India in uproar over corruption protest crackdown

AFP , Tuesday 16 Aug 2011

As discontent rises over India's corruption cases, Indian social activist Anne Hazare is arrested before renewing his planned hunger strike in a public park

Indian police arrested an anti-corruption hunger-striker and detained 1,400 of his supporters on Tuesday in a crackdown that provoked outrage in the world's biggest democracy.

Veteran campaigner Anna Hazare, 74, was taken to jail after plain-clothed police picked him up at an apartment in New Delhi on Tuesday morning shortly before he was due to start his "fast unto death" in a public park.

About 1,400 people rallying in protest at Hazare's arrest were held by police and taken to a sports stadium where a large crowd gathered outside, sparking a tense stand-off with officers.

Corruption has become a key issue of public discontent in India, and Hazare has emerged as a prominent national figure for his campaign to demand changes to a new anti-graft law currently before parliament.

"Will this movement be stopped by my arrest? No, not at all. Do not let it happen," Hazare said in a message on Tuesday morning predicting the day's drama.

"This fight for change which has begun, we will take it forward on the path of non-violence as long as there is life in the body. Thank you. Victory to Mother India!" he added.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram denied the government was quashing dissent, saying protest organisers had refused to guarantee to obey police orders that the rally would be limited to 5,000 people and could only last three days.

"This government is not against peaceful protest," he stressed.

Further demonstrations erupted in Chennai, Hazare's home state of Maharashtra and elsewhere after the frail devotee of Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi was taken to the capital's Tihar jail.

"Anna Hazare refused to provide an undertaking to a special executive magistrate (to follow police orders on the protest)," Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said.

"He has been taken to the jail for seven days but he can always submit a plea for his release."

Supporters said he started his fast in jail, but police declined to confirm the reports.

Corruption has rocketed up the agenda in fast-developing India after a series of scandals, notably a telecom licence scam that is thought to have cost the country up to $39 billion in lost revenue.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the opposition, accused authorities of an "absolutely undemocratic" act in arresting Hazare as protests in the national parliament forced business to be adjourned for the day.

"It's a bizarre and thoughtless act on the part of the government," party spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy told AFP, describing the police action as an "instigation to aggression".

Many observers believe the crackdown reflects concern that Hazare may become a figurehead for a broader protest movement against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government, which is also grappling with an economic slowdown and high inflation.

Zoya Hassan, a politics professor at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, told AFP that Hazare's detention was a "violation of basic liberties".

"It's a bumpy road ahead," she said. "The civil society activists have significant middle-class support and they have ample media support. The detention will cause a lot of unrest."

In June, police halted another anti-corruption hunger strike in Delhi when officers broke up a protest by yoga guru Swami Ramdev that had attracted national headlines.

In April, Hazare staged a 98-hour hunger strike that pushed the Congress-led government into allowing him and his supporters to help draft the new anti-corruption law, called the "Lokpal" bill.

The bill, since introduced in parliament, would create a new ombudsman tasked with investigating and prosecuting politicians and bureaucrats, but Hazare wants the prime minister and higher judiciary to come under scrutiny.

Arguing that his recommendations had been ignored, Hazare had planned to begin a second hunger strike on Tuesday.

Hazare, a life-long bachelor who wears simple, white home-spun cotton, is a social conservative who dreams of an India centred around self-sufficient villages -- much like his hero Gandhi.

The strict traditionalist has also adopted the hunger strike, used to great effect by Gandhi against British colonial leaders, as his weapon in campaigns to pressure officials.

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