Civil rights activist Anna Hazare and his supporters on Wednesday began a day-long hunger strike at Rajghat to protest the police crackdown on Baba Ramdev's supporters during their agitation against corruption in New Delhi on Saturday night.
After paying floral tributes at Mahatma Gandhi's samadhi, the Gandhian leader reached the protest site at around 10.20am to a thunderous applause from around a thousand supporters who assembled there amid a large police presence.
Hazare chanted Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata ki Jai and Inqilab Zindabad, prompting the crowd to echo him. Civil society activists like Shanti Bhushan, Kiran Bedi, Swami Agnivesh and Arvind Kejriwal joined the protest.
Kejriwal said that except Justice Santosh Hegde, all civil society members of the lokpal bill drafting panel will join the fast, which has been organised to protest the midnight crackdown on Ramdev's supporters that injured over 60 people.
With Delhi Police refusing permission for the day-long hunger strike at Jantar Mantar, Hazare had decided to shift the venue to Rajghat to avoid a confrontation.
Bedi told the gathering that this is the "second war of independence against corruption, extortion and bribery."
"I called Anna 'Gandhi' yesterday. It made some people very angry but large number of the people very happy. Why we have to sit here today? We didn't raise our voices against corruption earlier so we landed up here. We are not against politicians. We approached them, but they did not take up the struggle, so Anna had to take up the fight," she said.
Earlier, before the protest started, Hazare said the government is trying to "scare" people off the protest. The organisers claimed action on Ramdev supporters has created a "fear psychosis" among the people.
Asked whether he will seek security for himself, Hazare said he will never do so and he is not afraid of death. "Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev never asked for security. If they would have done, our country would not be free," he said.
"The protest against injustice is not wrong. It leads to a successful democracy. If in such a situation you try to disrupt it, that's not right," he said.
Large presence of police personnel somewhat dented the enthusiasm of the protestors. Heavy barricading and police deployment prompted some of them to discuss conspiracy theories about the government plotting to thwart their plans.
Organisers claimed they got several calls from people asking whether police will take action. A senior police official said they have taken adequate security measures but did not "harass" anyone.
People who came to Rajghat were outraged over the crackdown on the Ramdev congregation. "That action was shameful. One should protest. I have left my house and business to join this agitation. If you don't have other means to raise your voice, the only option left is to hit the streets," said B S Negi, a retired Assam Rifles personnel who came to Delhi on June 3 for the Ramdev protest.
A number of supporters of Ramdev joined in the protest, including Swami Santoshanand, who shared dais with the yoga guru at Ramlila on June 4.
Gandhi lookalikes, tricolour-waving youths and volunteers wearing Gandhi caps added colour to the agitation. Anti-corruption T-shirts worth Rs 150 recorded brisk sale.
The protest will be accompanied by an all-religion prayer meeting and a debate on lokpal bill.
While Bedi did not mention the crackdown on Ramdev supporters, Swami Agnivesh said the government should admit that they committed a mistake at Ramlila.
"That will not bring down their stature but enhance it," he said. Criticising the decision not to give permission to hold the day-long fast at Jantar Mantar, he said it is everyone's right to protest.
"There may be difference on issues, on leadership. But we have got the fundamental right to assemble peacefully everywhere after a long fight," he said.
He said the organisers did not want confrontation and decided to go ahead with the protest at Rajghat. "Rajghat is more apt than Jantar Mantar. You have the Gandhi memorial here. It has more greenery and space," he said.
Earlier in the morning, Kejriwal said, "It is an assertion of our fundamental rights to assemble peacefully and protest. We will do it and we are ready to face the consequences. In a democracy, it is extremely important that whenever there is injustice, people should protest," he said.
He said everyone is angry about the "kind of atrocities" committed on Saturday night on the supporters of Ramdev. "It was almost an assault on democracy."