New Delhi: A veteran social activist on Wednesday began a day-long fast against corruption and the government’s violent crackdown against a similar peaceful protest, tapping into widespread anger at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s failure to curb graft.
Hundreds joined Anna Hazare’s hunger strike, piling further pressure on the ruling Congress party, condemned for dispatching hundreds of police with batons and tear gas at midnight on Saturday to break up an anti-graft hunger strike by a yoga guru.
“When injustice and oppression prevail, it is not a crime to protest,” Hazare told a cheering crowd that chanted his name in New Delhi’s fierce summer heat.
“We have to fight the second war for freedom,” he added, referring to India’s first struggle for independence from British colonial rule.
The septuagenarian Hazare, clad in white, began his fast on a stage at the memorial site of Independence movement leader Mahatma Gandhi.
With riot police out in force, protesters clapped, sang, beat drums and waved the green, saffron and white national flag outside the gates of the memorial -- a sunken garden with a large marble slab marking the place where Gandhi was cremated.
Many participants wore t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “India Against Corruption”.
“What happened on Saturday was a brutal assault on democracy. Beating innocent people, including children, and women, who were protesting peacefully,” said Vikram Shetty, an administrator at large foreign IT company in Bangalore.
“I can’t sit at home and wait for change. This is the beginning of change.”
Protests on issues ranging from corruption to high food or fuel prices have mushroomed, though so far India has avoided the kind of social unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
Anger over corruption has spiralled as the government lurches from scandal to scandal, including a telecom licensing kickback scam that may have cost the exchequer up to $39 billion.
India’s political system risks being undermined by a growing sense of unaccountability, with Singh seen as being out of touch with voters. Many senior ministers are in their 60s and 70s and about a quarter of elected MPs face criminal charges.
But some government ministers are wary of caving to the demands of unelected activists.
“For the transition of this transparency revolution, India is not ready,” defence minister A.K. Antony told reporters.
Protests have exploited disquiet at the ruling class, thrusting civil movements to the forefront of India’s noisy democracy, but sparking debate over their role in policy-making.
While yoga guru Swami Ramdev stressed that his fast was apolitical, Congress officials criticised his connections to a far-right Hindu nationalist organisation and some analysts noted a nationalist upsurge created by the recent protests.
“‘War against corruption´ is led by people of many hues, but it is also the Hindu revolution’s catch-all device to rally new support to the cause,” wrote Sagarika Ghose, political columnist and deputy editor of CNN-IBN news channel.
Hazare has reportedly fasted for 108 days over the past 20 years, forcing ministers from office and establishing Right to Information Act. A five-day fast in April won concessions on the creation of an ombudsman.
Hazare is praised for his creation of a model village in the western state of Maharastra that promoted water conservation.
He styles himself after Mahatma Gandhi, whose non-violent protest movement ultimately led to the removal of British imperial power through a series of fasts, marches and strikes.
Hazare told his supporters on Wednesday that he would launch another hunger strike if the government did not implement a promised tough anti-corruption bill, which is due by 15 August.
Singh has been criticised for what he calls the “inevitable” crackdown on Ramdev’s fast and for invoking legislation banning gatherings in the capital to prevent Hazare’s fast.
Ramdev, with millions of followers, began his “fast until death” on Saturday, urging authorities to pursue illegal funds held abroad and to withdraw high denomination bank notes.
Graft has long been part of daily life in India and can affect everything from getting an electricity connection to signing business deals. India ranks 78th in Transparency International’s index on corruption, below China.
But the latest scandals -- that have seen a minister jailed and business billionaires questioned -- are unprecedented.