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Popular Indian anti-graft activist defends scandal-plagued aides but vows changes to group
NEW DELHI (AP) ' The charismatic leader of a popular Indian anti-corruption movement ended a 20-day vow of silence Friday with a promise to reform the leadership of his group amid growing criticism of his top aides.
Anna Hazare said he took the vow of silence to regain strength after a 12-day August hunger strike demanding strong anti-graft laws.
Hazare has been demanding that Parliament pass his sweeping proposal to create a powerful anti-corruption watchdog that would police all government officials, from the prime minister to the lowest village bureaucrat. The proposal, along with other versions of the bill, will be debated in Parliament's next session, which starts Nov. 22.
The hunger strike brought tens of thousands of ordinary Indians, fed up with the country's deeply entrenched corruption, to the New Delhi fairground where he held camp. Thousands more marched in support in cities across the country.
But in recent days his movement has been wracked by controversy.
Two leaders said it had grown too political and quit. A third said the team needed restructuring.
Two of Hazare's closest aides also found themselves embroiled in their own corruption scandals.
Kiran Bedi, India's first high-ranking woman police officer and one of the movement's most visible faces, was found to have sent dozens of inflated travel bills to organizations that invited her to speak. Actual economy airfares were billed as business class and discounted tickets were billed as full fare to the tune of tens of thousands of rupees (thousands of dollars). None of the organizations involved have complained.
Bedi accepted that she had fudged her bills but claimed that all the money she made was meant to fund the good works of her own charity. She called the charges of corruption "silly" and "stupid."
Another Hazare aide, Arvind Kejriwal, took extended leave from his government job as an income tax official before finally quitting but refused to pay the 900,000 rupees ($18,000) government employment bond he had signed. He repaid the bond Thursday, under protest. His claim: he had spent his time working for the country and campaigning for a right to information law and shouldn't be asked to repay the debt.
Hazare denied his aides were corrupt; Bedi and Kejriwal stood next to him during his news conference. But he promised to make new rules to decide how top leaders were chosen.
"The movement started suddenly and we did not have time to think about the structure of the core committee," he told reporters in New Delhi.