NEW DELHI (AFP) – A television yoga guru who has led protests against corruption in India threatened to form a militia on Thursday as a new demonstration against the government drew thousands in New Delhi.
Yoga star Swami Ramdev, who was evicted from the capital along with thousands of followers at the weekend in a police crackdown, warned of violence if he was targeted again.
The activist, an eccentric figure watched by millions of Indians daily on a religious television channel, called for men and women to join his “army”.
“They must be dedicated, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice,” he said from his base in northern India in remarks reported by the NDTV news channel. “They will be given arms training. We will build an army of 11,000 men and women.”
His spokesman told AFP that the force would have weapons but would act only in self-defence. He said that Ramdev, who has been fasting since Monday, was determined to stand up to police if they again attacked him or his supporters.
In the capital, thousands gathered at the cremation site of Mahatma Gandhi, considered the father of the Indian nation, to join a one-day hunger strike in solidarity with Ramdev.
Led by Anna Hazare, a 73-year-old activist who observed a 98-hour hunger strike against corruption in April, several thousand made their way through tight security to join the demonstration.
“We will have to make sacrifices. We will be humiliated also. But we will have to bear all this and take it in our stride,” Hazare, wearing trademark white cotton clothes, told the crowd.
Hazare, who has a large public following after years of campaigning against corruption, successfully forced the government in April to allow activists to help draft a new anti-graft law.
“I am here to support Anna. I was shocked by the way the police misbehaved with innocent protesters during Baba Ramdev’s demonstration,” Rolly Mishra, a 25-year-old software engineer who had taken the day off work, told AFP.
“In a democracy, everyone has a right to stand up for a cause and no government can stop us from doing so.”
Anger about corruption is mounting in India after a series of scandals, notably a telecom licence scam that might have cost the country up to $39 billion.
Some observers predicted the government’s heavy-handed treatment of Ramdev, a strict social conservative with radical views on how to tackle corruption, could lead to further protests.
But the guru’s call for an army and the threat of violence is likely to alienate many Indians who had previously sympathised with his cause.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has faced criticism for his handling of Ramdev.
Government ministers attempted to appease him initially by listening to his demands before switching tactics and ordering the police crackdown that left more than 70 injured, including two seriously.
One of India’s most popular authors, Chetan Bhagat, has orchestrated an online campaign against the government, calling on his followers on Twitter to observe a one-day fast in solidarity with Hazare and Ramdev.