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Ramdev crackdown gives government nightmares

Sunday June 05, 2011 06:14:49 PM, Kavita Bajeli-Datt & Sarwar Kashani, IANS

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New Delhi: The Congress-led government battled a major opposition onslaught Sunday after ordering a midnight police crackdown on Baba Ramdev and an army of his supporters, forcing the yoga guru out of Delhi and leaving many people seriously injured. In a rare show of unanimity, political leaders ranging from the Left to Right denounced the police action at the Ramlila ground, specifically condemning Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, after the government first warmed up to Ramdev and then branded him a "thug" when he went ahead with his hunger strike.

On the backfoot, cabinet ministers and Delhi Police tried to justify the decision to physically remove Ramdev - eventually sending him to Dehradun, from where he moved to Hardwar - and use tear gas and batons to disperse large crowds that left more than 100 men and women in hospitals.

"This is a black day in Indian history. The nation will not forgive this," thundered Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, echoing the sentiments of other leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"This is state terrorism," said an indignant Ramdev aide, Vedprakash Vaidik.

The government hit back. Human Resource Development Miniter Kapil Sibal, who until Saturday evening had been talking to Ramdev, said Sunday that he was a "face" of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

"Today it has become clear that he is another face of the RSS," said a combative Sibal. "What we have done is right." Police said Ramdev would not be allowed to enter Delhi for a fortnight.

Back at his ashram in Hardwar, Ramdev hardened his stand. He accused the government of going back on its promises made during talks with ministers.

"They wanted to kidnap, kill me, or send me somewhere," he said. "No other nation would have shown this kind of roughness against its citizens."

A fuming Ramdev vowed to continue his fast, quickly drawing support from the BJP government in Uttarakhand.

It all began after midnight Saturday when hundreds of Delhi Police and Rapid Action Force (RAF) personnel descended on the sprawling Ramlila ground and tried to seize the 46-year-old Ramdev, a virtual cult figure for his mastery of yoga.

Ramdev had launched what he said was an indefinite hunger strike at the venue Saturday morning seeking government measures to check corruption and bring back money stashed abroad by Indians.

The protest followed days of intense negotiations between him and the government which did not want Ramdev to go on fast. But he did just that, drawing thousands of fans from all over India.

In a bid to evade police, Ramdev jumped from the stage and ran into the crowds. And although he repeatedly appealed to his supporters not to take to violence, clashes soon broke out.

As police used bamboo sticks to push off people from the stage, some Ramdev supporters armed themselves with iron rods and fire extinguishers.

Some protesters hurled stones at the police, creating more mayhem. Policemen threw back the stones. The carefully set up sound system collapsed. In no time, three or four minor fires gripped the stage.

Hundreds who had been sleeping until then and were taken aback by the onslaught fled in panic, leaving behind books, bags, slippers and clothes. Within two hours, the Ramlila ground resembled a war zone.

In the melee, policemen grabbed Ramdev and dragged him away. By 4 a.m., the venue was virtually cleared of the crowds, barring some women who defiantly refused to quit.

"What happened here was barbaric," said a former Indian Navy officer from Chandigarh. A young man said India had fared worse than Egypt, where a mass revolt continued for weeks until Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

BJP leader Sushma Swaraj said 35 people injured by police were warded in hospitals, four in serious condition.

They included a woman who was paralyzed after suffering injuries on her spinal cord and two young men whose skull bones had cracked. A doctor in a hospital told IANS that 100 people were being treated for injuries.

Apart from political parties -- the BJP, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Communists -- the government took flak from Gandhian activist Anna Hazare, whose five-day fast in April forced New Delhi to set up a panel to draft a tough Lokpal bill to check corruption in high places.

"To protest is not a crime," Hazare said after arriving here. "It only strengthens democracy. What was the need to send police at night and beat up people? This is a blot on democracy."





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