Indian anti-corruption activist ends hunger strike

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An Indian reform activist whose protest galvanized the nation's anger against corruption ended his 12-day hunger strike Sunday after forcing Parliament to throw its weight behind his crusade.

Seventy-four-year-old Anna Hazare accepted a cup of coconut water and honey from two children as thousands of supporters cheered him on, waving Indian flags, chanting "long live India" and singing patriotic songs.

"This is your victory. This is the fruit of your work in the last 13 days," Hazare told the crowd, filled with supporters wearing the white cloth caps, reminiscent of India's independence leaders, that have become the protest's signature.

Hazare, who was later taken to the hospital, said that though he had ended his fast, he would not back down from his fight for reforms. He lost more than 15.5 pounds (7 kilograms) during his fast.

"This movement has made it seem possible that we can build a corruption-free India," Hazare said, surrounded by children on a stage above the crowd.

Hazare began his fast Aug. 16 demanding Parliament pass his sweeping proposal to create a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman to police everyone from the prime minister to the lowest village bureaucrat.

The protest was fueled by months of scandals — illicit mining deals, the dubious sale of cell phone spectrum — that have tarred the ruling coalition and opposition parties alike. Even as Hazare was fasting, four politicians were charged with buying and selling votes in Parliament.

The government, miscalculating the popularity of his anti-graft message, briefly arrested him to quash his protest, a move that sent tens of thousands of his angry supporters pouring into streets across the country.

Hazare, who claims inspiration from liberation icon Mohandas K. Gandhi, eventually was given access to a fairground in the capital, New Delhi, which attracted tens of thousands of protesters from India's growing middle class fed up with paying bribes for everything from getting a driver's license to enrolling a child in nursery school.

"People are suffering from corruption, and there seems to be no end," said Prabhat Tiwari, a 25-year-old businessman who came to the protest ground every day for a week.

As the protest dragged on, and Hazare's weight plunged, government ministers and protest leaders haggled over how to end their standoff.

Officials said Hazare's draft bill — which would put the prime minister, judiciary and state bureaucrats under the ombudsman — was unconstitutional and branded his methods as parliamentary blackmail. The protesters complained that the government's own bill was toothless and would do nothing to battle corruption.

In the end, Parliament held a nine-hour debate Saturday that ended with a nonbinding "sense of the house" expressing support for some of his demands: committing to greater transparency and including low-level bureaucrats and state officials under the watchdog's purview.

Just before Hazare broke his fast Sunday, one of his aides led the gathered crowd in a pledge: "I take an oath that in my life I will never take a bribe, nor will I give a bribe."

The plan for a government watchdog — which had languished in Parliament for more than four decades — will now go to a legislative committee to work out the details and try to resolve competing visions for the proposed office.

It seems almost certain, however, that lawmakers will now have to take the issue of corruption seriously or risk further protests.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said this past week that the protest had awoken the government to the need for reform. Rahul Gandhi, a top official with the ruling Congress Party who is seen as a potential future prime minister, proposed sweeping reform in everything from the electoral system to the graft-riddled mining industry.

"Some beginning has been made. It's difficult to say what will happen," Manoj Kumar, a 24-year-old student, said Sunday at Hazare's protest site. "There is an awakening across the country, so it will now be difficult for the government to ignore people's demands."

Hazare — a former army truck driver credited with organizing his drought-prone village to harvest rain water and use solar power — enchanted many Indians with his stubborn stance against the political system and left them with a rare feeling of empowerment.

"(The protest) has broken that sense of helplessness that large numbers of people were feeling in this country. It brought a glimmer of hope that we can bring about change," said Neerja Chowdhury, a journalist for The Indian Express newspaper.

The Times of India newspaper credited Hazare with channeling the public anger into "a mass movement that has shaken the government to its foundation and placed the entire political class on notice."