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Indian social activist to defy ban on anti-graft fast

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 7 Jun 2011 08:04 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Annie Banerji

NEW DELHI, June 7 (Reuters) - A veteran Indian social activist plans to defy a police ban and go on a hunger strike in the capital on Wednesday to protest against corruption and the crackdown on a peaceful fast led by a popular yoga guru.

Plans by Anna Hazare to begin a hunger strike with his followers will further pressure the government to act on popular anger about mounting graft across all layers of Indian society.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and ruling Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi have come in for stinging criticism for sending hundreds of police using batons and tear gas early on Sunday to break up a hunger strike by Swami Ramdev and tens of thousands of his followers in central New Delhi.

"India is a democratic country. Peacefully protesting and assembling without arms is legal," Arvind Kejriwal, an associate of Hazare, told a news conference.

"If the government obstructs us then we will resist and give ourselves up for arrest. The government&${esc.hash}39;s attitude is clearly that we have a right to indulge in corruption and if anyone protests then we will either crush them or impose section 144 and not allow them to assemble."

Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said Hazare and his followers had been denied permission to hold the gathering, also known as section 144, because there was "apprehension of violence".

Singh, who has struggled to put behind him one corruption scandal after another affecting his coalition government over the past year, defended the midnight crackdown on Ramdev, who is extremely popular in India, saying it was inevitable.

Tapping into spiralling voter anger about corruption as Asia&${esc.hash}39;s third largest economy booms, Ramdev called on the government to pursue billions of dollars in illegal funds abroad and introduce tough anti-graft legislation.

The crackdown has been condemned by opposition parties on the left and right, as well as civil society.

Hazare carried out a successful fast in April, striking a chord with millions of Indians and forcing the government to make concessions on an anti-graft bill that effectively gives Indian an independent ombudsman to battle corruption.

Hazare has pulled out of negotiations with the government over the bill to protest against the treatment of Ramdev and his followers.

Singh said there was no "magic wand" to ending corruption. India ranks 78th in Transparency International&${esc.hash}39;s index on corruption, below China.

Analysts say mounting civil protests against the government on issues ranging from corruption to high food or fuel prices could mushroom and become a serious challenge to the state.

So far India has not seen the kind of social unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. (Additional reporting by C.J. Kuncheria Writing by Paul de Bendern; Editing by Alistair Scrutton)

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