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Indian anti-graft campaigner in new hunger strike

28 december 2011, 12:22
ndian activist Anna Hazare waves towards his supporters. ©AFP
ndian activist Anna Hazare waves towards his supporters. ©AFP
A veteran Indian activist, who galvanised millions with a hunger strike against endemic graft in August, was to begin a fresh fast Tuesday to force the redrafting of a key anti-corruption bill, AFP reports.

Social campaigner Anna Hazare, 74, says his three-day protest, which is expected to draw tens of thousands of people to a recreation ground in Mumbai, will become a focus for public disgust at the proposed government legislation.

"The government has become blind and that is why we have to repeatedly fast," he told reporters on Monday. "This government is only after money and power."

His fast will coincide with an extended three-day session of parliament in New Delhi to debate the new bill, which would create an independent "Lokpal" or ombudsman to probe corruption among senior politicians and civil servants.

Hazare and his supporters insist the bill lacks both scope and teeth, as it does not bring India's federal police, the Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI), under the control of the ombudsman to investigate alleged wrong-doing.

Hazare has vowed to take his protest back to the capital if amendments are not made and says he is willing to risk jail as part of a wider plan of civil disobedience.

"About 100,000 people have registered across the country to court arrest and go to jail by protesting in unauthorised places," said Preeti Sharma Menon, a volunteer with Hazare's India Against Corruption (IAC) group.

Hazare, a former army driver who models himself on India's independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, has become the figurehead of the fight against corruption in India since his 12-day hunger strike in August.

Then, millions poured onto the streets to express their frustrations and anger at petty bribery as well as high-level corruption.

The scale of the public response stunned Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress-led government, which was already struggling with a series of high-profile graft scandals.

A former telecoms minister is on trial in connection with the 2008 sale of second-generation mobile phone licences at rock bottom prices to selected companies that is thought to have cost the country up to $40 billion.

The head of the 2010 Commonwealth Games organising committee is also behind bars awaiting trial over allegedly fraudulent contracts.

But Hazare has his own critics, including those who see his campaign against the Lokpal Bill as riding roughshod over India's cherished democratic process and constitution.

"It is for parliament to decide what should be the final shape of the legislation," Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said on Monday, echoing an increasingly held view.

The Indian Express newspaper said Hazare and his supporters' cause was noble but it should not be given preferential treatment or interfere with the primacy of parliament.

"For all their delusions, Team Anna is not larger than any other citizen group in this diverse nation," the daily said in a Monday editorial.

"And if anyone has the right to speak of the national interest, it is a freely-elected legislature and government."

Protest organisers, however, insist what they call "India's Second Freedom Struggle" is the will of the people and will force the government to act.

India's first freedom struggle, led by Gandhi, was against British colonial rule and led to Indian self-rule in 1947.

"We always say we're a pressure group and we want to put pressure on the representatives to make sure that they do the right thing," said Menon.

"It's our constitutional right to protest, debate and agitate," he added.

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