New Delhi: Police arrested veteran social activist Anna Hazare on Tuesday, just hours before he was due to fast to the death, as the beleaguered government cracked down on a self-styled Gandhian activist agitating for a new “freedom” struggle.
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At least 1,200 followers of the 74-year-old Anna Hazare were also detained, signalling a hardline stance from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh against anti-government protests, a gamble that risks a wider backlash against the ruling Congress party.
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Veteran social activist Anna Hazare waves from a vehicle after being detained by police in New Delhi on 16 August 2011. Adnan Abidi / Reuters photo
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Dressed in his trademark white shirt, white cap and spectacles, 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 Hazare, a former army soldier, had begun his fast in detention. He was ordered held for one week and taken to Tihar jail, where he joins several government officials, including the former telecom minister, who are under arrest over a multi-billion dollar telecom graft scandal.
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Supporters of Anna Hazare raise tricolour during a protest rally against corruption in Mumbai on Tuesday. Danish Siddiqui / Reuters photo
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“The second freedom struggle has started ... This is a fight for change,” Hazare said in a pre-recorded message broadcast on YouTube. “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 across all walks of life.
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From left to right: HRD minister Kapil Sibal, home minister P Chidambaram and I&B minister Ambika Soni during a press conference on the arrest of Anna Hazare in New Delhi. Subhav Shukla / PTI photo
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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-urbanising nation of 1.2 billion people whose increasingly assertive 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, spontaneous protests broke out against the crackdown in major cities from India’s financial centre of Mumbai to Kolkata. Police said several hundred people were arrested, mainly in New Delhi.
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Supporters of Anna Hazare hold his portraits during a rally against corruption in Chandigarh on August 16 2011. Ajay Verma / Reuters photo
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An anti-graft protester was found dead in a blood-soaked car in Bhopal, where hundreds had taken to the streets. A senior police officer told Reuters it was not clear whether the death was linked to the protests.
“If the government stops protests or not, what it can’t stop is the anger, which ultimately means bad news for Congress when people go to the polls,” said M.J. Akbar, an editor at influential news magazine India Today.
“People expect Singh to be strong on corruption, not to be strong on those who protest against corruption.”
Home minister Palaniappa Chidambaram said Hazare and other leaders had been placed under “preventative arrest” to ensure they did not carry out a threat to protest.
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Supporters of Anna Hazare raise slogans while courting arrest at JP Park in New Delhi on Tuesday. Kamal Singh / PTI photo
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“Protest is welcome, but it must be carried out under reasonable conditions,” Chidambaram told a news conference.
Opposition parties demanded Hazare’s immediate release.
‘A murder of democracy’
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.
Both houses of Parliament were adjourned for the day after the opposition protested at the arrests of Hazare and his key aides, further undermining the chances that reform bills -- seen as crucial for Asia’s third-largest economy -- will be passed.
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Delhi police personnel cordon off a road after the arrest of social activist Anna Hazare at Mayur Vihar in New Delhi on Tuesday. Manvender Vashist / PTI photo
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Acting Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi called a top-level emergency meeting with senior cabinet ministers to discuss the escalating crisis.
“This is murder of democracy by the government within the House and outside the House,” said Arun Jaitley, a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The scandals, including a telecoms bribery scam that may have cost the government $39 billion, have smothered Singh’s reform agenda, dented investor confidence and distracted parliament just as the $1.6 trillion economy is being hit by inflation and higher interest rates.
Those arrested included Kiran Bedi, one of India’s first female police officers and a widely respected figure for her anti-graft drive. She tweeted from detention that she had refused an offer of bail.
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Supporters of Anna Hazare shout slogans as they are being detained during a rally in support of Hazare’s fight against corruption in Mumbai on Tuesday. AP photo
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Police denied Hazare permission on Monday to fast in a park near a cricket stadium because he had refused to end his fast in three days and ensure no more than 5,000 people took part.
Opposition figures likened the crackdown to the 1975 “Emergency” when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi arrested thousands of Opposition members to stay in power.
A Hardening Stance
Singh and Congress have hardened their stance against Hazare in recent days, fearing that these protests could spiral.
Critics of Hazare say he is taking democracy hostage.
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A boy holds an Indian national flag as he sits next to social activist Anna Hazare at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Rajghat in New Delhi on 15 August 2011. Adnan Abidi / Reuters photo
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“When you have a crowd of 10,000 people, can anyone guarantee there will be no disruption? ... The police is doing its duty. We should allow them to do it,” information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni told CNN-IBN television.
The Prime Minister used his Independence Day speech on Monday to criticise Hazare, and Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said Hazare was surrounded by “armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists”.
Hazare rose to fame for lifting his village in Maharashtra out of grinding poverty. His social activism has forced out senior government officials and helped create the right to information act for citizens.
It is unclear whether the tactics will backfire and spark further protests. They could also help the image of a prime minister criticised as weak and indecisive. A previous crackdown this year on a fasting yoga guru Ramdev successfully broke up his anti-corruption protests.
Hazare became the unlikely thorn in the side of the Congress-led coalition when he first went on a hunger strike in April to successfully win concessions from the government.
Tapping into a groundswell of discontent over corruption scandals in Singh’s government, Hazare lobbied for a parliamentary bill creating a special ombudsman to bring crooked politicians, bureaucrats and judges to book.
Hazare called off that fast after the government promised to introduce the Bill into Parliament. The legislation was presented in early August, but activists slammed the draft version as toothless, prompting Hazare to renew his campaign.