India arrests graft critic and 1,200 others
Updated: 2011-08-17 07:54
By Paul de Bendern and Alistair Scrutton (China Daily)
NEW DELHI - Police arrested India's leading anti-corruption campaigner on Tuesday, just hours before he was due to begin a fast to the death, as the beleaguered government cracked down on a self-styled Gandhian activist agitating for a new "freedom" struggle.
At least 1,200 followers of the 74-year-old Anna Hazare were also detained, signaling a hard-line stance from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh against anti-government protests, a gamble that risks a wider backlash against the ruling Congress party.
Dressed in his trademark white shirt, white cap and spectacles in the style of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, Hazare was driven away in a car by plainclothes police, waving to hundreds of supporters outside his residence in New Delhi.
His followers later said he had begun his fast.
"The second freedom struggle has started ... This is a fight for change," Hazare said in a pre-recorded message broadcast online. "The protests should not stop. The time has come for no jail in the country to have a free space."
In a country where the memory of Gandhi's independence battles against colonial rule with fasts and non-violent protests is embedded in the national consciousness, the crackdown shocked many Indians.
It also comes as Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi is in the United States being treated for an undisclosed condition.
The question for many is whether Hazare and his movement will grow across the fast-urbanizing nation of 1.2 billion people whose middle class is fed up with constant bribes, poor services and unaccountable leaders.
In a worrying sign for a government facing crucial state elections next year, local media reported spontaneous protests against the crackdown across India. Dozens of Hazare supporters were also arrested in Mumbai, according to local media.
The country's interior minister said Hazare and six other protest leaders had been placed under "preventative arrest" to ensure they did not carry out a threat to protest.
"Protest is welcome, but it must be carried out under reasonable conditions," Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told a news conference.
Police had told organizers that the high-profile rally at a public park in Delhi would be limited to no more than 5,000 people and that it could only last three days.
Hazare has become a serious challenge to the authority of the government in its second term as it reels from a string of corruption scandals and a perception that it is out of touch with millions of Indians hit by near-double-digit inflation.