New Delhi: Civil society activist Anna Hazare was detained by Delhi Police Tuesday, shortly before he was to begin an indefinite fast to press for a strong anti-corruption Lokpal Bill, triggering swathes of unrest across the country and pitting the government against not just the opposition but also large sections of the public.
Hazare's associates Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Shanti Bhushan were also detained along with about 1,000 supporters. As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the move smacked of the excesses during Emergency and parliament was stalled, the outrage spread across the country with reports of protests coming in from virtually every corner.
Hazare and Kejriwal were whisked away as they stepped out of an apartment in east Delhi on their way to the J.P. Park where police had clamped prohibitory orders and where the activists were planning to set the stage for their strike against the government's version of the bill that keeps the prime minister, judiciary and junior officials out of its ambit.
The bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha Aug 4.
Hazare's supporters, who had gathered in hundreds in the apartment complex, shouted anti-government slogans and lauded the 74-year-old anti-corruption crusader who had gone on a hunger strike in April.
While the many hundreds who had been detained were kept at the Chhatrasal Stadium, lawyer and Team Anna member Prashant Bhushan said they had no news about the whereabouts of the others.
They were planning to move the Supreme Court against the detentions but could not.
'It is not possible to move the court today as we don't have the signatures of Anna Hazare, Shanti Bhushan, Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwala on the petition,' Bhushan told IANS.
'Their whereabouts are not known,' Bhushan, who said the arrest was illegal and unconstitutional.
Just before his arrest, Hazare said in a recorded video message: 'Don't let my arrest stop this movement. This is the nation's second struggle for freedom.'
The message was flashed on television screens, fuelling protests in many states including Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa where people trooped out of their homes to voice their anger. Many shopkeepers downed shutters.
In India's financial capital Mumbai, thousands gathered at various places.
'We are also requesting supporters to strike work tomorrow and support Annaji,' a volunteer for India Against Corruption said.
Celebrities too stepped in to verbalise their distress. Lyricist Javed Akhtar said: 'I have had certain reservations about Anna's method but his arrest cannot be condoned. It is undemocratic, unacceptable.'
The ripple effect was widespread.
'In a democracy like ours, one has the right to protest in a peaceful manner. By detaining Hazare and others supporting him, the government is depriving the country's citizens of their constitutional rights,' said P.K. Garg, a retired professor in Lucknow.
As the protests spread, the government attempted to clarify its position and said Delhi Police was not acting under political pressure and had made the detentions because the anti-corruption crusaders had refused to agree to certain conditions.
'If someone says we will defy the orders, I think this is unacceptable in a democracy,' said Home Minister P. Chidambaram. 'It is a real regret that police have taken this action.'
The crisis for the government comes soon after the clampdown on a protest by yoga guru Ramdev on June 5.