Hundreds of people staged noisy demonstrations on Saturday against the authorities in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu even as political leaders cutting across party lines condemned their heavy-handed measure.

The Tamil Nadu assembly on Friday had ordered 15-day jail sentences for five senior journalists of the Chennai-based English daily The Hindu for having "breached privileges" by criticising the province's chief minister Jayalalitha.

The editor of another local daily was also given a similar sentence.

Soon after the order was passed, the police raided the Hindu office, but failed to arrest any of its journalists who had apparently gone into hiding.

Condemned

In a front page editorial, the Hindu described the jail sentences as a "crude instrument to threaten the independent media and trample on the fundamental right of free expression, which includes fair comment and criticism."

The Hindu had filed a petition before the Indian Supreme Court challenging the arrest order.

"We are awaiting a court ruling any time now. We are not giving in easily," a senior Hindu staffer Amit Baruah told Aljazeera.Net.

Echoes of the attempted media crackdown in Tamil Nadu were felt across India on the day.

Protests

Journalists marched through the streets of New Delhi while hundred others courted arrest in protest in the southern city of Pondicherry.

Protests were also reported from cities like Chennai and Kolkata. Journalists of Chennai are to go on a day-long fast on Sunday in protest.

Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu government came under fire from senior Indian leaders for its attempt to silence the media.

Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani said he was "pained" by the assembly moves.

Venkaiah Naidu, the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said the arrests "could weaken democracy and therefore need to be withdrawn."

India's main communist party termed the assembly action a "gross misuse of legislative privilege."