Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in India to protest against the arrest of Anna Hazare, the country’s most prominent anti-corruption campaigner, and at least 1,200 of his followers.
Hazare, a 74 year old activist, was detained by police hours before her was due to begin an indefinite hunger strike to demand tougher laws on corruption.
The harsh crackdown follows a series of huge corruption scandals, which have sent the government’s poll ratings plummeting, along with wildly inflated food prices. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has been accused of being out of touch with public opinion.
This is by no means the first time that the government has come down hard on anti-corruption protestors. The New Statesman‘s recent India special is essential reading for the background on this latest incident.
Patrick French describes public support for Hazare’s cause, and how his public fast in April successfully forced the government to promise a harsh parliamentary bill on corruption (the bill has since been denounced by Hazare as a “cruel joke”, as it exempts the prime minister and senior judges. This has prompted his latest protest).
In April, an elderly Gandhian activist named Anna Hazare led a public fast against corruption in public life. As a method of exerting pressure, it was certainly effective: the government agreed to introduce a severe law against corruption – the Jan Lokpal Bill – and to give Hazare and his nominees a hand in drafting it…
With the Middle East convulsed by change, it was understandable that the Indian media should draw parallels between Hazare’s pro¬test and the events in Tahrir Square, Cairo. The spontaneous support expressed for his cause has more in common with the Tea Party movement in the US, however, than the Arab spring: it grew out of a sense among educated, middle-class people that the government was aloof, and that something indefinable but important was being taken away from them. The protests sprang from pent-up frustration and a sense that, even as India is growing richer, corruption is deepening and professionals are becoming isolated from the workings of government. The country might have one of the largest middle classes in the world, but its members are kept out of the driving seat. Even business tycoons share the growing feeling that India’s political leaders are part of an alien tribe, with which they have little in common.
Nor is the harsh crackdown on Hazare and his supporters unprecedented. In the same issue, Siddartha Deb describes action taken against a guru known as Baba Ramdev:
This year, he began to make ever more strident pronouncements about corruption, including the way money was allegedly being siphoned out of the country into Swiss bank accounts. By June, his statements had grown into plans to hold a public gathering in New Delhi that would be part yoga camp and part protest rally.
The Indian National Congress (INC) government made a conciliatory gesture by despatching some of its senior ministers to meet Ramdev as he arrived in the city, but the guru went on with his plans, beginning a hunger strike on 4 June at the Ramlila Maidan grounds. Tens of thousands of Ramdev’s followers gathered at the venue. Shortly after midnight, the government sent in a team of riot police. Tear-gas shells were fired, sticks were swung and, after a futile effort by members of the crowd to shield Ramdev, the guru was arrested. The authorities sent him back to Haridwar, from where he threatened to continue his campaign even as the government began an investigation into his business affairs, including his acquisition of the island of Little Cumbrae.
Due to mounting public anger, officials have ordered Hazare’s release. However, he has refused to leave jail unless police drop the conditions they set for his freedom, which include limiting his fast to three days. Hundreds of his supporters have begun a vigil outside of Tihar jail. With protests on-going today, it does not look like the government has succeeded in burying this protest yet.