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India's Anti Corruption Campaigner Begins Public Fast

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare (C) prays at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Rajghat in New Delhi August 19, 2011.
Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare (C) prays at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Rajghat in New Delhi August 19, 2011.

In India, anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare has begun a 15-day hunger strike in public after being released from prison. His demands for a tough law to fight endemic graft have gathered huge support across the country and put the government on the defensive.

Rose petals and loud cheers from a huge crowd greeted activist Anna Hazare as he stepped out of Tihar Jail in New Delhi Friday.

Undeterred by monsoon rains, thousands of supporters then followed Hazare as he drove in a flag-draped truck first to the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi, who led India's independence struggle, and then to the venue of his public fast.

Hazare was arrested on Tuesday to prevent a public fast after he refused to limit his protest to three days. But authorities allowed him to stage a 15-day fast after his detention sparked mass protests across the country.

The mood among his supporters is one of celebration. They waved flags, sang patriotic songs and chanted "Victory to Mother India". Commentators said Hazare has won the first round in his standoff with the government in his fight to end graft.

Hazare wants lawmakers to adopt his version of an anti-corruption bill in place of what he says is a toothless law placed before parliament by the government.

Hazare urged his supporters not to let the anti-corruption movement lose momentum.

He said supporters lit the flame of a revolution, and asked people not to let the flame die down whatever happens to him. He called the campaign a battle to transform the country.

Support is pouring in from all quarters. On Friday, 5,000 men who distribute lunch boxes in Mumbai went on strike for the first time in over a century to show solidarity with Hazare's campaign. They went without food themselves for the day.

Many of his supporters are young people. Hazare urged them to continue the fight.

Hazare says the youth of this country have awakened, so a great future is not far off.

Political analysts say the wide support that Hazare has gathered in recent days has caught the government unaware and put it on the defensive. The government accuses him of trying to subvert the legislative process and says only parliament can decide what shape the anti-corruption law will take.

Commentators say Hazare has tapped into widespread public anger over what is seen as a pervasive culture of official corruption. The government has been rocked with multi-billion dollar scams in the past year.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admits corruption is a challenge, and says the government is trying to root it out.

Corruption is firmly in the spotlight in India. On Thursday, the upper house of parliament voted to impeach a High Court judge, Soumitra Sen, for misappropriating public money. If the lower house also votes to impeach him, he would be the first sitting judge to be removed from office in India.