NEW DELHI — Indian police jailed a leading anti-corruption campaigner and detained thousands of his supporters Tuesday morning, hours before the veteran activist was due to begin an indefinite hunger strike to demand tougher laws against graft.
As public anger mounted, the government made a dramatic U-turn and decided to release the 74-year-old Anna Hazare on Tuesday evening. But Hazare 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 government, which is led by the Congress party, and the confrontation has become increasingly bitter in recent weeks.
Hazare, dressed in homespun white cotton and a white cap, smiled and waved at supporters as he was driven away Tuesday morning 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 his immediate release.
“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, drawing 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 that 20,000 had been detained across the country but that many had been released.
About 3,000 are still being held at a sports stadium in eastern Delhi, they said Tuesday.
The arrest 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 government’s flip-flopping showed that it was 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.’ ”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, speaking in Parliament Wednesday morning as opposition lawmakers jeered, accused Hazare of trying to circumvent democracy by demanding Parliament pass a reform bill he supports.
“Those who believe that their voice and their voice alone represents the will of 1.2 billion people should reflect deeply on that position,” Singh said. “They must allow the elected representatives of the people in Parliament to do the job that they were elected for.”
Both houses of Parliament had adjourned in chaos Tuesday, with neither government nor opposition lawmakers allowed to speak over the din of jeers and catcalls protesting the arrests. The chaotic scene continued Wednesday.
On Monday, Singh weighed in on the debate in his annual Independence Day speech, saying his government was committed to the “strictest possible” action against corrupt officials but had no “magic wand” to end graft.
He said that only Parliament should decide the shape of legislation, while opponents should engage in debate but not “resort to hunger strikes and fasts unto death.”
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 the British rule over India and the emergency rule under Indira Gandhi in 1975.
“The second freedom struggle has started,” Hazare said in a video statement recorded before his arrest and posted on YouTube. “The protests should not stop. The time has come for no jail in the country to have a free space.”
The anti-corruption 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, on Wednesday, to invite arrest. Tens of thousands of people, many wearing Hazare masks or T-shirts and white caps bearing the words “I am Anna,” also gathered in the 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.”
Hazare’s tactics were a direct throwback to those employed successfully by Mahatma Gandhi when India was fighting for independence from Britain — fasting to induce panic among the authorities and courting arrest through peaceful protest.
Delhi police had insisted that Hazare restrict his fast to three days and limit the number of protesters to 5,000 — conditions the activist rejected.
They committed Hazare to seven days in judicial custody for refusing to sign an undertaking that he would not continue his protest if he was freed. He was taken to Tihar Jail, which houses a former government minister and other senior officials and businessmen accused in recent corruption scandals.
“Protests are perfectly permissible and welcome, but they must be undertaken under certain reasonable conditions,” Home Minister P. Chidambaram said at a news conference. “Nowhere in the world is a protest allowed without any conditions.” Chidambaram said Hazare’s arrest was “not a pleasant task. . . . It is a painful duty.”
Hazare ended a four-day hunger strike in April after the government included him in a committee to draw up legislation to establish an independent ombudsman with powers to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials.
But the two sides soon fell out: The government’s draft legislation, introduced in Parliament this month, was denounced by Hazare as a “cruel joke” because it excludes the prime minister, the judiciary and most of the bureaucracy from the ombudsman’s purview.
The government accuses Hazare of resorting to blackmail and undermining the legislative authority of Parliament by threatening a hunger strike.
It says he is intent on creating a “Frankenstein’s monster,” a huge, unaccountable anti-corruption agency with vast powers outside the checks and balances of constitutional democracy. Although some social activists and legal experts share that reservation, public opinion polls show that the vast majority of Indians support Hazare’s campaign.
The government violently disbanded another hunger strike against corruption in central Delhi by popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev in June, beating and tear-gassing his supporters. At the time, the crackdown was seen as a public relations flop for the government. There is a risk that the police action Tuesday could backfire even more seriously.