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Unlike Anna Hazare, Pakistani’s hunger strike gets lukewarm response

By Nicolas Brulliard,

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Last month Indian activist Anna Hazare’s hunger strike sparked protests across India and garnered attention from international media before forcing the Indian parliament to take up an anti-corruption bill.

Last week, when Pakistani activist Raja Jahangir Akhtar completed his nine-day hunger strike against corruption here, only a few hundred people showed up and Akhtar lamented the lack of media coverage. All he got for his effort were some vague promises from local parliamentarians.

Resting on his hospital bed two days after breaking his fast with a glass of mango juice, Akhtar expressed disappointment over the lukewarm response, and he put the blame squarely on his compatriots.

“In India people are politically more conscious, and they have a history of making their demands accepted through agitation,” he said. “People here feel that whatever they do the ruling elite won’t [accede to their demands].”

Akhtar insists he is no Hazare copycat. He says he announced his intention to fast in July — before Hazare went on his latest hunger strike — but postponed his own hunger strike until after the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan requires Muslims to abstain not only from food but also from water, which Akhtar consumed during his fast.

The 68-year-old businessman also said he is a veteran hunger-striker, having gone on six previous hunger strikes. His last effort in 2007 helped secure the release of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry’s family.

When he embarked on his latest “hunger strike till death” on Sept. 12, Akhtar had two main demands: that Pakistan’s parliament pass an anti-corruption bill and that Pakistan reduce its military expenses and create a welfare state for its citizens. A third, less publicized demand was that Pakistan’s military move its facilities out of residential areas to avoid civilian casualties in case of attacks.

Aitzaz Ahsan, a leader of the popular lawyers movement that contributed to the fall of military strongman Pervez Musharraf, said Akhtar’s hunger strike was a “heroic gesture” but that his demands were too broad and too ambitious to be met with success.

“If you go on a hunger strike till death it has to be a very specific issue,” Ahsan said. “The objective is very laudable, but you are not going to achieve it in the 45 to 50 days that you can survive on a hunger strike.”

Ahsan said the success of the lawyers movement, which lasted two years and gathered thousands of supporters, was due mostly to its narrow objective of restoring the rule of law and reinstating the chief justice.

Despite its relatively slow momentum, Akhtar’s hunger strike succeeded in attracting a small group of parliamentarians to his camp set up near one of Islamabad’s shopping centers. The parliamentarians assured Akhtar that an anti-corruption bill would be presented to parliament. That promise and Akhtar’s friends’ concern for his health convinced the activist to put an end to his fast after nine days.

Syed Adil Gilani, former chairman of the Pakistan chapter of Transparency International, said he doesn’t believe the parliamentarians’ promise will amount to anything.

“The government does not have the political will to tackle corruption,” he said.

In any case, Akhtar said he is ready to fast again if there is no progress within three to four months.

His fight may also receive a significant boost. This week a group of Pakistani activists visited Hazare in India and asked him to take his anti-corruption fight to Pakistan.

© The Washington Post Company