NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Police arrested anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare on Tuesday, just hours before he was due to begin a fast to the death, as the beleaguered government cracked down on a self-styled Gandhian activist agitating for a new "freedom" struggle.
At least 1,200 followers of the 74-year-old Anna Hazare were also detained, signalling a hardline stance from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh against anti-government protests, a gamble that risks a wider backlash against the ruling Congress party.
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, waving to hundreds of supporters outside his residence in New Delhi.
His followers later said Hazare, a former army soldier, had begun his fast in detention.
"The second freedom struggle has started ... This is a fight for change," Hazare said in a pre-recorded 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 non-violent protests is embedded in the national consciousness, the crackdown shocked many Indians.
It also comes as Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi is in the United States being treated for an undisclosed condition.
The question for many is whether Hazare and his movement will grow across the fast-urbanising nation of 1.2 billion people whose increasingly assertive middle class is fed up with constant bribes, poor services and unaccountable leaders.
In a worrying sign for a government facing crucial state elections next year, local media reported spontaneous protests against the crackdown from Mumbai, IT hub Bangalore to Bihar. Police said several hundred people were arrested, mainly in Delhi.
An anti-graft protester was found dead in a blood-soaked car in Bhopal, where hundreds had taken to the streets in solidarity with Hazare. A senior police officer told Reuters it was not clear whether the death was linked to the protests.
"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 news magazine India Today.
"People expect Singh to be strong on corruption, not to be strong on those who protest against corruption."
The country's home (interior) minister said Hazare and six other protest 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," Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told a news conference.
Opposition parties demanded Hazare's immediate release.
Hazare has become a serious challenge to the authority of the government in its second term as it reels from a string of corruption scandals and a perception that it is out of touch with millions of Indians hit by near-double-digit inflation.
Both houses of parliament were adjourned for the day after the opposition protested at the arrests of Hazare and his key aides, further undermining the chances that reform bills -- seen as crucial for Asia's third-largest economy -- will be passed.
Acting Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi called a top-level emergency meeting with senior cabinet ministers to discuss the escalating crisis.
"This is murder of democracy by the government within the House and outside the House," said Arun Jaitley, a senior leader of the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The scandals, including a telecoms bribery scam that may have cost the government $39 billion, have smothered Singh's reform agenda, dented investor confidence and distracted parliament just as the $1.6 trillion economy is being hit by inflation and higher interest rates.
Those arrested included Kiran Bedi, one of India's first female police officers and a widely respected figure for her anti-graft drive. She tweeted from detention that she had refused an offer of bail.
Police denied Hazare permission on Monday to fast near a cricket stadium because he had refused to end his fast in three days and ensure no more than 5,000 people took part.
Opposition figures likened the crackdown to the 1975 "Emergency" when then-prime minister Indira Gandhi arrested thousands of opposition members to stay in power.
Singh and Congress have hardened their stance against Hazare in recent days, fearing that these protests could spiral.
Critics of Hazare say he is taking democracy hostage.
"When you have a crowd of 10,000 people, can anyone guarantee there will be no disruption? ... The police is doing its duty. We should allow them to do it," Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni told CNN-IBN television.
The prime minister used his Independence Day speech on Monday to criticise Hazare, and Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said Hazare was surrounded by "armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists".
Hazare rose to fame for lifting his village in western state of Maharashtra out of grinding poverty. His social activism has forced out senior government officials and helped create the right to information act for citizens.
It is unclear whether the tactics will backfire and spark further protests. They could also help the image of a prime minister criticised as weak and indecisive. A previous crackdown this year on a fasting yoga guru successfully broke up his anti-corruption protests.
Hazare became the unlikely thorn in the side of the Congress-led coalition when he first went on a hunger strike in April to successfully win concessions from the government.
Tapping into a groundswell of discontent over corruption scandals in Singh's government, Hazare lobbied for a parliamentary bill creating a special ombudsman to bring crooked politicians, bureaucrats and judges to book.
Hazare called off that fast after the government promised to introduce the bill into parliament. The legislation was presented in early August, but activists slammed the draft version as toothless, prompting Hazare to renew his campaign.
Under the current bill, the prime minister and judges would be exempt from probes.
Additional reporting by Arup Roychoudhury, Matthias Williams and Annie Banerji; Editing by John Chalmers and Nick Macfie