Fast in India stirs debate on protest tactics

An activist's threat to fast to death unless the government amends an anti-corruption bill has sparked debate about whether the traditional Indian form of protest has any place in a modern democracy.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday called Anna Hazare's hunger strike "misconceived," but frustrated demonstrators insisted the fast that began Tuesday was the only way to get the attention of an unresponsive government neck-deep in corruption scandals.

Hazare's repeated hunger strikes are part of a hallowed protest tradition made famous by independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, who coined the term "Satyagraha" or nonviolent resistance and fasted repeatedly against British rule.

Since then the "fast unto death" — which almost never ends in the protester's death — has become an established route to getting any point of view heard in the rough and tumble of Indian politics.

In India's remote northeast, human rights activist Irom Sharmila has been force fed for over a decade during a hunger strike protesting an anti-terror law that grants Indian soldiers sweeping powers there. Protesters in southern India have fasted to demand the creation of a new state.

But in the past few decades no one has captured the popular imagination and the round-the-clock attention of India's breathless, 24-hour news channels in quite the same way as the 73-year-old Hazare. He has dubbed his protest "the second freedom struggle" and fashioned himself the heir to Gandhi and independence leaders, with his trademark white cotton attire and cap.

Yet Gandhi's protests challenged repressive colonial rule, while Hazare's pits him against a democratically elected Parliament.

Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of the independence leader also called "Bapu" or father, described the latest hunger strike as having "the stance of blackmail."

"Bapu's fasts never had an adversarial stance, so this is not Gandhi's fast but Anna's fast," he said.

Hazare, a retired army driver, has built his reputation on a host of previous hunger strikes. In 2003, he fasted for 12 days to get a right-to-information law enacted in his home state of Maharashtra. He fasted again the next year for governmental reforms and again in 2005 demanding action be taken against state officials accused of corruption.

In April, he fasted for four days to force the government to draft legislation to create an anti-corruption watchdog. Unhappy with the bill presented to Parliament, he announced plans weeks ago to fast again until the government adopts an alternative version drafted by a group of civil activists.

After the government denied him permission to hold a public demonstration, it briefly arrested him Tuesday and he began his fast in custody. He remained at New Delhi's Tihar Jail on Wednesday — even after the government ordered him released — saying he would not leave until his protest was approved. Outside, hundreds of supporters chanted anti-corruption slogans and sang patriotic songs, while thousands of others protested in cities across India.

Critics of the hunger strike — not all of them supporters of the government — feared that Hazare had stepped over a line, and was sending the message that he, and not the nation's elected representatives, should have the final say on legislation.

"It has elided the distinction between protest and fast-unto-death. The former is legitimate. The latter is blackmail," Pratap Bhanu Mehta, head of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, wrote in the Indian Express newspaper.

The Congress party-led government can ill afford the public shaming that Hazare's protest draws. But its crackdown has also drawn sharp criticism.

"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.

On Wednesday, a subdued-looking Singh described Hazare's attempt to force his own bill through Parliament as "misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy."

"A functional democracy must allow multiple voices to be heard. But differences of opinion must be resolved thorough dialogue and consensus. 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 told a jeering Parliament.

Support for strikes and demonstrations has grown in recent decades, with 39 percent of those questioned supporting them, up from 26 percent in 1971, according to a poll by an Indian think tank published last week in The Hindu newspaper.

The poll of 20,268 Indians was conducted from July 25 to July 31. No margin of error was given, but a random survey with that many participants — under ideal conditions — would have a margin of error of less than 1 percentage point.

The rise in support for protests coincided with a string of government corruption scandals over everything from the shady sale of cellphone licenses to the mismanaged hosting of last year's Commonwealth Games. The main opposition is mired in its own scandal involving mining contracts in southern India.

Tushar Gandhi said Hazare's protest painted government officials as the only culprits, instead of indicting the culture that fostered the corruption.

"What we have with this protest is a populist stance and not one of introspection," he said. "If he asks the crowds to introspect, they will melt away."