Indian anti-graft crusader agrees to 15-day fast

A renowned Indian anti-corruption crusader plans to embark on a 15-day public hunger strike that will pit him and his thousands of supporters against the scandal-plagued government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his aides said Thursday.

Anna Hazare, who has been fasting since Tuesday, reached an agreement with police to hold the demonstration starting Friday to push for tough new anti-corruption legislation, after a two-day standoff at a New Delhi jail.

Hazare's ordeal has hit a chord with Indians fed up with rampant corruption. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through cities across the country to show their support for his demand to strengthen a government reform bill.

"People were feeling suffocated in an environment of corruption around them. There is a limit to people's patience. That's why people came out on the streets," an exuberant Hazare said in a video posted by his supporters on YouTube.

The government has accused Hazare of trying to blackmail Parliament with his threat to fast to death if they do not pass his proposed legislation to create a powerful ombudsman to police the government.

Hazare said he would not stop agitating until the proposed bill is adopted into law.

"If our youth is awakened, no goal is unattainable for us," he said.

Police had initially given Hazare permission to hold only a three-day public hunger strike, which he refused, but relented Thursday and agreed to allow him to hold a 15-day protest at a fairground in the capital.

Hundreds of supporters camped outside the jail erupted in cheers at the news, threw flower petals in the air and shouted "Anna has won."

"It is for the first time that the people of this country are feeling empowered. They are feeling that we are no longer slaves. We are citizens of a free country. Our voice carries importance," said Shanti Bhushan, a former government minister who is helping lead the protest.

The protest had been expected to start Thursday afternoon, but workers were still cleaning up the muddy venue and pitching tents to accommodate tens of thousands of people and protect them from monsoon rains.

Hazare will be taken in a procession from the prison Friday morning, Swami Agnivesh, a social activist, said after meeting him at the jail.

Hazare said he was in good health despite not having eaten since Tuesday, though he has been drinking water.

"People's support is energizing me," he said.

New Delhi police arrested Hazare on Tuesday to block his planned public hunger strike against corruption, but released him hours later. Hazare began his fast in police custody anyway and refused to leave the jailhouse, demanding police allow him to hold an indefinite public protest.

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.

In April, he used a four-day fast to force the government to draft legislation for an anti-corruption watchdog. He had planned for weeks to begin another fast to press for a stronger bill than the one the government introduced in Parliament.

While Hazare's campaign against corruption has strong support within India, critics say his method — embarking on a declared hunger strike to the death — is akin to blackmailing the government.

The government is battling corruption allegations stemming from the murky sale of cell phone 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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