By Kurt Achin
Police have arrested one of India’s leading activists just as he was set to begin a hunger strike in support of stronger anti-corruption legislation.
The detention of 74-year-old social activist Anna Hazare Tuesday sparked mass protest in the Indian capital. Their numbers continued to rise into the evening, as similar protest gatherings emerged around the country.
Later in the day, officials said an order for his release was issued, but Hazare refused to leave jail, saying he wants no restrictions on his demonstration once he is freed. Some 1,400 of his supporters detained earlier were also released.
Hazare had just begun what he calls “the second battle for indenpendence” and a Gandhi-inspired “fast unto death” in support of robust new legislation to counter widespread corruption before he was detained.
Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram stressed the decision to detain Hazare was made by local police, but he defended the action.
He called it a “painful duty” police were required to perform after Hazare told him he would refuse to accept their conditions limiting the protest to three days in length and no more than 5,000 people.
“He said that he was proceeding to defy the orders. At that point, the police came to the conclusion that he and his supporters would commit a cognizable offense, and there was a risk of breach of peace.”
A similar fast by Hazare in April lasted only several days, but pressured the government into introducing a bill that would create a civil society organization to monitor and police political corruption.
Hazare says the government’s bill is too weak, and demands a law that would make even the Indian Prime Minister and members of the judiciary subject to prosecution by the anti-corruption body.
Senior leaders of India’s ruling Congress party repeated their assertion Tuesday that Parliament is the only acceptable venue for drafting new legislation.
Home Minister Chidambaram rejected claims that the police, under pressure from the government, were curbing basic democratic rights of civil protest. He says authorities have spent months trying to negotiate appropriate crowd control conditions for Hazare’s protest.
“Nowhere in the world is a protest allowed without any conditions, This is the capital of India.”
Soon after he was detained, supporters of Hazare released a video on YouTube indicating he had anticipated, and possibly planned, his arrest.
Hazare says, “I have been arrested.” He asks, “Will this arrest put an end to the anti corruption campaign? Don’t let that happen,” he continues. “A time must come,” he says,”‘when there will no place left in the country’s jails, but please keep the movement non-violent.”
Popular outrage over corruption in India has grown steadily over the past year as reports of one sweeping graft scandal after another has emerged in national media.
Both houses of India’s parliament adjourned early over the controversy surrounding Hazare’s detention. The threat of possible paralysis now looms over the legislature, as an emboldened political opposition began accusing the ruling party of depriving protesters of their civil rights.