NEW DELHI, June 5 (IANS): Yoga guru Baba Ramdev's indefinite mass hunger strike came to an abrupt end just after Saturday midnight as hundreds of policemen swooped down on Ramlila ground here, forcibly removing him and dispersing his restive supporters with tear gas and batons.As officials said he was being taken back to ashram in Hardwar, his supporters fumed and civil society members called the move unfortunate. But the ruling Congress said it had been done in public interest.
In an operation that was meticulously planned, Delhi Police and Rapid Action Force (RAF) personnel descended on the protest venue in the heart of the capital, taking by surprise both Ramdev and the mass of his sleeping supporters.
In no time, there was pandemonium as Ramdev tried to evade police.
As the crowds became restive at the sprawling ground, Ramdev took up a mike and frantically appealed to his supporters from the stage not to indulge in violence. He also quickly ran into the crowds, perhaps in the hope that police may not take him away.
"Why am I being arrested at night without any information? I appeal to people to maintain calm," Ramdev shouted.
His core supporters and close aides did throw a human ring around him to prevent police from whisking him away. But it did not work.
In no time, clashes erupted between security personnel and Ramdev supporters, some of whom armed themselves with iron rods, fire extinguishers and what appeared to be baseball bats.
As some of them hurled stones at police, the security forces hit back viciously. Some 30 people with minor injuries were admitted to a nearby hospital, an official said.
A few minor fires erupted on the high stage. The sound system was dismantled. Not only did some policemen throw back the stones hurled at them, but others fired tear gas, choking and blinding hundreds. Men and women, who had been sleeping until an hour ago, fled in different directions.
Amid the confusion, police personnel got on to the stage and pushed away the organisers and others. Those who refused to get off were hit with batons.
Quickly, Baba Ramdev -- who enjoys a wide following in north India -- was physically lifted and carried away, further angering his supporters.
Home Secretary G.K. Pillai later told IANS that he was being taken to his ashram in Hardwar in Uttarakhand and was expected to be there by lunch time.
Police said the reason for his removal was that Ramlila ground was given for the yoga camp and not for protests.
The police action drew sharp criticism from civil society members and opposition parties.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said: "It is an attack on democracy."
Swami Agnivesh, a leading member of social reformer Anna Hazare's anti-graft movement, distanced himself from Ramdev but termed the police action as "unfortunate".
But the ruling Congress justified the operation against a "thug" who had cheated the nation. "You cannot allow people like Ramdev to run riot in Delhi. He had said he was going to have a yoga shivir but he was trying to agitate people. The administration in its own business is justified. This has been done in public interest," Congress' Digvijay Singh said.
But Ramdev's supporters were angry. "What they have done is disgusting. It is barbarous," thundered a former Indian Navy officer who said he had come from Chandigarh to offer his support to Ramdev's fast against unending corruption and black money stashed abroad by rich Indians.
An angry young man compared the crackdown with the earlier Egyptian protests.
"Even in Egypt they allowed people to demonstrate for so long. Look at this country," he said, clearly disgusted. A young woman accused police of misbehaving with her -- and other women.
Within two hours of the operation, the Ramlila ground was in a shambles and looked like a war zone. In the morning it wore a deserted look with scattered, unclaimed articles lying around.
The midnight police action came just about 14 hours after Ramdev went on his indefinite fast after his talks with senior government ministers failed.
Earlier, the government had opened talks with the controversial yoga icon whose demands include immediate steps by the government to bring back huge wealth illegally stashed abroad by rich Indians and tough punishment against those who indulge in graft, among others.
Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal, who was negotiating for the government, had criticised Ramdev for continuing the protest despite an agreement with the government.