NEW DELHI, Aug 16 (IANS): Civil society activist Anna Hazare was Tuesday arrested and sent to Tihar Jail as Delhi Police moved to stop his fast-unto-death 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, 74, was detained early Friday and later arrested and sent to prison to seven days judicial custody. His associates Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Shanti Bhushan were also detained with about 1,400 supporters all across the capital.
"Anna Hazare refused to sign a personal bond and has been sent to seven days judicial custody," Delhi Police spokesperson Rajan Bhagat told reporters, describing it as a preventive arrest.
The opposition went on the warpath to demand Hazare's release. 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.
Hazare's supporters, who had gathered in hundreds in the apartment complex, shouted anti-government slogans and lauded the anti-corruption crusader who had gone on a hunger strike in April.
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."
As news of his arrest spread, thousands took to the streets in Delhi, denouncing the government and hailing Hazare. The biggest gathering took place at the Chattrashal Stadium in north Delhi. Major protests were also reported in Delhi University, outside the Tihar Jail, and on the street leading from Rajghat to J.P. Park.
Security forces had a tough time handling the crowds.
Protests also gripped 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, one has the right to protest in a peaceful manner. By detaining Hazare, the government is depriving the 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 Team Hazare had refused to agree to certain terms.
"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.
The opposition was quick to seize the opportunity.
BJP president Nitin Gadkari and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), neither of which agree fully with Hazare, called for demonstrations across the country Wednesday.
"This government is bent upon crushing anyone who wants to protest against corruption," BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
The CPI-M said Hazare's detention and the police ban on his hunger strike showed how "the Congress leadership is intolerant to any anti-corruption movement as its government is steeped in high-level corruption".
The volatile situation was set to snowball further with protests planned through the day. Using SMS messages, twitter and television, Hazare supporters called for people to gather in protest.