NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Veteran social activist Anna Hazare on Wednesday began a day-long fast against corruption and the government’s violent crackdown against a similar peaceful protest, tapping into widespread anger at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s failure to curb graft.
Several thousand supporters joined Hazare’s hunger strike, piling further pressure on the ruling Congress party, condemned for dispatching hundreds of police with batons and tear gas at midnight on Saturday to break up the anti-graft hunger strike by yoga guru Swami Ramdev.
“When injustice and oppression prevail, it is not a crime to protest,” Hazare told a cheering crowd that chanted his name in New Delhi’s fierce summer heat.
“We have to fight the second war for freedom,” he added, referring to India’s first struggle for independence from British colonial rule.
The septuagenarian Hazare, 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 34-year-old Vikram Shetty, who has an MBA and works for a large 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 licensing kickback scam that may have cost the exchequer up to $39 billion.
India’s political system risks being undermined by a growing sense of unaccountability, with Singh seen as out of touch with voters. Many senior ministers are in their 60s and 70s, about a quarter of elected MPs face criminal charges, and an anti-graft law has been mulled for 40 years.
“For the transition of this transparency revolution, India is not ready,” Defence Minister A.K. Antony told reporters.
Some ministers are wary of caving to the demands of unelected activists.
“(Activists) may give suggestions. We will take the decisions and pass the legislation. That is the only correct way to function in a parliamentary democracy,” Home Minister P. Chidambaram told state-owned television channel Doordarshan.
While yoga guru Ramdev stressed that his fast was apolitical, Congress officials have criticised his connections to a far-right Hindu nationalist organisation and some analysts noted a nationalist upsurge created by the recent protests.
The saffron-clad guru, who is continuing his fast in the northern city of Haridwar, said on Wednesday he would build “an army of 11,000 men and women” to force the government to agree to his demands to curb corruption.
The Prime Minister’s office told NDTV news channel that the call to arms was anti-national and a threat to the government.
“‘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 reportedly fasted for 108 days over the past 20 years, forcing ministers from office and establishing India’s right to information act. A five-day fast in April won concessions on legislation to create an ombudsman.
He styles 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.
The New Delhi fasts have inspired others in major cities across the country, with up to 400 people gathering in Mumbai in support of Hazare and Ramdev.
Hazare told his supporters on Wednesday he would launch another hunger strike if the government did not implement a promised tough anti-corruption bill, which is due by Aug. 15.
Graft has long been part of daily life in India, which ranks 78th in Transparency International’s index on corruption, below China, but the scandals that have seen former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja arrested and business billionaires questioned are unprecedented.
Additional reporting by Annie Banerji and Anurag Kotoky in New Delhi and Manasi Phadke in Mumbai; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Daniel Magnowski