Police order India activist freed after protests

NEW DELHI,  (Reuters) – Police ordered the release of  India’s leading anti-corruption campaigner from jail yesterday  after mounting nationwide protests against his arrest for  planning a hunger strike forced a U-turn by beleaguered Prime  Minister Manmohan Singh.

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare gestures from a car after being detained by police in New Delhi yesterday. REUTERS/Adnan Abid

The arrest of the 74-year-old Anna Hazare early yesterday  sparked outrage from opposition parties and spontaneous  protests, from candle-light vigils to the burning of effigies of  government figures, in cities across India.

Dressed in his trademark white shirt, white cap and  spectacles in the style of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi,  Hazare has won support from many Indians sick of endemic  corruption in Asia’s third largest economy.

A close aide who had also been arrested told reporters  Hazare was refusing to leave the jail until he obtained  government permission to continue his fast in a park in the  capital.

Police also released about 1,500 of Hazare’s followers  detained in Delhi for defying the police order not to protest.

The turnaround could be a huge blow for Singh, already  criticised as a weak and out-of-touch leader for the way his  ruling Congress party grappled with a string of corruption  scandals and high food inflation.

The decision to release Hazare may also signal a division  within the government over how to deal with the popular  activist.

                STORMING THE BARRICADES     

In the capital, supporters angry at Hazare’s detention  earlier stormed police barricades, while thousands more gathered  in front of the jail, parliament and India Gate.

Supporters of veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare hold his portraits during a rally against corruption in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh yesterday. REUTERS/Ajay Verma

“A man has the right to fast. Gandhi fasted despite everyone  telling him not to… Not even the British (colonial) government  prevented him,” leading Indian lawyer and politician Ram  Jethmalani told CNN IBN television.

“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.”

Initially, Hazare was ordered held for one week and taken to  Tihar jail, joining several government officials, including the  former telecoms minister, who are under arrest over a  multi-billion dollar telecoms graft scandal.

“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.”

The arrests shocked many in a country with strong memories  of Gandhi’s independence battles against colonial rule with  fasts and non-violent protests.

The question for many is whether Hazare’s movement will grow  in 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.

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.

Home Minister Palaniappa Chidambaram said Hazare and several  other 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,” Chidambaram told a news conference.

             “A MURDER OF DEMOCRACY”     

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.

“This is murder of democracy by the government within the  House and outside the House,” said Arun Jaitley, a senior leader  of the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

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 was later released.

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.

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