Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Indian activist Anna Hazare begins anti-corruption hunger strike, Anna Hazare fast at Rajghat, Appeal to Anna Hazare team

A veteran Indian activist has started a day-long fast against corruption and the government's violent crackdown on a similar peaceful protest, tapping into widespread anger at prime minister Manmohan Singh's failure to curb graft.

Hundreds joined Anna Hazare's hunger strike, piling further pressure on the ruling Congress party, which has been widely condemned for dispatching hundreds of police with batons and tear gas at midnight on Saturday to break up an anti-graft hunger strike by a yoga guru.

"It is not a crime to protest against something wrong... if you want to beat up protesters, it is not right. I do not fear dying," Hazare said before leaving for his fast in New Delhi's fierce summer heat.

Hazare, 73, clad in white, began his fast on a stage at the memorial site of independence movement leader Mahatma Gandhi.

With riot police out in force, protesters clapped, sang, beat drums and waved the green, saffron and white national flag outside the gates of the memorial – a sunken garden with a large marble slab marking the place where Gandhi was cremated.

Many participants wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "India Against Corruption".

"What happened on Saturday was a brutal assault on democracy. Beating innocent people, including children, and women, who were protesting peacefully," said Vikram Shetty, an administrator at a foreign IT company in Bangalore.

"I can't sit at home and wait for change. This is the beginning of change. "

Protests on issues ranging from corruption to high food or fuel prices have mushroomed, though so far India has avoided the kind of social unrest sweeping the Middle East and north Africa.

Anger over corruption has spiralled as the government lurches from scandal to scandal, including a telecoms kickback scam that may have cost the exchequer up to £24bn.

India's political system risks being undermined by a growing sense of unaccountability, with Singh seen as being out of touch with voters. Many senior ministers are in their 60s and 70s and about a quarter of elected MPs face criminal charges.

Protests have exploited disquiet at the ruling class, thrusting civil movements to the forefront of India's noisy democracy, but sparking debate over their role in policy making.

While yoga guru Swami Ramdev stressed that his fast was apolitical, Congress officials criticised his connections to a far-right Hindu nationalist organisation and some analysts noted a nationalist upsurge created by the recent protests.

"'War against corruption' is led by people of many hues, but it is also the Hindu revolution's catch-all device to rally new support to the cause," wrote Sagarika Ghose, political columnist and deputy editor of CNN-IBN news channel.

Hazare has repeatedly held public fasts over recent years, forcing ministers from office and establishing India's right to information act. A five-day fast in April won concessions on the creation of an ombudsman.

Hazare is praised for his creation of a model village in the western state of Maharastra that promoted water conservation.

He patterns himself after Mahatma Gandhi, whose non-violent protest movement ultimately led to the removal of British imperial power through a series of fasts, marches and strikes.

Singh has been criticised for what he calls the "inevitable" crackdown on Ramdev's fast and for invoking legislation banning gatherings in the capital to prevent Hazare's fast.

Ramdev, with millions of followers, began his "fast until death" on Saturday, urging authorities to pursue illegal funds held abroad and to withdraw high denomination bank notes.

Graft has long been part of daily life in India and can affect everything from getting an electricity connection to signing business deals. India ranks 78th in Transparency International's index on corruption, below China.

But the latest scandals – that have seen a minister jailed and business billionaires questioned – are unprecedented.

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