NEW DELHI — A renowned Indian anti-corruption crusader struck a deal with police early Thursday to hold a 15-day public hunger strike against graft, ending a bizarre standoff at a New Delhi prison where the activist's brief detention had turned into a sit-in protest.
Anna Hazare's ordeal has struck a chord with Indians fed up with rampant corruption. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through cities across the country to show their support for his demand for a revised government reform bill, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accused Hazare of trying to circumvent democracy.
Police had initially given Hazare permission to hold only a three-day public hunger strike, which he refused, but early Thursday morning they relented and agreed to allow him to hold a 15-day protest at a venue in the capital, Kiran Bedi, another protest leader, wrote on her Twitter account.
"Delhi police removed the unacceptable conditions and offered 15 days permission. Anna accepted there," Bedi wrote.
The protest was to start Thursday afternoon.
New Delhi police arrested Hazare on Tuesday to block his planned fast against corruption, but released him hours later. Hazare stopped eating Tuesday and refused to leave the jailhouse, demanding police allow him to hold the hunger strike publicly and indefinitely.
After he struck his deal with police, the hundreds camped outside the jail erupted in cheers, threw flower petals in the air and shouted "Anna has won."
Hazare, clad in the simple white cotton garb of India's liberation leaders, has become an anti-corruption icon by channeling the tactics of freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi.
In April, Hazare used a four-day fast to force the government to draft legislation for an anti-corruption watchdog. He had planned for weeks to begin another fast to press for a stronger bill.
While Hazare's campaign against corruption has strong support within India, critics have raised concerns that his method – embarking on a declared hunger strike to the death – is akin to blackmailing the government.
On Wednesday, Singh told Parliament that Hazare was free to express his views, but that he was improperly usurping the role of elected representatives by trying to force them to pass his own version of the anti-corruption bill.
"The path that he has chosen to impose his draft of a bill upon Parliament is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy," Singh said, shouting over jeering opposition lawmakers.
"Those who believe that their voice and their voice alone represents the will of 1.2 billion people should reflect deeply on that position," he said. "They must allow the elected representatives of the people in Parliament to do the job that they were elected for."
New Delhi district court lawyers held a one-day strike to demand the judiciary also fall under the purview of any anti-corruption ombudsman.
Protests erupted in cities across India, with some demonstrators burning effigies of Singh, while others held yagna ceremonies – purification rituals using fire – to symbolically clean the government.
The protesters, many wearing headbands reading "I am Anna," crossed religious and caste lines and included rich and poor, students, the elderly, eunuchs, housewives, businessmen and the homeless.
Orissa's state assembly shut down in shouting matches, and lawyers in one town wore black badges protesting Hazare's arrest as an assault on democracy.
"Do the people in this country have no rights about how an anti-corruption watchdog will work? Is this the end of Indian democracy?" said Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer who was helping organize the protest movement.
The government is battling corruption allegations stemming from the murky sale of cellphone licenses and the hosting of last year's Commonwealth Games, which together lost the country as much as $40 billion, according to government auditors. The main opposition is mired in a multibillion-dollar bribery scandal involving the granting of mining contracts in southern India.
The scandals have embarrassed the government and paralyzed Parliament, with lawmakers trading insults and accusations instead of addressing widespread malnutrition and a desperate need for land reform. On Tuesday, Parliament adjourned amid screaming between government and opposition lawmakers over Hazare's arrest.
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