NEW DELHI – 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.
Hundreds of demonstrators chanting "Down with corruption" and "Hail Mother India" gathered in a show of support at the jail where Anna Hazare was holding his hunger strike. Thousands of others protested around the country.
Police arrested Hazare on Tuesday to block his plans to hold a public fast and tried to free him hours later. However, Hazare refused to leave the jail unless he was granted permission to hold a public demonstration aimed at forcing lawmakers to strengthen a draft bill that would create an anti-corruption ombudsman.
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 on Wednesday that while Hazare had the right to express his views on the draft bill, he was improperly usurping the role of India's elected representatives by trying to force them to pass his own version of the anti-corruption legislation.
"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," Singh said. "They must allow the elected representatives of the people in Parliament to do the job that they were elected for."
Nevertheless, thousands protested for a second day in cities across India, some burning effigies of Singh, others holding 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.
Hazare began fasting soon after his arrest Tuesday, and protesters took to the streets of cities across India. The government temporarily detained thousands of demonstrators in New Delhi and Mumbai in an effort to quash the protests.
In April, Hazare used a four-day fast to force the government to draft legislation to create an anti-corruption watchdog. He had planned for weeks to begin another public fast Tuesday to press for a stronger bill.
Police barred that protest after organizers refused to limit the number of fasting days and participants.
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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