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Anna Hazare: India's anticorruption activist wins right to fast in public

Anna Hazare defied an initial ruling restricting him to a three-day protest and is now allowed 15 days. But critics argue he and his supporters should press their demands through the ballot box.

By Staff writer / August 18, 2011

Supporters of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, one raising his portrait, shout slogans outside Tihar prison where Hazare is presently lodged in New Delhi, India, Aug. 18. The renowned Indian anti-corruption crusader struck a deal with police Thursday to hold a 15-day public hunger strike against graft, ending a standoff at a New Delhi prison in which he turned his brief detention into a sit-in protest.

Gurinder Osan/AP

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New Delhi

Under pressure by growing crowds of protesters, the Indian government struck a deal Thursday with anticorruption campaigner Anna Hazare that allows him to publicly fast in New Delhi for 15 days.

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Police initially tried to restrict Mr. Hazare to a three-day demonstration at a small venue. Mr. Hazare defied the restrictions and was brought to Tihar jail. He then refused to leave until many of the original protest restrictions were eased.

With the protest over the right to protest out of the way, the agitation now moves to the main event: Hazare’s hunger strike. By refusing food, Hazare aims to pressure the government to adopt a stronger anticorruption bill than the one currently before Parliament.

Government supporters have called the fast a form of “blackmail” and a subversion of representative democracy. But this has largely failed to convince the public, due to the historical respect here for civil disobedience, anger over a string of corruption scandals, and a percolating discontent with the current democratic setup.

“There are two sources of power. One is the state, the other is the renouncer [who] has moral power,” says historian Harbans Mukhia. “History is a conflict between these two kinds of powers.”

Debate over legitimacy of civil disobedience

India owes its independence to Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent tactics – including hunger strikes – against British state power. However, the drafter of the country's constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, argued in 1949 against civil disobedience in independent, democratic India.

“When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification,” wrote Ambedkar. “These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy.”

This foundational debate was reprised in Wednesday’s remarkable session of Parliament. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh argued that all sides favor anticorruption legislation but differ on the details. In parliamentary democracy, he argued, those details should be hammered out by elected members of parliament – not street protesters.

“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,” said Mr. Singh.

But following the arrest of 2,600 of Hazare’s supports in New Delhi, senior opposition leader Arun Jaitley appeared to capture the mood with his response.

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