NEW DELHI: The arrest of India's leading anti-corruption campaigner hours ahead of a planned hunger strike on Tuesday has set off nationwide protests, putting the government on the spot over its commitment to fighting graft in Asia's third-largest economy. What has complicated matters further is that the anti-graft activist has vowed to resume his fast-unto death if released.
In a worrying sign for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in risky crackdown against the anti-graft movement, spontaneous protests broke out across cities in India. From candle light vigils to street protests, more and more people came out in support of the 74-year-old social activist Anna Hazare.
A police spokesman told Reuters an order had been sent to a jail where Hazare was held for him to be released, a stunning turn-around only hours after authorities ordered him held for a week for defying police orders not to protest.
In the capital, Hazare supporters stormed police barricades, while others gathered in front of parliament.
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 early on Tuesday, only hours before he was due to start his fast to death protest aimed at forcing through tougher anti-graft laws.
"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."
Police are expected to release up to 1,500 followers of Hazare who had been detained for defying the police order not to protest, according to local media.
Hazare, a former army soldier, began fasting in detention, his followers said. Initially, he 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."
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 tweeted from detention that she had refused an offer of bail. 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.
A HARDENING STANCE
Hazare rose to fame for lifting his village in western state of Maharashtra out of grinding poverty. His social activism has forced out senior government officials and helped create the right to information act for citizens.
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.
Watch a slideshow of pictures from protests in India here.