A prominent anti-corruption activist has been detained by police just hours before he was set to embark on a public hunger strike which was certain to embarrass India’s scandal-plagued government.
Anna Hazare’s demand for tougher anti-corruption laws has galvanised Indians fed up with the culture of bribery and favouritism at all levels of government, from the rural village to the national parliament.
In a pre-taped appeal, the 73-year-old sought to rally his supporters.
“My dear countrymen, the second freedom struggle has begun and now I have also been arrested. But will this movement be stopped by my arrest? No, not at all. Don’t let it happen,” he said.
Despite his detention, Hazare began fasting this morning in police custody, according to Prashant Bhushan, a fellow protest leader.
Bhushan called on supporters across the country to “rally to save India’s democracy”.
Hazare had planned to begin his indefinite fast surrounded by supporters at a public park in New Delhi, in defiance of the police, who denied permission for the protest.
But before the demonstration could begin, police detained Hazare at his home, police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said.
Arun Jaitley, a senior member of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), called Hazare’s arrest the “murder of democracy”.
Hazare ended a four-day hunger strike in April after the government set up a committee to draft legislation to create an anti-corruption ombudsman. The committee included Hazare and other non-elected activists.
The legislation was introduced in parliament earlier this month but Hazare wanted it strengthened to cover the prime minister and the judiciary. The current draft of the law means the anti-corruption watchdog does not cover them.
The protest is the latest in a series of blows to the credibility of a government that is battling corruption allegations stemming from the murky sale of mobile phone licenses and the hosting of last year’s Commonwealth Games, which together lost the country as much as $40bn, according to government auditors.
Over the past two weeks, parliament has been repeatedly paralysed by anti-corruption protests, stalling crucial legislation.
Today, the shouting from government and opposition lawmakers forced parliament to adjourn as both sides attempted to discuss Hazare’s arrest.
The opposition BJP is also mired in a multibillion-dollar bribery scandal involving the granting of mining contracts in southern India.
India was ranked 87 out of 178 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2010.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the issue in his annual independence day speech yesterday, saying his government was committed to taking the “strictest possible” action against state and federal officials involved in corruption.
But he added that only parliament could decide the shape of the anti-corruption legislation.
He said those who did not agree with the bill should debate it but “not resort to hunger strikes and fasts unto death.”