Hindu nationalist groups.
Digvijay Singh, a senior Congress leader who had earlier questioned Ramdev's luxurious lifestyle and called his campaign a "five-star" protest, accused the guru of inciting people.
"You can't allow people like Ramdev to run riot in a capital like Delhi. Some laws, some rules have to be followed," Singh said. "And whereas he has taken permission for yogic shivir [camp], what was he doing there? He was trying to agitate people."
Political analysts claim the recent campaigns against corruption have in part gathered public support because they exist outside established politics. However, both Ramdev and Anna Hazare, a veteran social activist who launched a similar anti-corruption protest in April, hold deeply conservative views on a broad range of issues.
Ramdev dislikes Coca-Cola and western clothes, believes the World Health Organisation is a western conspiracy and is openly homophobic. Hazare is a strict teetotaller, believes in flogging and has banned tobacco, meat and cable TV in the village where he lives near the central city of Pune. Both men favour capital punishment for corruption crimes.
"Ramdev and Hazare are fundamentally very populist," said Ghosh. "They are authoritarian, with have a simplistic message and are extremely socially and politically conservative. They are presented as moral figures but are not."
Both men also contest the same political ground; one possible reason for the increasing intensity of their activism.
On Sunday Hazare pledged to fast again. So too did Ramdev, who plans to launch a political party to contest the 2014 general election.
"My hunger strike has not ended. I will continue fasting," Ramdev told a news conference.
The guru, who has made a fortune through alternative medicine, has called on the government to pursue billions of dollars in illegal funds abroad. Huge amounts of money have disappeared from India, one of the world's fastest-growing economies, in recent decades.
Ramdev has also called for a ban on notes of large denomination – 500 and 1,000 Indian rupees (£7 and £14) – which represent a huge amount of money for the hundreds of millions of people in India who survive on less than £1 a day.
Corruption is said to be present on such a vast scale in India that it threatens the continued economic success of the country, depressing the stock market and worrying investors.
Analysts are concerned that the latest examples of corruption will again stall key reforms aimed at boosting overseas investment and improving India's parlous infrastructure, many projects of which have repeatedly been postponed, in part due to opposition protests over corruption causing parliamentary deadlock.
Corruption in India
Recent high-profile Indian corruption scandals have included the 2G scam – named after the mobile telephone technology for which licences in India were allegedly sold off at cut-price rates in return for kickbacks – and allegations of fraud in preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. The 2G scam is thought to have cost the country up to £25bn. An investigation has resulted in the jailing of a former minister and the daughter of a southern Indian political leader. An inquiry into the 2010 Games is ongoing but has already led to the arrests of senior figures in the ruling Congress party.
Other scandals have included a luxury housing development built for widows of war heroes that was appropriated by politicians, senior officers and bureaucrats in the commercial capital of Mumbai, and revelations of corruption in state programmes to distribute subsidised food to the poor. In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where 200 million mainly poor people live, the extent of the corruption and the extent of the programme make it potentially the biggest single example of corruption in the world, with tens of thousands of officials, thousands of politicians and more than £30bn worth of aid implicated.
Few sectors are untouched. One recent scandal was less about cash than influence. A series of phone taps released to the media revealed corporate lobbyists apparently discussing cabinet appointments with ministers and journalists. There are regular scandals over "paid news" by which newspapers accept cash to run particular stories. Top bank officials have been accused of taking bribes to grant corporate loans. Many senior judges are alleged to be corrupt. An ex-chief justice is currently under investigation.