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India's arrest of anti-corruption activist causes firestorm

Lawmakers walk out of Parliament and demonstrations erupt around India after prominent activist Anna Hazare is arrested as he was about to begin a hunger strike to protest government corruption.

August 17, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • With the national flag in hand, supporters of veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare travel down a road on their bikes and vehicles during an anti-government protest rally against corruption.
With the national flag in hand, supporters of veteran Indian social activist… (Ajay Verma / Reuters )

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 erupted around the country.

Plainclothes police surrounded activist Anna Hazare early Tuesday morning as the septuagenarian left his home to begin a hunger strike in protest of alleged widespread corruption, reportedly forbidding him to leave the premises. When he defied them, officers took him into custody on preemptory charges of "breach of peace."

Shortly before the arrest, Hazare called on Indian citizens to continue agitating but to remain peaceful. Late Tuesday authorities offered to release him from Tihar Jail, the same facility where several allegedly corrupt officials are being held, only to have him refuse until the government allowed him to hold his hunger strike as planned.

In April, Hazare held a five-day fast that garnered enormous national support and helped make him the public face of a grass-roots anti-graft fight. It also put the ruling Congress Party under pressure to pass a controversial Lokpal, or people's protector, bill that, among other things, would establish an independent ombudsman able to investigate senior officials. When the Cabinet approved a version of the bill 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, concerning telecommunications, defense and sporting events and allegedly amounting to tens of billions of dollars.

After Hazare's detention, lawmakers walked out of Parliament as protests erupted in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and other cities. About 1,000 people 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 news 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 any time 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 rejected.

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 demonstrators in Delhi sitting with locked arms, some holding Indian flags, as police pulled them apart and dragged them away.

Although government ministers sought to frame their action as a law-and-order issue, Hazare supporters and members of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party likened his arrest to the 1975-77 emergency rule, when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended the constitution and banned 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."

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