Freedom's flexible friend: The Yoga Guru on a crusade to end corruption

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

India's most famous holy man is to fast until his country's 'black money' economy is tamed. Andrew Buncombe reports from Delhi

In the language of north India it would have been called a tamasha, and it was certainly quite a performance.

In a third-floor suite of a Delhi hotel, a pair of cabinet ministers pleaded with a holy man dressed in saffron robes, urging him not to launch the hunger strike he had threatened. A few miles away, under awnings set up to ward off the worst of the summer sun, supporters of the holy man were wondering where their guru was, firm in their commitment to join him on the supposed fast-to-death.

Swami Ramdev is probably the most famous holy guru in India. From his base next to the Ganges in Haridwar, in the foothills of the Himalayas, he controls a yoga and meditation network worth £150m. Every day, his early morning television show attracts up to 20 million viewers in India alone. Two years ago, he paid £2m to buy the Scottish island of Little Cumbrae to establish a spiritual centre.

So when the guru vowed to hop into a private jet, fly down to Delhi and lead a hunger strike in protest at widespread corruption in India and the amount of undeclared "black money" stashed in private bank accounts abroad, the government jumped into action. Some of its most senior figures, among them the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, were dispatched to the airport to greet the guru and whisk him off to the VIP lounge for talks. When they failed to make a breakthrough, more talks were arranged.

But it seems that the guru is not for turning. After five additional hours of negotiations yesterday afternoon at the Claridges Hotel, talks that were supposed to be secret, Mr Ramdev swept away in an entourage of vehicles, his destination the Ram Lila field on the edge of the old city, where hundreds of his supporters awaited him. The government confirmed that it had been unable to reach agreement with him on a list of demands he had handed over.

"If black money is brought back to this country, no one will go hungry, no one will be without a livelihood. Our currency will be stronger than the dollar or pound," Mr Ramdev declared as his supporters waved orange banners. "Our country's pride will rise. A country that was known for its good values is now the leading country when it comes to corruption and poverty, lack of education, population density, hunger and poverty. This is of deep anguish to me."

He added: "The same country that was the pinnacle of discipline and knowledge of science and maths, geography, the country that taught others to live, has now become a country of vice. We will restore its lost glory."

One of Mr Ramdev's supporters, Kalu Ram, said he had cycled all the way from the state of Gujarat, some 600 miles away, to join the protest. It took him eight days. "I am very worried about the level of corruption. I have to deal with it every day," said the 67-year-old Mr Ram, who works as a cook. "Sometimes I feel I could be like Nathuram Godse [the Hindu nationalist who assassinated Gandhi] to get rid of corruption in India."

The panic of the Indian government underlines a striking vulnerability within the administration. Earlier this year, when a social activist called Anna Hazare began a similar fast in the centre of Delhi, an act that triggered protests across the country, the authorities were quick on their feet, agreeing to his demands for an anti-corruption body but then tying up the matter in bureaucratic wrangling.

Mr Ramdev, though, is seen to be a potent threat. While some of his demands, such as the promotion of education in Hindi rather than English and the scrapping of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, may seem eccentric, other demands strike a nerve with India's growing middle-classes who are increasingly fed up with the rot of corruption that exists in India. He has called for all illegal money held overseas – some estimates have put the total at £280bn – to be nationalised and has asked that information about income tax be part of a right-to-information act.

Over the years Mr Ramdev has often held controversial positions. Several years ago he sparked trouble by suggesting that yoga could cure cancer and counter the effect of Aids. He has spoken out against gay people and believes corrupt officials should receive the death penalty.

Despite that, Mr Ramdev is dangerous politically. His position as a religious leader has enabled him to attract support from the Hindu right, including movements linked to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. Last year, Mr Ramdev announced that he was setting up his own political party, the Bharat Swabhiman, and that he intended to field candidates in every constituency in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

There are even members of the coalition government who have not missed the irony of ministers scrambling to halt a self-imposed fast in a country where millions go without enough to eat every day. For all the stories of 8 per cent growth and a new, aspirational middle class, 48 per cent of children under the age of five are malnourished.

"We have got one in four hungry in India. We are not bothered about these hungry people, but we are bothered about someone who is going to go hungry for three days," said Dinesh Trivedi, a minister and member of the Trinamool Congress party.

Quite where the stand-off will end is unclear. The government insists it has not given up trying to dissuade Mr Ramdev from fulfilling his threat. "We do not think these issues can be resolved today ... but we are happy with the progress," said Kapil Sibal, the telecommunications minister.

Mr Ramdev, on the other hand, is equally insistent he is going ahead with his fast, starting this morning. He predicted last night that many more would join him. "Many asked me, 'Baba, how many will join this protest in this heat?' I said, 'Those will come who love their motherland. No one can stop them. Not the sun and not the heat'," he said.

"Those who will not be able to come can, in their hearts, support this movement. If you get lemon with water, I will get only water. This time we will write history."

Celebrated Swamis

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Disciples would pay up to £1,500 to learn from the man who famously brought spiritualism to The Beatles, led the Transcendental Meditation movement and exported the yogic flying technique across the globe. He died at a Dutch retreat, aged about 91, in 2008.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

The self-styled "humanitarian leader, spiritual teacher and an ambassador of peace" founded the Art of Living Foundation to promote world peace in 1982. He is particularly popular among India's middle classes and trademarked the Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique, which he claims has helped millions of people all over the world to alleviate stress in the past three decades.

Mata Amritanandamayi

Commonly known as Amma (mother) or the "Hugging Saint", Mata Amritanandamayi claims to have hugged more than 26 million people to spread her message of love and healing.

Sai Baba

Some believed he was a deity, others believed he was a fraud. But the controversial guru counted several former Indian prime ministers among his millions of international followers, and tens of thousands turned out to pay their respects when he died in April aged 84.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape