The Indianpost

Crowds, media, hysteria and hope surround

The elderly Indian anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare began the ninth day of his pledged “fast to the death” over anti-corruption legislation on Thursday. Thousands of people gathered at the Ramlila Grounds to support the 74-year-old, as they have each day, taking up a role in the pageant that has built up around Mr. Hazare: men charging five rupees to paint flags on cheeks, elderly ladies chanting their love for mother India, chic university students picking their way through the mud in suede sandals, hawkers with flags and key chains and the “I am Anna” hat (now a fashion statement), straight-backed retired soldiers holding placards and TV reporters hoarse from yelling over the cacophony of the crowd.

Mr. Hazare is fasting on a plinth at the head of a giant open area in the heart of the city, normally used to stage reenactments of the life of the god Rama.

He is staging his hunger strike to try to force the government to adopt an anti-corruption bill drafted by him and his supporters, a law which would create the position of a lokpal, an ombudsperson with sweeping powers to investigate all levels of government.

His team is in talks with government over some sort of compromise, as public opinion polarizes between those who feel he is the first man to challenge government and those who see his actions as blackmail that subverts democratic law-making.

Mr. Hazare has reportedly lost 5.5 kilograms on his fast and is examined every few hours by a medical team of no fewer than 35 doctors. But when he emerged from a secluded enclosure to face the crowd in the late afternoon this week, he was sprightly and seemed chipper.

His voice was strong as he thanked the crowd for coming and exhorted them to continue their struggle.
Then he sat down cross-legged on a pile of pillows and began to clap along with one of the folk singers who belt out patriotic songs on the stage, one level below his for most of the day. Periodically he waved, beaming beatifically, and the crowd screamed back deliriously.

He gazed out on a sea of T-shirts, masks and placards bearing his own face; there was plenty to nourish his ego, if not his body.

“I’ve come to fight against corruption and support Anna – physically, emotionally, financially, whatever it takes,” said Sheela Verma, 45, who arrived at the Ramlila Ground with her sister.

Ms. Verma recently took early retirement from the police; although many people at the protest complained that they have frequent interactions with corrupt police officers, she said she never saw any corrupt activity in her years on the Central Reserve Police Force.

Ms. Verma said she has studied the anti-corruption bill put forward by the Hazare camp, and that tabled by government two weeks ago, and believes the “people’s bill,” as the former is now known, has stronger teeth.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served up free to the crowds, prepared by volunteers with donations from traders and store owners who support Mr. Hazare. They dish out more than 15,000 meals a day of yellow lentil dal, mixed vegetable, and puri, small rounds of deep-fried bread.

The workers are normally employed by large catering companies in Delhi and cook for weddings. On Wednesday, the puri were being rolled out by a half-dozen children around the age of four, although the kids were hustled out of the scene when a foreign journalist arrived. Mukesh Kumar , flicking puri in and out of a precariously balanced cauldron of sizzling oil, said the loss of a few weeks’ wages would be hard for his family, but he wanted to volunteer anyway.

“Everyone is doing this for Anna,” he said. “How can we not?” Attar Singh, 25, stirs dal in a pot large enough that an adult could bathe comfortably in it; he uses a ladle that could double as a garden shovel. “It was my destiny to help Anna,” he said. “The whole country is doing it – why shouldn’t I pitch in?”

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