Civil rights activists shouts slogans at the government during a demonstration… (Sanjeev Gupta / EPA )
Reporting from New Delhi — An Indian government attempt to head off a political crisis by arresting a key anti-corruption activist appeared to backfire Tuesday when parliament walked out and demonstrations broke out across the country.
Approximately 20 plainclothes police surrounded activist Anna Hazare, 73, early Tuesday morning as he left his house to begin a hunger strike against alleged widespread corruption, reportedly forbidding him from leaving the premises. When he defied them, they took him into custody on peremptory charges of "breach of peace."
Shortly before the arrest, Hazare called on Indian citizens to continue agitating, but to remain peaceful.
In April, Hazare held a five-day fast that garnered enormous national support and helped make him the public face of a grassroots anti-graft fight. It also put the ruling Congress party under pressure to pass a controversial "Lokpal Bill" that, among other things, would establish an independent ombudsman able to probe senior officials. When the cabinet passed a version that exempted the prime minister's office and top judges from close scrutiny, Hazare announced a second hunger-strike.
India has seen a spate of corruption scandals in recent months, many allegedly involving senior Congress Party officials or their close allies, involving telecommunications, defense and sporting events allegedly amounting to tens of billions of dollars.
After Hazare's detention, lawmakers walked out of parliament as protests broke out in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and other cities around the country. Some 1,000 citizens were reportedly detained at Delhi's Chhatrasal Stadium as hunger strikes, marches, motorcycle rallies and sit-ins broke out in other parts of the country.
At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram acknowledged people's frustration and anger at having to pay bribes for basic government services but said people can't protest anytime or place they want. "We don't oppose protests against corruption," he said. "The point is, you must do it in keeping with the law."
Police had insisted that Hazare's hunger strike last no longer than three days and that no more than 5,000 people attend, conditions the activist refused to accept.
Some analysts questioned the government's strategy. "By arresting him, you lose the moral battle," said Swapan Dasgupta, a columnist and political analyst. "The perception is that the government is insincere in fighting corruption. And now instead of just corruption, they've turned it into a civil rights issue, adding one more thing to Hazare's arsenal."
Television footage showed protesters sitting with locked arms, some holding Indian flags, as police pulled them apart and dragged them away.
While government ministers sought to frame their action as a law and order issue, Hazare supporters and members of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party likened Hazare's arrest to the 1975-1977 Emergency Rule, when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended the constitution and forbid public protest. "This government has no faith in democratic values," said Prashant Bhushan, an activist lawyer and member of Hazare's team." Anna's arrest is illegal, unconstitutional."