Ramdev on fast, Sadhvi Rithambara's presence sparks row

New Delhi: Baba Ramdev began his indefinite hunger strike at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi today. The yoga icon describes his fast as a "satyagraha against corruption and black money." The government yesterday failed to persuade him to call off his plans and sources now say there will be no further formal talks with him as 90 per cent of his demands have been met. (Read: Who is Baba Ramdev?)

As he began his fast in the morning, thousands of his followers extended their support by observing fasts, holding dharnas and performing 'hawans' in different parts of the country. At Ramlila Maidan in Delhi too, the crowd continued to swell. (Watch: Thousands gather at Ramlila Maidan)

Among those who joined him there was former Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader and Babri Masjid demolition case accused Sadhvi Rithambara. A number of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist were also seen at the site. This led to Congress' Digvijaya Singh hitting out at Baba Ramdev saying his whole campaign is supported by VHP and RSS. He also called his fast a "5-star satyagraha." (Watch: Sadhvi Rithambara shares stage with Baba Ramdev)

"The Baba travels in a private jet, stays in a five-star luxury hotel, is having satyagraha in fancy tents with all modern facilities and has the money for such arrangements before going on a fast. This is surely a five-star satyagraha as you doubt his credibility," he said. (Watch -  Ramdev's '5-star satyagraha' has RSS support: Digvijaya) | (Congress: RSS, BJP controlling Ramdev's protest)

Mr Digvijaya also cast a doubt on whether Gandhian Anna Hazare will now join the Ramdev campaign.  Till yesterday, Mr Hazare had said he will join Ramdev in Delhi on Sunday, but today, he told NDTV that he will decide about joining Mr Ramdev's fast tomorrow.

Several clerics from Muslim, Jain and Sikh communities were also present at the Ramlila Maidan today to support Baba Ramdev.

Before launching his fast, Baba Ramdev held a yoga and bhajan session during which he told the gathering that his protest was intended to "save the country from corruption and ensure that the poor get a good life." (Read: Music, humour, yoga at Ramlila Maidan)

"Nothing is impossible, everything is possible and we are not going to be defeated," he said, referring to bringing back black money stashed in tax havens abroad. Mr Ramdev arrived at the stage at around 4:50 am and was welcomed with a huge round of applause from his followers. The crowd cheered him whenever he spoke about bringing back black money and declaring it "a national asset." (In Pictures: Baba Ramdev's satyagraha)

"I will certainly not talk about all issues today, there was a conspiracy but it has failed. What was the conspiracy, I will not say today. When the right time comes, I will say," he added.

Yesterday, four hours of negotiation at a five-star hotel in Delhi did not give the government the out it was desperately seeking. Baba Ramdev, who met with ministers Kapil Sibal and Subodh Kant Sahay at the Claridges Hotel, said he will launch his hunger strike on Saturday after all.

He has however promised that his movement will not be punctuated by either violence or abuse. "We won't give up till our demands are met," he vowed at Ramlila Maidan, which has been transformed into the capital city of his crusade.(Watch: Ramdev addresses his supporters)

Earlier on Friday, it was here that Baba Ramdev indicated that his efforts were paying off. "Barring one or two issues, a consensus seems to be emerging between us and the government."

The evening saw a change in mood.  When the talks ended without a truce, the Baba headed to Mahatma Gandhi's memorial at Rajghat where he offered his prayers. He then drove to Ramlila Maidan where he held a lengthy briefing for a crowd that cheered, waved flags and went a few sizes up every half hour or so.

At the same time, Mr Sibal met the Prime Minister to update him on the negotiations. "We are very happy with the progress, these things cannot be settled in a day," said Mr Sibal to reporters.  He also indicated that more talks are likely with Baba Ramdev. Mr Sahay met with Baba Ramdev again later in the evening.

At their session on Friday, Mr Sibal and Mr Sahay presented Baba Ramdev with a written response to his charter of demands that focuses largely on the need to check black money, recover it from foreign bank accounts, and declare it "a national asset."  Baba Ramdev also wants the death penalty to be a possible punishment for corruption charges. 

His insistence on the withdrawal of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes was allegedly one of the issues that the government could not agree to. Baba Ramdev also wants Hindi to be made the language of instruction for higher education.

Sources have told NDTV that the Cabinet Secretary is expected to release the written response given by the Government to Baba Ramdev.

In his focus on corruption as India's Public Enemy No 1, the Baba has provoked the interest of the thousands of people who usually attend his mass-yoga classes, which are televised to audiences of millions.

He has also won the support of the right-wing RSS, which has unnerved both the government and   other civil society activists.  The RSS has ordered its workers to participate in Baba Ramdev's hunger strike.  "Ramdev said no one (from RSS) will be there. He said that no party or no communal element is involved in the movement. He assured that no such element would be on the dais", said Arvind Kejriwal, an activist at the frontline of the India Against Corruption movement. 

So far, the face of that campaign has been  Gandhian Anna Hazare, whose own hunger strike in April became the centrifugal force of a new public determination to hold the government accountable for corruption.  Mr Hazare ignored the government's pleas to end his fast.  Finally, the government met all his conditions. It agreed that a new law to check corruption will be introduced quickly and it will be drafted by a committee that includes Mr Hazare and other non-government representatives.

Worried about Baba Ramdev pulling off an Anna, the government has through this week treated Mr Ramdev as its top priority - in a gesture that annoyed the Congress party, four senior ministers received Mr Ramdev at the Delhi Airport earlier this week and spent two hours there with him urging him to cancel his fast.

The ministerial posse was criticized by a section of the Congress, as also Mr Hazare, who said the grand gesture was aimed at lulling Mr Ramdev into a false sense of security. "They will trap Ramdev also. They will cheat him. What is the need for so many people to go? It was OK for one or two to go," the Gandhian said.

So after a series of meetings with the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi, the government decided to continue negotiations with Baba Ramdev but stressed that senior ministers like Pranab Mukherjee would no longer be involved.  Instead, Mr Sibal and Mr Sahay- were assigned the roles of chief negotiators.  

The Baba says he's not misappropriating his considerable stature to stray into areas that he may not be familiar with. "I am not crossing the limits of  Yoga. Not lying and stealing is also part of yoga and I am trying to bring those who have crossed that limit back within the limit," he declared. (With PTI Inputs)

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