NEW DELHI: India's graft-tainted government faced a growing crisis on Thursday, with the country rocked by mass anti-corruption protests that have pitted the prime minister against a popular hunger striker.
Rallies continued late into the night across India on Wednesday in support of veteran campaigner Anna Hazare, 74, who remained in a New Delhi jail after being arrested to prevent him starting a public fast in a city park.
Although the police have ordered his release, Hazare has refused to leave prison until the authorities withdraw restrictions on his planned hunger strike.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered on Wednesday in Delhi and other cities in a direct challenge to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who said Hazare's fast was "totally misconceived" and undemocratic.
Hazare's protest, which is focused on what he sees as a watered-down anti-corruption law introduced in parliament, has attracted support from India's middle classes as well as constant media coverage.
He was arrested on Tuesday morning along with thousands of supporters in a much-criticised police action as he prepared to start his "fast unto death" to push for changes to the anti-graft bill.
"He will continue to sit in the jail unless he is allowed to fast unconditionally," Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer backing Hazare, told reporters. Aides say he has refused meals but has been drinking water.
Wednesday's rally in Delhi piled pressure on Singh's government at a time of public outrage over a succession of multi-million-dollar scandals involving senior ministers.
Organisers estimated the size of the crowd marching from the India Gate monument at more than 60,000. Independent witnesses put the number at between 20,000 and 30,000.
The prime minister earlier told parliament that Hazare's arrest was justified by his refusal to accept police restrictions limiting his planned fast in the park to three days.
"The path (Hazare) has chosen ... is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy," Singh said as he was repeatedly interrupted by cries of "shame" from opposition benches.
Many observers believe Hazare's arrest reflected concern he was emerging as the focus point for a broader protest movement against Singh's government, which is also grappling with an economic slowdown and high inflation.