NEW DELHI: The arrest of India’s leading anti-corruption campaigner hours ahead of a planned hunger strike Tuesday has set off nationwide protests, putting the government on the spot over its commitment to fighting graft in Asia’s third-largest economy.
In a worrying sign for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh amid a risky crackdown against the anti-graft movement, spontaneous protests broke out across cities in India. From candlelight 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 turnaround 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 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.
“The second freedom struggle has started … This is a fight for change,” Hazare, a former army soldier, said in a prerecorded 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 nonviolent protests is embedded in the national consciousness, the crackdown shocked many Indians across all walks of life.
It also comes as Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi is in the U.S. being treated for an undisclosed condition.
The question for many is whether Hazare and his movement will grow across the fast-urbanizing nation of 1.2 billion people whose increasingly assertive middle class is fed up with constant bribes, poor services and unaccountable leaders.
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 said.
Hazare has become a serious challenge to the authority of the government in its second term as it reels from corruption scandals and a perception that it is out of touch with millions of Indians hit by near-double-digit inflation.
Hazare first went on a hunger strike in April to successfully win concessions from the government.