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India’s prime minister has defended the arrest of an anti-corruption campaigner, accusing Anna Hazare of being deliberately confrontational and undemocratic over his plans to stage a hunger strike.
Addressing the Indian parliament on Wednesday, Manmohan Singh said Hazare’s intention to fast indefinitely to push for changes to a new anti-corruption bill was a direct challenge to the government’s authority.
“The path he has chosen is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy,” Singh said as he was repeatedly interrupted by cries of “shame” from the opposition benches.
“Those who believe that their voice and their voice alone represents the will of 1.2 billion people should reflect deeply on that position. They must allow the elected representatives of the people in parliament to do the job that they were elected for.”
Hazare, 74, spent the night in jail in New Delhi, despite being freed by the government after being arrested over his hunger strike plans earlier on Tuesday.
Hundreds of his supporters, who had planned to join the protest, were also detained, while Hazare’s arrest sparked spontaneous demonstrations in cities across the country.
A close aide, who had also been arrested, said Hazare was refusing to leave the jail until he obtained government permission to continue his fast in a park in the capital.
Hazare was taken into custody as he prepared to lead a parade to the park where he was to begin a “fast unto death”.
Police released about 1,500 of Hazare’s followers detained for defying the police order not to protest.
In a pre-taped appeal, Hazare urged his supporters to protest despite his arrest.
‘Second freedom struggle’
“My dear countrymen, the second freedom struggle has begun, and now I have also been arrested. But will this movement be stopped by my arrest? No, not at all. Don’t let it happen,” he said.
P. Chidambaram, India’s home minister, said organisers had refused to guarantee to obey police orders that the rally would be limited to 5,000 people and that it would only last three days.
Chidambaram denied the government was quashing dissent and stressed that “this government is not against peaceful protest”.
Many of the detainees arrested in New Delhi were driven to a sports stadium in northern New Delhi where a large crowed gathered outside in a tense stand-off with police, AFP reported.
Hazare ended a four-day hunger strike in April after the government set up a committee to draft legislation to create an anti-corruption ombudsman. The committee included Hazare and other non-elected activists.
The legislation was introduced in India’s parliament earlier this month but Hazare demanded that it be made tougher to include the prime minister and the judiciary in its remit. The current draft of the law does not include them.
Hazare’s protest has tapped into deep public anger against corruption in India as the Congress party-led government battles a series of scandals.
These include the sale of mobile phone licenses and the hosting of last year’s Commonwealth Games, which together lost the country as much as $40bn, according to government auditors.
The Indian parliament has been paralysed by anti-corruption protests for two weeks, stalling crucial legislation