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India's Hazare begins anti-corruption fast after leaving jail

By Harmeet Shah Singh, CNN
  • NEW: Anna Hazare begins a hunger strike in front of big crowds in New Delhi
  • The veteran anti-corruption activist refused to leave jail until police conditions were eased
  • He is holding the two-week hunger strike as part of an anti-corruption protest
  • Campaigners want tougher legislation to deal with graft Indians face in daily life

New Delhi (CNN) -- Indian activist Anna Hazare began a public hunger strike in the country's capital Friday, accompanied by thousands of cheering supporters.

The 74-year-old campaigner, who is seeking stronger anti-corruption measures in India, was greeted by crowds as he left a jailhouse in New Delhi earlier to make his way to the city's large Ramlila Grounds.

He will stage the two-week protest there after police relaxed their conditions. Supporters say he began fasting while still in jail.

Hazare traveled from the jail in an open-top truck decorated with Indian flags, as thousands of citizens marched along.

Before arriving at Ramlila Grounds -- known mostly as a venue for massive political rallies, demonstrations and religious festivals -- the campaigner visited the shrine to Mahatma Gandhi, the man who led the nation's independence struggle, to pay homage.

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Flanked by admirers, he dropped petals and bowed at the memorial in a traditional Indian gesture of respect.

Once at the rain-lashed Ramlila Grounds, Hazare sat on a makeshift podium with a large Gandhi backdrop as crowds carrying umbrellas hailed his arrival.

Addressing the crowds, he called his campaign India's "second fight for independence."

He said, "We got independence in 1947 and the white (the British rulers) left our country. But there's no end to corruption, crime and looting. This is now our second fight for independence. Whether or not I live, this fight will go on."

Speaking earlier outside the jailhouse, dressed in his usual plain cotton attire, Hazare had also made references to India's freedom movement, with passionate cries of "hail revolution and hail motherland."

His brief address at the gates of Tihar prison, from which he was officially released three days ago, was almost drowned out by the crowd's noise.

Anti-corruption campaigners have rejected legislation prepared by the federal government to create a citizen ombudsman, saying the bill, now in Parliament, is too weak to tackle endemic graft in the system.

Led by Hazare, they have been demanding a stronger institution that they say should be capable of tackling corruption Indians encounter in their daily lives.

Supporters see the elderly anti-corruption crusader as a second Gandhi. His hunger strikes are also modelled after the protest mode Gandhi used in his movement against the colonial rule that ended in 1947.

However, Indian leaders say Hazare's demands undermine democracy, through his use of a protest tactic Gandhi used in very different circumstances.

"I acknowledge that Shri (Mr.) Anna Hazare may be inspired by high ideals in his campaign to set up a strong and effective Lok Pal (citizen ombudsman)," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told parliament on Wednesday.

"However, 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."

Hazare was sent to jail on Tuesday because he planned to stage his strike at a different public place without official permission, police said.

But as support swelled for the activist, with thousands of people hitting the streets in Indian cities, authorities ordered his release within hours of his arrest.

Yet, in a rare show of protest, he refused to depart the jail until police agreed to allow him to stage his hunger strike in the open air as planned.

The protesters' call has sparked a debate in India over the role of democratic institutions. Hazare's arrest also prompted televised discussions over the right to protest.