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Indian government and protesters in stalemate over reform bill to end hunger strike
NEW DELHI (AP) ' The Indian government and a reform activist on a 9-day hunger strike were trapped in a stalemate Thursday over competing legislation aimed at rooting out the corruption infesting the country.
Anna Hazare's aides say the weakening, 74-year-old protester remained adamant he would not break his fast until the government agrees to pass his stringent version of a bill creating a powerful watchdog to police hundreds of thousands of officials and bureaucrats across the country.
The government, which has tabled its own bill, dismissed elements of Hazare's proposal as unworkable and unconstitutional and said Parliament would have to debate the various drafts.
The impasse came after a day of frantic talks. On Wednesday morning, government mediators tried to work out a compromise with protest leaders. In the evening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held a meeting of all parliamentary parties, which agreed only to give the protesters' draft "due consideration."
At a second negotiating session late Wednesday, the government and protesters appeared to dig in their heels and talks broke down, with each side blaming the other for the impasse.
"We have been repeatedly told that there are some elements within the government who are strongly opposed to any kind of talks or dialogue and they are trying to subvert the entire process of dialogue," protest organizer Arvind Kejriwal told reporters Thursday.
Law Minister Salman Khurshid, a key negotiator, said his side was prepared to go back to the negotiating table, but would not allow itself to be dictated to.
"We were talking, they walked out. Now they say, 'who shall we talk to?'" he said.
Meanwhile, a weakening Hazare lay on a stage at his protest site in the Indian capital, where crowds that numbered in the tens of thousands over the weekend had dwindled to about 1,500.
Protest organizers had been raising concerns that authorities might detain Hazare and force feed him. Hazare asked his supporters to block the exits if police tried to take him away.
Hazare's fast has struck a chord with Indians horrified at the nation's endemic corruption and the scandals said to have cost the treasury billions of dollars.
In another blow to the government Wednesday, police charged four lawmakers for their alleged role in buying and selling votes to keep the Congress Party-led government in power in 2008.
Yet some of India's marginalized see the Hazare protest as a movement of the middle class that ignores their concerns.
On Wednesday, thousands of India's lowest-caste dalits, or untouchables, were bused into New Delhi for a counterprotest. They said Hazare's demands were an affront to the constitution and to one of its main authors, dalit lawyer B.R. Ambedkar, who is revered among his community as a hero even greater than Gandhi.
"His ideas are not bad, but he wants to force his will on everyone. He must recognize the boundaries of the constitution," said Pawan Kumar, a 45-year-old businessman.
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