Indian leader lashes out at fasting protest head

Associated Press
Supporters of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare place a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, bottom, near a marking on the road that reads "Anna" outside the Tihar prison where Hazare was holding his hunger strike in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lashed out at India's most prominent anti-corruption crusader Wednesday, accusing the fasting activist of trying to circumvent democracy by demanding Parliament pass a reform bill he supports. (AP Photo/Gurinder Osan)
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NEW DELHI (AP) — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accused India's most prominent anti-graft crusader on Wednesday of trying to circumvent democracy with a public fast, as tens of thousands across the country protested rampant government corruption.

Thousands of people supporting Anna Hazare's hunger strike marched through the capital from the India Gate memorial shouting "Anna, we are with you."

Delhi police arrested Hazare on Tuesday to block his plans for a public fast against corruption, but released him hours later. Hazare refused to leave the jailhouse, however, unless police allowed him to hold the hunger strike publicly and indefinitely.

Hundreds had camped overnight outside the Delhi jail. As Hazare and the police negotiated through Wednesday, the crowd swelled to thousands, chanting "Down with corruption" and "Hail Mother India."

The standoff has galvanized Indians fed up with seemingly endless bribery scandals and cronyism and has flustered Singh's beleaguered government.

Shouting over jeering opposition lawmakers, Singh told Parliament that Hazare was free to express his views, but was improperly usurping the role of elected representatives by trying to force them to pass his own draft legislation to create an anti-corruption watchdog.

"The path that he has chosen to impose his draft of a bill upon Parliament is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy," Singh said.

"Those who believe that their voice and their voice alone represents the will of 1.2 billion people should reflect deeply on that position," he said. "They must allow the elected representatives of the people in Parliament to do the job that they were elected for."

Delhi district court lawyers held a one-day strike to demand the judiciary also fall under the purview of any anti-corruption ombudsman.

Protests erupted in cities across India, with some demonstrators burning effigies of Singh, while others held yagna ceremonies — purification rituals using fire — to symbolically clean the government.

The protesters, many wearing headbands reading "I am Anna," crossed religious and caste lines and included rich and poor, students, the elderly, eunuchs, housewives, businessmen and the homeless.

Orissa's state assembly shut down in shouting matches, and lawyers in one town wore black badges protesting Hazare's arrest as an assault on democracy.

"Do the people in this country have no rights about how an anti-corruption watchdog will work? Is this the end of Indian democracy?" said Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer who was helping organize the protest movement.

Hazare, clad in the simple white cotton garb of India's liberation leaders, has become an anti-corruption icon by channeling the tactics of freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi.

In April, Hazare used a four-day fast to force the government to draft legislation for an anti-corruption watchdog. He had planned for weeks to begin another public fast Tuesday to press for a stronger bill.

The government is battling corruption allegations stemming from the murky sale of cellphone licenses and the hosting of last year's Commonwealth Games, which together lost the country as much as $40 billion, according to government auditors. The main opposition is mired in a multibillion-dollar bribery scandal involving the granting of mining contracts in southern India.

The scandals have embarrassed the government and paralyzed Parliament, with lawmakers trading insults and accusations instead of addressing widespread malnutrition and a desperate need for land reform. On Tuesday, Parliament adjourned amid screaming between government and opposition lawmakers over Hazare's arrest.

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Follow Ravi Nessman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ravinessman

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