Indian PM appeals to protester to end his fast

AP News
|
Posted: Aug 23, 2011 1:58 PM
Indian PM appeals to protester to end his fast

India's prime minister appealed to an anti-corruption activist Tuesday to end his weeklong hunger strike, offering to ask Parliament to debate a tougher version of proposed reform legislation.

It was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's first attempt at compromising with Anna Hazare, whose fast has galvanized tens of thousands of corruption-weary Indians and left the government flailing to respond.

Hours later, Hazare's key aides held their first round of talks with the government's lead negotiator, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

Late Tuesday night both the government and activists said that while the first round of talks went well more discussions were needed before the impasse would end.

"Considerable progress made in talks with government. Anna awaits their firm commitment and declaration," Kiran Bedi, a protest organizer, wrote on Twitter after the meeting ended.

Shortly after the meeting began, Hazare came out and addressed his supporters. He said doctors asked him to seek medical intervention but the "voice of my conscience does not allow me to accept medical help right now."

The government has scheduled an all-party meeting for Wednesday to discuss the conflict over the anti-corruption watchdog and Mukherjee said the matter would be discussed there before any decision was reached, Press Trust of India reported.

Hazare and his aides are demanding Parliament pass their more stringent version of a bill creating a government watchdog before he would end the fast he began Aug. 16.

With the 74-year-old Hazare growing weaker after losing more than 12 pounds (5.5 kilograms), according to his aides, Singh wrote to express concern over his health and ask him to end his hunger strike.

"I have no hesitation in saying that we need your views and actions in the service of the nation, from a robust physical condition and not in the context of frail or failing health," he wrote.

Singh said he shared the activist's concern over corruption and offered to ask Parliament, already debating the government's anti-corruption bill, to consider Hazare's version as well.

Hazare has demanded the proposed watchdog have greater powers as well as the authority to investigate the judiciary and the prime minister.

The activist _ styling himself after Indian freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi _ has called his campaign a "second revolution" and drawn comparisons to India's fight for independence from British colonial rulers.

Since then, "several traitors have dragged our independence in the mud," Hazare said earlier Tuesday to about 10,000 supporters at a New Delhi park. "I'm sitting here to get this country its correct independence."

Tuesday's crowd was thinner than on the weekend and Monday's national holiday.

Hazare's aides said they were growing increasingly concerned about him. "Pray for Anna's health. He is reaching a difficult stage," Bedi tweeted.

Hazare reassured his supporters that he faced no threat. "I trust my team of doctors. They will not let me die," he said. Authorities are required to intervene if Hazare's life is at risk, as suicide is illegal in India.

Some have criticized the hunger strike as verging on demagoguery, saying Hazare was falsely claiming to represent all of India. They also call Hazare's more sweeping draft legislation unconstitutional.

Representatives of India's lowest-caste dalits, or untouchables, planned a counterprotest Wednesday, saying Hazare's proposal wouldn't protect the poor masses.

But Hazare's basic focus on rooting out corruption has struck a chord among Indians fed up with bribery and favoritism in all levels of government. Indian media have given nonstop coverage to his campaign, while supporters have held rallies in cities across India.

Meanwhile, Parliament was forced to shut down its morning session amid shouting by lawmakers from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party demanding Hazare's protest be discussed.

While both the opposition and governing party have been implicated in major scandals over the past year, opposition leader Sushma Swaraj blamed the government for the country's graft and said "ministers are looting" millions of rupees.

___

Associated Press writer Katy Daigle contributed to this report.