New Delhi – A non-violent revolution had begun in India – not just against graft but demanding total change – anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare said Friday, as he began a 15-day public hunger strike.
Hazare, 74, was addressing thousands of supporters in Delhi’s sprawling Ramlila grounds, hours after he left Tihar jail.
Hazare, who began his fast in police custody on Tuesday, said he would not leave the grounds until the strong anti-graft ombudsman bill he is agitating for was passed. His pledge was met with resounding cheers.
Hazare’s anti-graft campaign has drawn tens of thousands of urban middle class Indians out to protest in towns and cities across the country and has placed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party-led coalition government on the backfoot.
‘This is the beginning of a second freedom struggle,’ Hazare told his supporters. It was a battle not just against corruption, but to bring about a total change in the country, he added.
‘All the people of this country, my brothers, my sisters, young men and women, school students – the torch they have lit – never let this torch go out,’ Hazare said.
Hazare said the country’s youth had awakened and the revolution that had started would go on, irrespective of whether he was there or not.
India would be an example to the world on how to bring about a non-violent revolution, Hazare added.
Hazare, who has been fasting for over 70 hours, said he may have lost 3 kilogrammes in weight and was willing to lose another 10 – but his enthusiasm would not lessen.
The anti-graft activist was arrested Tuesday as he prepared to stage a public hunger strike to campaign for stronger legislation for a national anti-graft ombudsman, or lokpal.
He was given permission to leave Tihar Jail hours after his arrest but refused to move until the police allowed him to hold his protest without any conditions.
The police authorized the protest in the Ramlila park after a massive show of support for the anti-graft activist across the country.
A two-kilometre long stream of slogan-shouting people followed Hazare’s open truck as it wound its way from Tihar to Mahatma Gandhi’s mausoleum at Rajghat, where he paid a brief tribute before moving on to the Ramlila grounds.
Hazare draws inspiration for his non-violent civil disobedience campaigns from Gandhi’s struggle against British rule.
At least 5,000 people had gathered at the Ramlila grounds by the time Hazare arrived. By the evening the crowd had swelled to an estimated 15,000.
Hazare waved the Indian flag and clapped along to the crowd’s anti-graft songs, with lyrics such as, ‘We shall overcome…,’ ‘Anna free the country, throw out the corrupt,’ and ‘Lokpal, we want lokpal!’
Hazare’s India against Corruption campaign organisers said similar protests were being carried out at 5000 places across the country.
Throughout the day, television channels showed protests and rallies in Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and other cities.
Hazare has said the bill presented to parliament, to empower a national anti-corruption ombudsman, has been watered down.
He is campaigning for a stronger bill, along the lines of a draft prepared by his group which they call the jan lokpal bill, or the citizens’ bill.
In a surprise development, India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker Varun Gandhi said he would introduce Hazare’s draft in parliament as a private members’ bill.
Gandhi, a nephew of Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party which leads India’s coalition government, said he was acting on his own but had discussed it with his party.
The main difference between the government’s bill and Hazare’s proposal is that the latter wants the ombudsman to have powers of investigation and prosecution over every branch of government, including judges and the prime minister.
The government’s response to Hazare’s campaign has been confused.
BJP leader and former home minister Lal Krishna Advani said Singh’s government had underestimated people’s anger over corruption and the support for Hazare.
Hazare’s anti-graft campaign comes against the backdrop of a slew of corruption scandals implicating Singh’s government, including a multibillion-dollar telecommunications licensing scandal.