Police detain Indian hunger striker Anna Hazare

  • @AndrewBuncombe

The Indian Government yesterday sought to see off the campaign of anti-corruption campaigner by detaining him and his supporters just hours before he was due to embark on a public hunger strike. His detention in Delhi's Tihar jail sparked spontaneous protests, which broke out across cities in India.

Anna Hazare, 74 a self-styled Gandhian activist who earlier this year brought part of Delhi and other major Indian cities to a halt with his protests, was taken into custody in the early hours yesterday, after he refused to back down from his planned fast.

Among those supporters taken away with him, was a high-profile former female police chief. Hundreds of others were held in a sports stadium, though many were later released.

Mr Hazare, who later refused to accept the offer of bail, said he would continue his fast inside his prison cell, and in a message, recorded for his supporters the day before, he declared: "My dear countrymen, the second freedom struggle has begun, and now I have also been arrested. But will this movement be stopped by my arrest? No, not at all. Don't let it happen."

Across India, small crowds of supporters gathered to rally in support of the man who has helped make the issue of endemic corruption a major problem for the Congress Party-led government. A police spokesman last night told Reuters that an order had been sent to a jail where Mr Hazare was held for him to be released. Only hours earlier authorities ordered him held for a week for defying police orders not to protest.

There is no small irony that Mr Hazare is being held in Tihar jail in the city's western suburbs. Among the many inmates there are businessmen, politicians and a former minister all being held on allegations of corruption, the kind of which Mr Hazare, a former driver with the army, has been battling to expose.

Earlier this year, in an interview with the Independent of Sunday, he said: "Nowadays, whether people are poor or rich, they are all very angry and have had enough of corruption. That is why they have supported our campaign."

Opponents of Mr Hazare accuse him both of using undemocratic methods to seek his goals and of an authoritarian agenda. They point out that in his village in the state of Maharashtra, alcohol and tobacco are effectively banned.

But Mr Hazare insists that his campaign for a bill to establish an anti-corruption ombudsman that would have oversight of MPs, judges and even the prime minister, is in keeping with India's long tradition of non-violent protest that was adopted with independence hero Mohandas Gandhi.

"The population of this country is 1.2 billion. If you want to speak for yourself, does that mean you have to stand for election? On 26 January 1950, India was declared a constitutional republic," he said. "All those MPs and [state politicians] we see were elected by the people, to serve the people. People have every right to see what they are doing and how they are performing."

Police refused to grant permission for Mr Hazare's planned fast after the organisers declined to limit the number of fasting days and participants. In reality, while the decision was presented as a law and order matter for the police, it is always inconceivable they would have acted without there having been discussion with senior government officials.

The Home Minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said: "Protests are perfectly permissible and welcome, but it must be under reasonable conditions. We are not prohibiting a peaceful democratic protest. Nowhere in the world is a protest allowed without any conditions."

While some Congress Party officials admitted they had struggled to effectively make their case with the public, others sought to undermine the veteran activist's campaign. "He is not fighting against corruption but doing politics," said the party's secretary-general Digvijay Singh.

The government has been on the back foot over the issue of corruption since last year when the preparations for the Commonwealth Games exposed the rot that existed at many layers of both federal and local government. That was followed by a scandal over the circumstances of the auction of telecom spectrum, an episode that allegedly lost the country up to $39bn, according to official auditors. Former telecoms minister, A Raja, is among those currently facing corruption charges in Tihar jail .

The main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, condemned the arrest of Mr Hazare and said the government was “imbalanced’ on the issue of corruption. “The government is hell-bent on crushing civil rights of the citizens,” said senior leader Sushma Swaraj.