NEW DELHI: Indian police on Monday arrested famed TV yoga guru and anti-corruption campaigner Baba Ramdev as he attempted to lead a procession of thousands of supporters to parliament.
Ramdev, an eccentric saffron-robed holy man with a yoga empire that spans the globe, began a protest in New Delhi last Thursday demanding the government do more to repatriate illicit money stashed by Indians in foreign accounts.
Police parked buses and erected barricades across the route taken by Ramdev and his supporters, many of whom had come from his home town of Haridwar in the foothills of the Himalayas.
“Oust Congress -- save the country,” Ramdev declared to supporters.
Ramdev and activist Anna Hazare have made joint efforts to mobilise Indians to fight corruption, following a string of major scandals that have tarnished the Congress-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Hazare, a former army driver who models his appearance on independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, led a huge protest movement in 2011 but his popularity and ability to tap into public anger have since waned.
Ramdev, whose current protest has been largely ignored by the government -- unlike in 2011 when senior ministers held meetings with him -- said he had wanted to march to parliament to have the voice of his supporters heard by lawmakers.
Ramdev and other arrested protesters were transported to a stadium in the centre of New Delhi as thousands of supporters crowded the streets, shouting “hail mother India”.
They followed the guru to the stadium barely a kilometre from where he was arrested, creating a big traffic jam in one of New Delhi’s busiest office districts.
Initially police had planned to hold Ramdev in a stadium on the outskirts of the capital. But shifting him there proved impossible “due to the traffic jam and monsoon showers”, police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told AFP.
Police said late Monday they were releasing the guru and his supporters but they refused to leave the stadium, claiming that the protest had taken a “decisive turn,” according to local media reports.
Ramdev’s refusal to quit the stadium was causing worries for authorities who were putting in place tight security arrangements for India’s Independence Day celebrations on Wednesday.
India’s ruling Congress party, meanwhile, charged that Ramdev was being used by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the country’s main opposition.
“The country has seen today that the masks have fallen and the real faces have been revealed,” Congress spokesman Janardhan Dwivedi said after BJP president Nitin Gadkari delivered a speech of support at Ramdev’s rally.
“The BJP president has gone there and they (Ramdev’s supporters) say they have no relationship with political parties. I am saying the masks are off,” he said.