In the morning hours of June 4 and June 5, 2011, a large contingent of the Delhi Police accompanied by an unspecified number of paramilitary personnel from the Rapid Action Force (RAF) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), broke up a peaceful assembly of more than 50,000 people on the Ram Lila grounds in New Delhi. The gathering was part of the “satyagraha” against corruption and money laundering launched by Swami Ramdev, a “Sanyasi” and Yoga guru, who is based at the Patanjali Yogpeeth Ashram in Haridwar in the Uttranchal state of India.
In April 2011 a “fast-unto-death” by social activist Anna Hazare, as part of a campaign to organize support for the anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill or Citizen’s Ombudsman Legislation, had attracted widespread media attention and provided an indicator of the broad discontent brewing in India around issues of corruption.
Mr. Ramdev, whose early morning Yoga sessions routinely attract tens of thousands of attendees in towns and villages across India, announced his decision to undertake a hunger strike in New Delhi from June 4 in order to pressure the government to take concrete steps on the question of black money. An unknown quantity, estimates range from tens of billions to even a few trillion U.S. dollars, of misappropriated public funds have allegedly been stashed in financial safe havens such as Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Mauritius. Ramdev’s list of demands included the call to have the government declare all black money to be national property which would thus allow its proper accounting and recovery from various locations around the world. His other demands included sentencing officials and politicians found guilty of corruption to either life in prison or execution.
Mr. Ramdev arrived in New Delhi on the afternoon of June 1, where he was received at the Delhi airport by a high-profile delegation of ministers from the central government which included the Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, the Human Resources and Development minister Kapil Sibal, P. K. Bansal and Subodh Kant Sahay. Backchannel discussions between the two parties occurred on June 2 and on June 3 they met for approximately five hours in the Claridges Hotel in New Delhi.
While the negotiations were taking place, the General Secretary of the ruling Indian National Congress, Digvijay Singh, issued veiled allegations of hypocrisy against Baba Ramdev and attacked the “five-star” facilities provided for the demonstrators at the Ram Lila grounds. Ramdev’s camp responded by saying that setting up a pavilion, fans and portable drinking water for the expected fifty to a hundred thousand attendees who would be fasting in 40 deg Celsius temperatures was the least that could be done. Despite these arrangements thousands of people had to remain outside the pavilion in the blistering sun. Mr. Singh also questioned the source of Ramdev’s funding for the setting up of this agitation. It is to be noted that these allegations were being made at the same time as Mr. Sibal and others were engaged in negotiations with Ramdev at Claridges Hotel.
The apparent outcome of these negotiations was tentative agreement by the government’s negotiators to most of Ramdev’s demands. Ramdev proceeded with his fast on June 4 and said that it would continue until he received word of the government’s assurances in writing. By midday on June 4 an estimated 100,000 people had gathered at the Ram Lila grounds. As the day wore on accusations and counter-accusations of blackmail and betrayal flew back forth between Ramdev’s and the government’s point men Mr. Singh and Mr. Sibal.
In a late afternoon press conference, called by Mr. Sibal and Mr. Sahay, Mr. Sibal released a rough hand-written note signed by Ramdev’s right-hand man Acharya Bal Krishna. Mr. Sibal claimed that according to the note Ramdev had expressed satisfaction with the government’s stance on June 3 itself and had promised to call off the agitation after a period of token “tap” or meditation which would last until June 6. In response Ramdev claimed that the letter was written under pressure from the government’s negotiators who obliquely threatened police action against the agitators. According to Ramdev’s version of events the government team had said that they had already been “humiliated” by sending four senior ministers to meet him at the airport and needed some form of assurance in order to “save face” when presenting the agreed to list of demands to the Prime Minister and to Ms. Sonia Gandhi.
As the evening of June 4 wore on, it became increasingly clear that the supposed bonhomie between the two parties had dissolved in acrimony, with Ramdev issuing an appeal to the assembled crowds to ”not to resort to any form of violence” in the event that he is arrested or detained.
Around 1:00 a.m., on the morning of June 5, 2011, the camp was surrounded was a large assortment of police and paramilitary personnel number in the thousands. Ramdev was woken up and informed by the police that the government had withdrawn permission for his gathering because they had received intelligence regarding threats to his life and could not provide adequate security to the crowd of more than 50,000 people in such an event. Ramdev resisted when policemen approached his on the dais and attempted to grab a hold of him. He jumped off the approximately 6 foot high dais onto the arms of his supporters and continued to exhort them to not resort to any form of violence against the authorities. These events occurred in full view of the assembled media crews and extensive video footage, of the resulting baton charge and firing of tear-gas resorted to by the police in order to disperse the crowd, dominated the news cycle for the rest of June 5.
Ramdev attempted to escape by wearing women’s clothing was but was apprehended between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. Later in the morning he was escorted by members of the Delhi police to Dehradun via a 10-seater aircraft. He traveled from Dehradun to his ashram in Haridwar by road arriving there sometime after 11:00 a.m.
Mr. Ramdev attempted to return to Delhi on the evening of June 5, but was turned back at the border between Uttranchal state and Uttar Pradesh state near the town of Muzaffarnagar by the U.P. police. According to the Delhi police, Ramdev is prohibited from entering Delhi for a period of 15 days from June 5 during which time Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits “unlawful assembly” and grants the police wide powers of arrest and detention, will continue to remain in effect in the national capital.
According to government spokespersons the gathering was dispersed because of an inability on the part of security forces to provide adequate security to such a large number of people. Reports suggest that several people were injured during the police action with several taken to various Delhi hospitals in critical condition.
Following the police action, Section 144 was imposed in Central Delhi and later was expanded to include all of New Delhi. Under these “prohibitory orders” the police has the right to arrest and detain any individuals deemed to be threats to public safety and to disperse any public gatherings of more than four people. This section remains in effect at the time of writing this article.
Reaction to this police action from the opposition political parties and civil society activists was swift and condemnatory with L. K. Advani, the aging leader of the main opposition party BJP, describing it as “naked fascism” in an early morning press conference in Bengaluru (Bangalore). Others including Nitin Gadkari, the governing chief of the BJP, and social activist Anna Hazare denounced the action as “unconstitutional” and “brutal”. In response Congress’ General Secretary Mr. Digvijay Singh responded by saying that Ramdev was a “thug” who was dealt with appropriately. Mr. Sibal claimed that the government was correct in resorting to such as action and referred to it as a “lesson for everybody” in a morning press meet.
Various opposition parties have gathered at Jantar Mantar, in defiance of the prohibitory orders, and at other locations in New Delhi to protest the police action.
The question of corruption and black money in the political system has long dogged major players in Indian politics. Addressing these issues has been part of the election platforms of both the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress party under Ms. Sonia Gandhi, and the previous administration known as the as National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which was composed of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its political allies. The recent unearthing of a series of high-profile corruption scandals, including the Commonwealth Games (CWG) scam, the “2G” spectrum scam and the Adarsh housing society scam, over the course of the past two years has roiled Indian politics and shaken the present administration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Supporters of a Yoga Guru Assemble for an Anticorruption Protest in India, Jim Yardley and Hari Kumar, New York Times, June 4, 2011
After Raid, Indian Guru’s Protest Stirs a Firestorm, Jim Yardley and Hari Kumar, New York Times, June 5, 2011
SC Notice to Centre on the Forceful Eviction of Ramdev, Press Trust of India, Outlook India, June 6, 2011
Political War of Words After Midnight Police Crackdown, Press Trust of India, Outlook India, June 5, 2011
Ramdev fast: Chronology of events, Press Trust of India, The Times of India, June 5, 2011
[Note: I had submitted this article to Wikinews for publication, but I’m not sure if it is going to pass their “review”. I’m interested in getting this news out instead of waiting around for an editorial thumbs-up, so here it is.]