NEW DELHI — India’s leading anti-corruption campaigner emerged from prison Friday to be greeted by cheering supporters as he prepared to continue a hunger strike against official graft at a park in central Delhi.
Anna Hazare, 74, was showered with rose petals as he walked slowly through a crowd of supporters Friday morning outside Delhi’s Tihar Jail before leading them in chants of “Hail Mother India” and “Long live the revolution.”
“You have lit a torch against corruption,” he told the crowd. “Don’t extinguish it until India is free from corruption.” Dressed in his trademark white cap and cotton shirt, he exhorted his supporters, “If I live or not, keep the torch alight.”
Hazare then left on an open truck through packed streets as supporters waved huge Indian flags. He made his way first to a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and then to the grounds in central Delhi where he intends to continue his fast.
The veteran activist was arrested Tuesday, hours before he planned to begin an indefinite fast to demand tougher laws against corruption. The arrest sparked protests across India by tens of thousands of people and put the government on the defensive.
Within 24 hours of his arrest, more than 120,000 Indians signed an online petition demanding his release.
Undeterred, Hazare began his fast in jail on Tuesday, and although the government backed down and ordered Hazare’s release that evening, he refused to leave the prison until he was assured that he could continue his protest on the outside.
On Thursday, the government climbed down for a second time, giving Hazare permission to hold his hunger strike for at least 15 days in Delhi’s Ramlila park, although his release was delayed to allow time for the government to clear the grounds for the protest.
Television stations reported Hazare has already lost 6 1/2 pounds since Tuesday an now weighs 150 pounds. He moved slowly and apologized to supporters for not being able to speak longer, but otherwise appeared to be in good health.
The government has introduced legislation in Parliament to establish an independent anti-corruption ombudsman, but Hazare says the bill is “good for nothing” because it excludes the prime minister, the judiciary and much of the bureaucracy from the ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
He has drawn up his own version of the legislation and threatened to fast until it is introduced in Parliament.
While Hazare’s campaign against corruption has strong support in India, critics have raised concerns with his tactics and with his vision of an all-powerful and essentially unaccountable ombudsman.
The government hopes to turn the confrontation into a debate about the best method to battle corruption. A member of the ruling Congress Party said the government also is holding informal talks with Hazare’s team in an attempt to find common ground.
Senior officials privately admit that the government was wrong to jail Hazare, and they hope that the protests will lose steam after he is allowed to fast for a few days.
Hazare was sent to the same high-security jail that houses a former government minister and other senior officials implicated in two multibillion-dollar corruption scandals that surfaced last year, over the sale of telecommunications licenses and the staging of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
At his new protest site in Ramlila park, police violently dispersed another fast and protest in June — by popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev.
Hazare’s movement has won many supporters from the young, urban middle class, who have used Facebook and Twitter to organize and express their views. But protesters in the past four days came from every walk of life. They included students, plumbers, retired army officers and bankers.