india-protests (pix) (update 2)-0821-08
(Recasts lead, adds Hazare's quotes)
By Paul de Bendern and Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI, Aug 21 (Reuters) - An Indian anti-graft activist
whose hunger strike has galvanised millions to hold the biggest
protests in decades appeared on Sunday ready to end a standoff
with the government, saying he was open to dialogue.
Anna Hazare's statement comes a day after Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh also said the government was open to discuss the
74-year-old self-styled activist's demands after briefly
detaining him earlier this week.
At least 50,000 people gathered on Sunday to support Hazare,
who is demanding a tough anti-graft law.
But Hazare's insistence that the government introduces this
bill on Tuesday and passes it by the end of this month has
sparked criticism that his group was dictating policy to an
elected parliament, putting pressure on him to compromise.
"We have not closed the door of dialogue. We have kept it
open. Only through dialogue the issues can be resolved," Hazare
told supporters at an open ground in the capital on the sixth
day of his fast.
Protesters chanted "Anna, you keep fighting, we are with
you," and "Hail mother India".
Hazare's campaign has found resonance with millions of
Indians, particularly the middle classes tired of endemic bribes
and a series of corruption scandals that have touched top
politicians and businessmen in Asia's third largest economy.
But critics of Hazare's hunger strike, who include novelist
and social activist Arundhati Roy, say he is setting a precedent
by holding democratic institutions hostage.
"The danger is if we get rid of these institutions and say
that discussions will happen outside parliament, then tomorrow
there can be a mobilisation of any kind of extremist group,"
renowned social activist Aruna Roy told CNN-IBN TV.
Roy's civil rights organisation, the National Campaign for
People's Right to Information (NCPRI), said it would introduce
its own anti-graft bill to parliament.
"ENOUGH IS ENOUGH"
On Saturday, Singh, widely seen as out of touch and leading
a graft-riddled, fumbling government, took the initiative for
the first time during the fray with Hazare and said the
government was willing to talk.
A ruling Congress party lawmaker also sent Hazare's bill to
a parliamentary committee for consideration, meeting a demand of
Hazare was briefly jailed on Tuesday in a bid to prevent him
from massing support for his fast, but he refused to leave
prison until the government allowed him to continue his vigil,
in public, for 15 days. He was released on Friday to huge
cheering crowds and widespread media coverage.
The activists' supporters say he will not fast to the death
but a medical team is on hand to monitor his condition. Hazare
has carried out scores of hunger strikes to pressure governments
over social issues in the last few decades.
For many, the pro-Hazare movement has highlighted the
vibrant democracy of an urban generation that wants good
governance rather than government through regional strongmen or
caste ties -- a transformation that may be played out in 2012
state polls that will pave the way for a 2014 general election.
"Over the past five years corruption hasn't necessarily
changed but attitudes have. We have now reached a breaking point
of no return. Enough is enough and we want change," said Sanjeev
Sahay, 39, a litigation lawyer in Delhi, who had come to support
Hazare with his children.
Several scandals, including a telecoms bribery scam that may
have cost the government up to $39 billion, led to Hazare
demanding anti-corruption measures. But the government bill
creating an anti-graft ombudsman was criticised as too weak as
it exempted the prime minister and the judiciary from probes.
A weak political opposition means that the government should
survive the crisis, but it could further dim the prospect for
economic reforms and hurt the Congress party in elections.
The main Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party
is organising a nationwide protest against the government on
Thursday, while a group of left parties is planning a national
protest on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Rajesh Kumar Singh; Writing by
Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Miral Fahmy)