With new concessions, Anna Hazare agrees to end hunger strike

The activist, recently released from prison, has been fasting for 12 days to demand stronger anti-graft legislation.
NEW DELHI // Indian hunger-striker Anna Hazare, who has led a huge public campaign against corruption, agreed on Saturday to end his 12-day fast after forcing new concessions from lawmakers.

Addressing cheering crowds at his camp in central New Delhi where he has fasted in front of a huge picture of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi for nearly two weeks, Hazare hailed a victory for the nation.

"For 12 days the country's people have stood here -- it is their victory," declared the former army driver, who lost over 7.5 kilos (16.5 pounds) during his campaign, which he will officially end early on Sunday.

The 74-year-old social activist, who had said that he was ready to die for his cause, had demanded that parliament agree to three new demands in the drafting of a proposed new anti-graft law.

The increasingly frail Gandhi devotee called for the country's entire bureaucracy to be put under the authority of an independent anti-corruption agency and for the establishment of an ombudsman in all 29 states.

He had also demanded that a citizen's charter, explaining the rights of individuals, be posted in government offices.

After a day-long debate in parliament on how to tackle the political crisis, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said lawmakers had agreed to the demands in principle.

"What I understand from the observations of the various members who have participated in the debate, if I can convert it into the sense of the house... there is agreement in principle," he said.

The hugely complex process of drafting the new law will now be taken up by a parliamentary committee.

Hazare has drawn together hundreds of thousands of Indians -- especially from the urban middle class -- and become a lightning rod for popular discontent over widespread graft that has also drawn in the government.

The breakthrough ends nearly two weeks of political theatre that has captivated the country but polarised public opinion.

Many see a new hero in Hazare, who has exposed the government as being out of touch while forcing lawmakers to commit to passing anti-corruption legislation that has been more than 40 years in the making.

"I have never seen anything like this in my life before. Anna has awakened the collective consciousness of the nation," said Bharat, a 38-year-old fashion designer at the jubilant Hazare camp on Saturday.

K.K. Passi, a 70-year-old retired civil servant, said Hazare had "united the country like never before."

"They (politicians) don't realise the strength of the people," he added.

But critics see Hazare as an autocrat who has used undemocratic methods to force his views on the national parliament and give false hopes to his supporters that a law can end endemic corruption in Asia's third-largest economy.

After initially criticising Hazare, the administration led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accepted that his campaign has helped vocalise simmering anger over corruption that pervades every level of Indian society.

The government itself has been beset by graft scandals over the last 12 months, from the over-budget Commonwealth Games last October to the flawed sale of telecom licences that cost the treasury up to 39 billion dollars.

Mukherjee asked lawmakers during the debate on Saturday to "seize the moment and demonstrate the commitment" in dealing with corruption which is "gnawing at the vitals of our polity".

The world's largest democracy "was at the crossroads", he said.

Hazare has been staging his protest in a large open-air venue in central Delhi, where tens of thousands of supporters have gathered every day to cheer him on.

"It's high time every one of us said 'no' to any kind of corruption," said Bollywood star Aamir Khan, who delighted Hazare supporters by turning up at the sprawling, muddy field where the self-styled Gandhian was staging his fast.

"Our actions will determine whether India becomes a corruption-free country or not," Khan told the crowd at the Ramlila Maidan.

Published: August 27, 2011 04:00 AM

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