Anna Hazare leaves Tihar, heads to Ramlila Maidan

New Delhi:  A spontaneous roar of welcome from the huge crowd that has waited long hours for the leader to walk out of that gate. After almost four days in prison, Anna Hazare emerged out of Tihar Jail on Friday morning and is headed to Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan to continue his fast.

Mr Hazare has been fasting in Tihar since Tuesday.

The anti-corruption crusader is addressing the large number of supporters gathered outside Tihar Jail before he moves in a procession till Mayapuri. Thereafter, Mr Hazare will go to Amar Jyoti at India Gate, visit Rajghat and finally reach Ramlila Maidan in a small convoy of two or three cars. Supporters have been requested to go to the venue directly from Mayapuri.

Though an agreement was reached on Wednesday evening between Team Anna and the Delhi Police over the contours of his indefinite fast – with both sides climbing down from their rigid positions, the government a little more than Anna Hazare – the activist leader crusader chose to extend his stay in prison while the massive Ramlila Maidan was cleaned and prepared for his mass protest.

On Friday morning, his close associate Kiran Bedi, who inspected the grounds, announced the preparations there satisfactory for the Gandhian to take his fast there. She said Anna Hazare would leave the jail at 11 am and go to the Ramlila Maidan through Mayapuri, India Gate and Rajghat.

A former cop, Ms Bedi appealed to Mr Hazare’s supporters not to disrupt traffic and to reach the venue straight and in an orderly manner.

Another key advisor Arvind Kejriwal told NDTV that the movement would be “non-violent because of the leader’s message”, but that “no undertaking has been signed on allowing prosecution if rules are broken”.

Mr Kejriwal made clear that it was the responsibility of the administration to prevent anti-social elements from creating trouble.   Team Anna has also made clear that his is an “indefinite fast and dharna” and not “a fast unto death.” He will receive round-the-clock medical attention at the venue of his fast.

On Wednesday, Anna was with his aides in a conference room at Tihar while they negotiated with the Delhi Police the terms of the mass protest they had planned.  Anna, powered by public support, won hands down. An agreement was reached, after a 36-hour standoff, on using Ramlila Maidan and not Jaiprakash Narain Park as planned earlier. Anna Hazare agreed to limit his fast to a 15-day period, with the police reviewing the situation. The police agreed to let more people gather at the venue of the fast – it had initially sought to limit the gathering to less than 5000. Team Anna has signed off on a list of prerequisites from the Delhi Police. Among them, that the crowd will not exceed the official capacity of the ground, which is around 25,000 people. The permission for the fast has been given till September 2, 2011.

The government, realising that it cannot fight the overwhelmingly popular perception that Anna Hazare is the symbol of the fight against corruption, is expected not to interfere with his mass protest at the Ramlila Maidan, though the authorities will keep a watchful eye.

The government approach, sources say, will now be to engage with people who are associated with Mr Hazare in Maharashtra, to keep a channel of communication open. There have also been suggestions that the government send the Janlokpal Bill drafted by Team Anna to the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PAC).  As of now, sources say, the government is not open to this, but the the PAC might invite Anna Hazare to place the draft Bill before it.

In a video message from inside Tihar, Anna Hazare said on Thursday, “I won’t stop until we get Lokpal Bill passed. I am not tired after three days of fast.” Mr Hazare added that he will speak to his supporters on Friday.

During the Gandhian’s almost four days in jail, there have been huge protests across India. “I am Anna”, is the popular war-cry as people take to the streets. There have been overnight vigils at Tihar Jail as people wait for Anna to emerge from prison.

Upto 20,000 people marched in groups from India Gate to Jantar Mantar in the capital on Wednesday evening. Candlelight vigils were held in Mumbai, Guwahati, Chennai. And Bangalore continues to be one of Anna’s staunchest supporters – for three days in a row, Freedom Park was packed with students and techies, wearing “I am Anna” t-shirts and caps.
“I have skipped classes,” said a young college student.  “I will not get this opportunity again.”
It is Anna’s focus on fighting corruption that has served as a lightning rod for a country exposed to unprecedented corruption since September. Many of those who are participating in his movement admit they don’t know the details of his agenda.

What Anna has been pushing is his team’s version of a new anti-corruption law that Parliament plans to debate during its current session. The Lokpal Bill which provides for an ombudsman committee is weak, says Anna, and provides too many loopholes for politicians and bureaucrats who may need cover when accused of corruption.  The government, Anna’s critics, and other activists say that Anna’s own version would create an authoritarian panel with few checks and balances.

For middle class India, though, the India Against Corruption campaign fronted by Anna is both an outlet to vent its frustration, and a channel to demand change.  So far, the government has proven itself hopelessly out of sync with the public.

Anna’s arrest, his move to Tihar Jail (associated with hard-core criminals and home recently to politicians charged with corruption), and the Prime Minister’s statement on Wednesday in Parliament on these developments exposed that the UPA government’s political instincts are failing it when they are most needed.  The Opposition has found in Anna a uniting force, and it has launched a strong and effective attack on the government for violating Anna’s right to peaceful protest, as well as the alleged “lack of political will” in combating corruption.


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