Baba Ramdev, 54
JALGAON, MAHARASHTRA, 5 am. Thirty thousand cross-legged devotees get ready to inhale — both yoga and politics. On TV screens across India, others are gearing up for their morning double dose. They all know, their favourite guru is now also a self-styled messiah against corruption. His presence is electrifying. He meets his audience’s eye directly. He is accessible. He is warm. He is funny. The question is: When lakhs of followers are fed on a diet of political activism along with their morning dose of yoga, are they still listening? And if they are, what does this large captive middle-class audience take back with them?
To answer that, it’s worth looking at the background of Baba Ramdev’s audience. A mong Baba’s many supporters, we zoom in on a successful jewellery wholesaler in Jalgaon. As he waits to host the Baba, conversations in the jeweller’s house centre not on yoga but on Baba Ramdev’s anti-corruption crusade. What’s wrong with the country is that all its politicians are corrupt, they say. Bring India’s black money back from abroad, they say.
Baba Ramdev’s political activism draws from the same ideas and opinions that his audience shares — the ‘Great Indian Middle Class’, that Pavan Varma describes as having become insulated from the larger political process of India and confining itself increasingly to “self-obsessed aspiration”. People who cannot articulate what is wrong with their lives except that prices of food have gone up and the government is swindling them. If the middle class sees in Baba Ramdev a leader in the political realm, they need to understand what he’s really offering them. What is his solution to make India corruption-free? What kind of rights does he stand for? It’s common for Indians to see people who cure them as some sort of miracle workers. To Baba Ramdev’s credit, this is a view he does not entertain or encourage. To an old woman who clutched at him asking to be blessed, he insisted — he’s no miracle worker. His only recipe for her was to do pranayam. Yoga.
EVEN SO, when people come to Ramdev with that kind of devotion and blind faith, they also transpose the same blind faith to his political activism. And clap loudly when he says “death by hanging to all those who are corrupt”. And even more loudly when he says — all the black money will come back to India once he goes on fast and then it will amount to Rs 60,000 crore for each district in the country. Loud applause. No one questions how all this money can ever come back and even if it does, how it will reach the masses if the system is as corrupt as the Baba claims.
For now, they promise to turn up in thousands and even millions to support him in his anti-corruption drive. No questions asked. Questions are for the politicians and the corrupt. Because Baba Ramdev’s political discourse is being delivered across India to people of faith. Running yoga and meditation is perhaps best possible in a climate of unquestioned faith. Political discourse, it is generally argued, is best put to the test of reason and scepticism.
‘Why am I seen as being close to the Sangh?’
BORN RAMKISHAN YADAV in Alipur, a small Haryana village, he ran away from home at the age of nine to join a gurukul. He shot into prominence in 1995 after he started the Divya Yog Mandir Trust. In 2003, Aastha TV began featuring him in its morning yoga slot, and he turned out to be charismatic and telegenic. Within a few years, he had a cult following. His trusts, worth 1,100 crore, are now spread over 600 acres in Haridwar, and include a university. In 2009, he was gifted a 750-acre island by a Scottish couple.
Excerpts from an interview
You are part of the Jan Lokpal movement. So why did you feel the need for a satyagraha against corruption?
There has been some ambiguity in the media on this that needs to be cleared. We’ve been on a drive for the past five years. A simple fast in Delhi cannot be a movement, can it? I address two lakh people every day. My daily campaigns are also a part of my anti-corruption drive.
What are the demands for which you are fasting from 4 June?
First, India’s money stashed abroad should be declared the wealth of the nation. And the act of stashing away illegally got money in foreign banks should be declared a crime against the State. The nation’s wealth stashed in foreign banks should be brought back by India agreeing to sign on to the UN convention against corruption. These are my principal demands.
Have you made these demands to the government before?
Yes. I’ve sent a letter to the prime minister with the signatures of about 10 crore people on 27 February. I said these demands should be met or there will be a big agitation across the country. I got no reply.
I heard you say it this morning that your campaign is a non-violent satyagraha against corruption…
But on the other hand you prescribe death by hanging to those found guilty of corruption. Isn’t this against ahimsa?
Look, those people are responsible for the suicide of at least two farmers every hour in this country — 20,000 farmers commit suicide every year. In the past 10 years, about two lakh farmers have committed suicide. Every year, 70 lakh people die of starvation, malnutrition and suicide, due in one way or another to corruption, for which black money is stashed away in accounts abroad. I hold these corrupt officials accountable for that.
‘I’m not for religious conversions. I am for converting people’s ideas and changing their lives’
One argument against the death penalty is that there is seldom 100 percent proof of someone’s guilt. If an innocent person is punished, no redressal is possible.
We are showing such a great deal of caution in dealing with the corrupt. Where am I saying hang those who aren’t guilty? We’re showing too much sympathy for those who are corrupt and responsible for killing 70 lakh people each year.
All these statements you are making are political. Yet you constantly say you’re not political. How is that?
My political outlook is clear. I’m not doing any doublespeak or being diplomatic. There are two ways of changing the system — one, to enter politics directly. And two, to create such an enormous groundswell of pressure from the public that the political class is forced to act responsibly.
People you’ve been associated with — Rajiv Dixit or Govindacharya — were close to the Sangh Parivar. What are your views of the Parivar’s brand of politics?
Unfortunately, when I visit Deoband, the media doesn’t write about it. When I meet Manmohan Singh several times, I’m not noticed. When I speak with Rahul Gandhi for hours on end, it’s not noticed. Or when I talk to Priyanka Gandhi or Maulana Mahmud Madani. I don’t understand why I’m seen as being close to the Sangh Parivar. I’m a spiritual guru but not communal.
Are you calling the Sangh Parivar communal?
I’m not calling anyone communal. I’m talking about myself. I am not communal.
Do you see India as essentially Hindu or essentially secular?
I see India as an essentially spiritual land.
Who in today’s politics comes closest to this ideal of yours? And who is more responsible for corruption in your view?
All political parties have good and bad people. Overall I’d say the Congress is more responsible for corruption only because it has been in power much longer.
If the black money from abroad comes back into the same corrupt system, how will it reach the people?
That’s why the system also needs to be changed. For that the biggest solution is to get up and do yoga in the morning. And meditate. If a person works every day on his body and mind, that person’s body and mind will be so pure that he will not want to cause harm to another being. Improving the spiritual quotient of society is the best way to reform it.
Isn’t your recipe for cleaning the system a little too simple?
Yoga is one part of the reform process. The other is spiritual education. I’ve got about one crore volunteers working for me.
What exactly are these volunteers doing?
They’re going to every village and teaching yoga and the importance of looking after one’s health. But that’s just an excuse to get them to work on themselves — self discipline, self-confidence and honesty.
If you’re on a crusade to clean the country, then why do you say you won’t be involved in politics directly? What’s wrong with that?
Nothing wrong with that.But there are two ways of cleaning the system. To enter politics or to bring about social change by working with the people. When I have such a powerful tool with me — the people — then why should I use a lesser one?
Will Baba Ramdev never actively enter politics?
Swami Ramdev will never enter active politics. That is my solemn resolve. It’s a closed door.
Are you also closed to supporting a political party?
That’s an unresolved question. I’m saying I have these three lists of demands. Whoever agrees to do that and delivers on it will benefit.
As a spiritual guru, what is your view on the issue of religious conversions in this country?
This is a very complex issue. I am not in favour of religious conversions. I believe in converting people’s ideas and changing their lives, not their religion.
But there has been a lot of violence in this country in the name of religious conversions. Graham Staines was burnt alive in Odisha because a few people believed he was involved in conversions.
I am saying I don’t believe in carrying out conversions. But I do not favour violence in the name of conversions either.
When you’re saying you’re against violence in the name of religion, then what would you call the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya? Should a Ram temple be built there instead?
The court has given a verdict in the case and I will not comment on that verdict. But the court also said that a temple should be built. And I believe a temple should be built. I have talked to Muslims across the country — the common man and intellectuals and religious leaders. They all say they have no problem with the temple being built. They said they only have a problem with the people who have been spreading violence in the name of building the temple.
Are you saying Muslims won’t have a problem with a temple being built?
The Muslims of this country also agree that Babur wasn’t born in Ayodhya, Lord Ram was. And Muslims also say that while they don’t worship Lord Ram, he is also their ancestor. Just like the Hindus of this nation count Lord Ram as theirs, the Muslims equally consider him theirs as well. So if Hindus and Muslims want a temple then that’s what will happen eventually. What both Hindus and Muslims were against is the violence.
But the Babri Masjid was torn down to make way for the temple at Ayodhya.
I’ve said all I have to on this subject and I’m not going to say any more.
You’ve also been controversial for your opinions on homosexuality.
I consider homosexuality unnatural and a mental disorder. A bad habit. Many people acquire bad habits and get addicted to them. I’ve read all the scientific research on this subject and I’m speaking to you after having read that.
Coming back to your campaign against corruption. You said Santosh Hegde is supporting your fast and he’s said he will not go on fast. What’s the story here?
Santosh Hegde is supporting me and will continue to support the movement. I’ve spoken to Arvind Kejriwal and Anna Hazare and they said they are also 100 percent behind me.
You were trained in yoga. When did you start developing an interest in larger social and political reform?
I’ve always been interested in reform and transformation since I was a child. But I had no idea then what shape it would take. I’ve been in favour of changing the education system since I was nine years old, when I ran away from home, dropped out of formal school and enrolled in a gurukul. Social and political activism intensified in me about five years ago.
Revati Laul is a Correspondent with Tehelka.