Prominent Indian activist begins public fast

AP News
|
Posted: Aug 19, 2011 10:41 AM
Prominent Indian activist begins public fast

An activist who has adopted Mohandes K. Gandhi's hunger-strike tactics and galvanized Indians' anger over government scandals led thousands of cheering supporters Friday in a protest he branded a "new freedom struggle."

Anna Hazare's direct appeal to the government demanding that it pass his version of an anti-corruption bill has left Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's administration scrambling to respond.

Police briefly arrested the high-profile activist on Tuesday to stop his protest, then caved in and granted him permission for a 15-day public fast after he refused to leave the jail amid an outpouring of support for his cause.

On Friday, he walked out of Tihar Jail to wild shouts of "Long live Mother India" and a shower of rose petals. Hours later he rallied a crowd that braved the pouring rain at a fairground in the capital, where he planned to stay for the next two weeks.

"The youth of this country has awoken, so a great future for this country is not far off," he said. "The traitors who have robbed this country will no longer be tolerated."

The white-clad, 73-year-old activist, who has been fasting since Tuesday and says he has lost 3 kilograms (6.5 pounds), invoked Gandhi's legacy and and sought to cloak his demands for a tough anti-corruption law in the halo of the revered liberation leader.

"This is a new revolution. This is the new freedom struggle," he said from a stage, with an enormous portrait of Gandhi behind him. "We have lit the flame of a revolution. Don't let the flame die out now."

On his way to the protest, Hazare stopped to pay his respects at the Raj Ghat memorial to Gandhi.

The demonstrators filled only a small section of the fairground and police estimated the turnout at around 10,000.

The protest movement has been breathlessly covered throughout the week by India's brutally competitive 24-hour news channels, which compared it to everything from the Arab Spring to the fight against British colonial rule.

However, the crowds were only a tiny fraction of a recent street protest over food inflation, and political analyst Prem Shankar Jha said comparisons with India's independence movement were confusing "rhetoric for reality."

Nevertheless, Hazare's message has found fertile ground in a middle class fed up with pervasive corruption and government scams alleged to have cost the country billions.

"One has to bribe officials almost at every stage _ for getting birth certificates, death certificates, admission of children in schools and getting electricity and gas connections," said Narain Dutt, a 39-year-old shopkeeper at the New Delhi protest. "The burden is unbearable for poor people. A successful campaign by Anna Hazare would put some fear in the minds of officials and help in stemming the rot."

Hazare's protest is aimed at pushing the government to pass his version of a proposed bill to create a powerful ombudsman to police top officials. Activists have criticized the current bill tabled in Parliament as too weak to be effective.

Government officials have criticized Hazare in turn, saying he was twisting time-honored protest tactics to subvert the legislative process and force elected officials to bow to his own agenda.

Hazare is a retired army driver who transformed himself into the most prominent social activist in his home state of Maharashtra with a series of hunger strikes. The Indian Express newspaper reported that over the past three decades he has fasted 15 times before the current hunger strike for a total of 113 days to pressure the government on everything from investigating corruption to giving subsidies to farmers.

He shot to national prominence in April when he held a four-day fast to demand the government draft legislation for an anti-corruption watchdog.

But this week _ though he was hidden for days inside a jailhouse and only seen in a brief YouTube video _ Hazare turned into a symbol of the national anger over corruption.

"(He) has come like a god to save this country," said Asha Bansal, a home maker who came to the jail to cheer his departure Friday morning.

A nearby poster showed cartoons of government ministers with fangs and looking like donkeys, with dollar signs emblazoned on them.

After he stepped out of the jail's gate to the applause of supporters _ many of whom stood atop parked cars to get a glance of him _ Hazare climbed into the back of a truck to lead a slow-moving procession through the city to the protest venue.

Sympathy protests were organized across the country, with thousands marching in Mumbai, government employees in the state of Rajasthan holding a half-day strike and thousands of lawyers staying away from work in central India in a show of support.

"The government will have to bend in front of this movement. This is just the trailer, the film is yet to start," said Hazare supporter Prakash Khattar, a bank employee.

Others were less optimistic.

In a front-page commentary Friday, the business daily Mint said the protests were unlikely to spark major change in Indian governance.

"Business as usual is right around the corner," it said.

___

Associated Press writer Muneeza Naqvi contributed to this report.