Indian hunger-striker defiant despite PM appeal

DVBP212 4 JW 0630 ZZZ /AFP-VJ20 India-corruption-dissent lead-WRAP Indian hunger-striker defiant despite PM appeal by Ben Sheppard =(Picture)= ATTENTION - ADDS protest details /// NEW DELHI, Aug 21, 2011 (AFP) - Anna Hazare, the hunger striker whose protest against corruption has galvanised millions of Indians, on Sunday sounded a note of defiance after government calls for dialogue. Hazare, who has not eaten since Tuesday, is fasting at an open-air venue in New Delhi in front of tens of thousands of noisy supporters who back his demands for an end to the culture of corruption among Indian officials. Anti-graft protests have erupted across the country over the last week and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been widely criticised for mishandling one of India's biggest social movements in decades. Singh on Saturday appeared to soften his hardline stance, saying there was "a lot of scope for give and take" over a proposed anti-corruption bill that Hazare's campaign wants replaced with their own stronger version. But Hazare told huge crowds gathered at the Ramlila grounds in central Delhi that "even if the prime minister comes here, I will not move from here until our bill is passed". Hazare was arrested on Tuesday to prevent him from starting his public fast, in a move that provided his cause with a welcome publicity boost, while Singh used a parliamentary address to attack him as undemocratic and misguided. The activist was soon freed but he refused to leave jail until the ban on his public hunger strike was lifted, and on Friday he was mobbed by adoring followers as he travelled in triumph across Delhi to begin his protest at Ramlila. "I appeal to people to stand outside the houses of MPs and sing patriotic songs. We have to get the bill passed. Non-violence is our tool," Hazare told Sunday's crowd, which police said peaked at about 25,000 people. Hazare, 74, often refers to pacifist Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi -- who used hunger strikes to protest against British colonial rule -- in his speeches, and dresses in the same white cotton clothes and cap. But Hazare has also faced criticism from some high-profile Indians for whipping up populist sentiments through his media-savvy campaign. Nandan Nilekani, the Infosys software entrepreneur now working with the government on ID cards, said using a hunger strike to try to arm-twist an elected parliament was "extremely dangerous and completely wrong". "I am not a great believer that if you pass a law, corruption will miraculously vanish," Nilekani added in an interview with NDTV news. The Indian media has been broadly supportive of Hazare, with the headline in the Sunday Times of India reading "Angry tide forces Manmohan's hand". But an editorial in the Mail Today titled "Team Anna's rhetoric is stopping to make sense" suggested the protest's message was becoming confused between its demands over the anti-graft bill and a wider call for civil reform. Hazare's fast on Sunday attracted bigger crowds than a day earlier, in a worrying sign for the government as it struggles to answer criticism that it is out of touch with the public mood. Many protesters -- ranging from urban professionals to farm workers -- said they were fed up about having to bribe officials to secure business permits, driving licences, government work and a myriad of other services. Despite muggy monsoon temperatures touching 35 Celsius (95 Fahrenheit), Hazare appeared to be in good health as he lay on cushions on a stage above the crowd, making a lively short speech at noon. His fast routine allows him to drink water, and he leaves the stage each evening and returns mid-morning. bgs/rn/ac/je AFP 211145 GMT AUG 11