Nationwide protests catch Congress by surprise; insisting on unconditional release, Hazare refuses to come out of jail

Shaken by the upsurge of popular anger which the “preventive” arrest and jailing of Anna Hazare on Tuesday morning triggered, a nervous Centre rushed to release the anti-corruption crusader by nightfall. With a rapidly swelling crowd of supporters outside the Tihar Jail, Mr. Hazare, however, insisted that his release be unconditional. Until our going to press, he was refusing to leave the jail premises without an assurance that he would be free to press ahead with his planned protest at JP park here.

His associates said he was apprehending arrest again since he intended to press ahead with the fast that the Manmohan Singh government has outlawed by imposing prohibitory orders at the venue.

Earlier in the day, the elderly Gandhian was sent to seven days' judicial custody soon after the Delhi Police picked him up from his home to prevent him from going ahead with his indefinite fast in favour of a revised anti-corruption Lokpal Bill.

Also arrested were Kiran Bedi, Shanti Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal, key members of the Jan Lokpal group that had taken part in the negotiations with the government on the draft law.

Mr. Hazare was preparing to leave for the Rajghat ahead of his fast when the police swooped down on him. Once inside the jail, he announced the beginning of his indefinite fast. His detention triggered angry protests across the country with people courting arrest in Delhi and staging impromptu demonstrations in different cities and towns. Parliament was adjourned over a demand by Opposition parties for a statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh explaining the “undemocratic” action.

In a rare show of solidarity, the BJP and the Left later came together to demand the “immediate release” of Mr. Hazare and his associates.

“This is the second fight for freedom, and this movement will not halt now,” said Mr. Hazare, as he was whisked away. Throughout the day, his supporters continued to court arrest at different venues in Delhi, culminating in a massive candle-light march from India Gate along the Rajpath.

Addressing a press conference, senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan asked government servants to go on mass leave on Wednesday to express solidarity with Mr. Hazare and to join mass protests, prompting Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram to describe the call as “completely wrong.”

With Opposition parties and activists likening the early morning crackdown to the Emergency of the mid-1970s, senior Ministers sought to defend the police action. “Mr. Hazare was taken into custody after the Delhi Police came to a conclusion that he and his supporters would commit a cognisable offence by defying prohibitory orders,” Mr. Chidambaram said at a press conference. Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, too, told journalists that “while everyone had the right to protest, if the police perceive a law and order situation, it can impose conditions.”

But by the evening, the government was forced to rethink its confrontationist stand. Unconfirmed reports said the decision to release Mr. Hazare and his associates came after a meeting between the Prime Minister and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.

Terming it a “sad day” for Indian democracy, BJP leader Arun Jaitley said the move showed that the government was in panic. “Do a group of citizens who disagree with the government have the right to protest and dissent or not, or have we abandoned civil rights and the right to protest in this country?”

CPI (M) leader Brinda Karat said the detentions were an attack on the democratic rights of people. “We reject the argument that because the Lokpal Bill was in Parliament, there can be no protest on it. If it is so, then even the Women's Reservation Bill is before Parliament, and there are so many protests over it. Did the government accuse them even once as it has Anna Hazare?”

In Patna, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar described Mr. Hazare's detention as “murder of democracy” and said it was a “rehearsal of emergency,” which the people would never tolerate.

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