Anna Hazare to leave jail, stage public fast

Hazare to fast with his supporters for 15 days at Ramlila Maidan, an open venue in Delhi.

Afp August 18, 2011

NEW DELHI: The veteran activist at the heart of mass anti-corruption protests that have swept India was to leave jail Thursday after striking a deal with police over his plans to stage a public hunger strike.

Tens of thousands of Indians across the country have taken to the streets in recent days in a spontaneous national protest inspired by the 74-year-old Anna Hazare's campaign to strengthen a new anti-corruption law.

The movement has deeply shaken the Congress Party-lead coalition of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who had condemned Hazare's campaign as "totally misconceived" and a threat to India's parliamentary democracy.

Hazare was arrested on Tuesday morning as he prepared to begin a "fast unto death" in a New Delhi public park to push for amendments to the anti-graft bill recently introduced in parliament.

In the face of mounting protests, police ordered his release, but Hazare refused to leave Tihar jail until the authorities lifted restrictions limiting his planned fast to three days.

After lengthy negotiations a compromise was reached in the early hours of Thursday, allowing Hazare to fast with his supporters for 15 days at Ramlila Maidan, an open venue in Delhi used for political rallies and festivals.

"The police offered seven days, he wanted it for one month, so in the course of the negotiations we agreed on 15 days," said Aswathi Muralidharan, a spokesman for Hazare's India Against Corruption campaign.

"There is no police limit on the number of people who can come to Ramlila Maidan. Anna is satisfied with the conditions and that is why he has agreed to leave Tihar (jail)," Muralidharan told AFP.

Hazare has actually been fasting ever since his arrest, but the public hunger strike will begin at 3:00pm (0930 GMT).

In scenes not witnessed in the capital for decades, tens of thousands marched through the heart of the city on Wednesday in a spontaneous display of anger at the endemic corruption that blights every level of Indian society.

Schoolchildren, office workers, retired government officers, army men and even a group of eunuchs were among those who rallied at the India Gate monument to call for an end to official graft.

The size of the protest and similar demonstrations in other cities piled pressure on Singh's government at a time of public outrage over a succession of multi-million-dollar scandals.

Singh's former telecoms minister A. Raja is currently under trial over a telecom licence scam that is thought to have cost the country up to $39 billion in lost revenue.

But corruption is most vividly felt in people's everyday lives, with seemingly endless requests for backhanders to secure everything from phone connections to birth certificates and school admissions letters.

The prime minister told parliament on Wednesday that Hazare's arrest had been justified by his refusal to accept the police restrictions on his planned fast.

"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.

Singh said using a public fast to try to shape the anti-corruption law constituted a direct challenge to the government.

"The question is who drafts the law and who makes the law," Singh told a packed lower house, adding that legislation was the "sole prerogative" of lawmakers.

The anti-corruption campaign has elevated Hazare into an enormously popular national figure.

His espousal of fasting as a form of protest, coupled with his trademark white cap and spectacles, have led to comparisons with his own professed hero, independence icon Mahatma Gandhi.

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