India activist fighting corruption begins hunger strike

Gandhi disciple, many supporters detained in Delhi

A supporter of Indian rights activist Anna Hazare waited yesterday outside a stadium where other supporters are being held in New Delhi. Hazare, 74, refused to leave Delhi’s Tihar Jail. A supporter of Indian rights activist Anna Hazare waited yesterday outside a stadium where other supporters are being held in New Delhi. Hazare, 74, refused to leave Delhi’s Tihar Jail. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)
By Rama Lakshmi and Simon Denyer
Washington Post / August 17, 2011

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NEW DELHI - Indian police jailed the country’s leading anticorruption campaigner and detained thousands of his supporters yesterday, hours before the veteran activist was due to begin a hunger strike to demand tougher laws against graft.

As public anger rose, the government later made a dramatic U-turn and decided to release Anna Hazare last evening. But Hazare, 74, refused to leave Delhi’s high-security Tihar Jail unless he was given written permission to resume his fast in a park in central Delhi. Supporters said he was continuing his hunger strike in jail.

Hazare, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, is the face of a nationwide social movement against rampant corruption that has gathered pace this year after a string of high-profile scandals. He has become a major thorn in the side of the Congress party-led government, in a confrontation that has become increasingly bitter in recent weeks.

Dressed in homespun white cotton and a white cap, Hazare smiled and waved at supporters as he was driven away early yesterday from his lodgings in the Indian capital in a police vehicle, after earlier being denied permission to stage his protest. Later, hundreds of candle-holding, flag-waving protesters shouted slogans and pushed against the iron gates of Tihar Jail demanding that Hazare be released immediately.

“He will not come out of prison unless the government gives him a written and unconditional permission to fast in the park,’’ fellow activist Manish Sisodia told reporters after being released from Tihar Jail, to cheers and applause from the assembled crowd. “He is continuing his hunger strike inside the jail.’’

Earlier, police said 1,400 protesters had been detained in Delhi. Activists said 20,000 had been detained across the country, but many were released.

About 3,000 are still being held at a sports stadium in eastern Delhi, they said.

The arrests of Hazare and hundreds of his fellow activists has shifted the focus of the debate from corruption to the right to protest in the world’s largest democracy

By late afternoon, senior government officials were admitting privately that events had been mishandled.

Political analyst Kuldip Nayar said the way the government had flip-flopped showed tat officials were panicking. “They could not handle the public anger,’’ he said. “Today’s events will only embolden the movement because people will now say, ‘Look, the government is a paper tiger.’ ’’

The government said it had been forced to detain Hazare and his supporters to maintain law and order in the capital. But opposition leaders and activists said the mass detentions were reminiscent of the days of British rule over India and the imposition of emergency rule under Indira Gandhi in 1975.

“The second freedom struggle has started,’’ Hazare said in a video statement recorded before his arrest and issued on YouTube. “The protests should not stop. The time has come for no jail in the country to have a free space.’’

The anticorruption movement aims to energize the country’s democracy against graft and has drawn considerable support from India’s often apathetic middle class.

Activists are planning another protest in Delhi today to invite arrest.

Tens of thousands of people, many wearing Hazare masks or T-shirts and white caps saying “I am Anna,’’ also gathered in the Indian cities of Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Lucknow, and Ahmedabad.

“The question before the nation is this: Does this government believe in democracy?’’ said activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan. “They are disrespecting the core value of democracy, which is the right of the people to protest on any issue anywhere.

“This government does not look like a democratic government; it is looking a lot like the government of the British Raj.’’ top stories on Twitter

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