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Singh calls anti-corruption protests misconceived

In an address to both house of parliament, Indiai Prime Minister Manhohan Singh said police had no choice but to arrest activiet Anna Hazare after the activist refused to follow their instructions for holding a public fast planned for Tuesday.

NEW DELHI // Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lashed out at India's most prominent anti-corruption crusader yesterday as tens of thousands of protesters held a second day of rallies in New Delhi and across the country in support of the Anna Hazare's hunger strike.

In an address to both houses of parliament, Mr Singh said police had no choice but to arrest Mr Hazare after the activist refused to follow their instructions for holding a public fast planned for Tuesday.

Mr Singh accused the activist of trying to circumvent democracy by demanding parliament pass an anti-graft bill that would create an anti-corruption ombudsman. Thousands of protesters were detained Tuesday in New Delhi and other cities when they rallied to demand government support a strengthened bill, in place of the diluted one that is currently being debated.

Mr Singh called the protests "totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy".

Hundreds of demonstrators chanting "Down with corruption" and "Hail Mother India" gathered yesterday in a show of support at the jail where Mr Hazare was holding his hunger strike, despite being told that he was free to leave on Tuesday evening.

The activist refused to leave the jail unless he was granted permission to hold a public demonstration.

The standoff has galvanised Indians fed up with seemingly endless bribery scandals and cronyism and has flustered Mr Singh's beleaguered government. Mr Singh's statement was almost drowned out in the lower house, or the Lok Sabha, by members of parliament shouting slogans and engaging in pitched verbal arguments with each other.

In the upper house - the Rajya Sabha - Mr Singh's statement was delivered amid significantly less rancour.

Later yesterday, the Indian home minister, P Chidambaram, told the Lok Sabha that protesters, such as Mr Hazare, should not "diminish the right of parliament to make laws".

But the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), accused the Congress Party-led government of an "arrogance of power" and demanded Mr Hazare's release.

Arun Jaitley, the leader of the BJP in the Rajya Sabha, said in a statement that "the condition for holding a protest can be that there should be no violence, not that how many people will protest, and for how long they will protest".

To a chorus of boos and hisses from the Congress Party members of parliament, Mr Jaitley accused the government of leading Mr Hazare and his colleagues "up the garden path" by first involving them in the drafting of the anti-graft bill and, subsequently, rejecting their suggestions.

"Release the protesters and give them a place to stage their protest," he demanded.

The government's actions were also attacked, yesterday, by several newspaper editorials. The Hindu called the government "corrupt, repressive and stupid", while The Indian Express remarked that the government had been outmanoeuvred. The Times of India, the country's largest English daily, headlined its editorial "Wrongful arrest".

Organisers estimated the size of the crowd marching from the India Gate monument in central Delhi yesterday at between 60,000 and 70,000.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

With additional reports from Agence France-Presse and Associated Press