Anna Hazare: The divisive face of a new India
By four o’clock, it was raining and the ochre dust had turned to mud. The plastic sheets that had been stretched in front of the stage at Delhi’s Ram Lila parade ground did little to keep out the monsoon downpour. On the stage itself, looking out over thousands of followers sat a diminutive, bespectacled 74-year-old man wearing white and a distant, enigmatic smile.
If Anna Hazare, the veteran social activist, was bothered by the rain falling on this particular parade he did not show it. Hazare shows little and says little at the best of times, his associates say. His only lengthy intervention during the last turbulent week in India came in a video, recorded before his arrest at 7am in the morning by Delhi police on Tuesday and released the moment he and a thousand or so of his followers were rounded up. In the video, broadcast on YouTube, Hazare called for a “second freedom struggle”. The first had been against the British. Now it was time to fight corruption, he said.
Those standing under the warm downpour fervently agreed. “I am Anna Hazare,” said Lalita Kapoor, a 22-year-old student, repeating the slogan on tens of thousands of T-shirts, banners, caps and newspaper front pages last week. “We are all Anna Hazare.”
Hazare knows something about rain. It was by managing water—rainwater specifically—in the small village in India’s central western state of Maharashtra, where his labourer father lived, that he began his career as a social activist.
His real name is Kisan Baburao Hazare (Anna is a local honorific for an older brother). One of seven children, Hazare’s childhood was hard. In his early teens, he left Ralegan Siddhi, the remote village where the family was living, for Mumbai, 320km away, where he sold flowers. In 1963, Hazare joined the army and served for 15 years.
Either after seeing comrades killed in the 1965 war between India and Pakistan or after a serious depression which led him to contemplate suicide, Hazare decided that his purpose in life was to “serve his fellow men”. He returned to Ralegan Siddhi and set about transforming the community.
Profound social problems
Villages in India today, let alone when Hazare began work in Ralegan Siddhi, suffer complex and profound social problems: alcoholism, domestic violence, illiteracy and malnutrition. Most are without proper, indeed any, sanitation or reliable power supplies. For many, water remains a serious problem. First Hazare, working through the village priest, rallied all those worried about drinking in the community. Anyone selling liquor—local hooch—or beer was told to stop or leave. Severe punishments were imposed.
“There is a telegraph pole in front of the temple and anyone who was drinking or drunk or making alcohol or stealing was tied to it and beaten,” said Jay Singh Bhabuje Mapari, a 39-year-old from the village who travelled with Hazare to Delhi last week. “I remember watching when I was a kid. It was frightening.”
The regime, harsh though it might have been, worked. “No one drinks or steals now,” said Mapari.
After alcohol, tobacco was banished too. “It is just not part of our culture,” said Vijay Kasi Ram Hazare, 26-year-old nephew of the social activist. “I’ve never known it so I don’t want it.”
Much of Mahrashtra is prone to drought. Only a fifth of Ralegan Siddhi’s land was cultivable when he was a child, Vijay Hazare said, but now almost all land has valuable crops grown on it. Again, Hazare achieved simple but radical progress through filling the space left by the state. He organised the construction of a system of small dams to hold rainwater. He got the villagers to plant trees to retain topsoil, his nephew said, working alongside them as they laboured.
Rich vein of subsidies
Productivity soared, allowing Hazare to tackle other problems such as illiteracy and discrimination based in India’s millenniums-old hierarchy of social castes. Using the system in a way illiterate villagers never could, Hazare tapped the rich vein of subsidies available to communities but often stolen by officials. The intermittent electricity supply was solved by the introduction of solar power.
His campaigns against fraud and theft took him to the next level of activism. In 1991, the same year that liberalisation unleashed India’s economic growth, Hazare took on the officials and politicians of the state of Maharashtra. Hazare employed a new tactic—the hunger strike.
The “fast unto death” has antecedents that predate Mohandas Gandhi. But it was India’s best-known independence leader who used it to significant effect in his battle first against India’s imperial British rulers and against communal violence in newly free India. With his new moral authority, Hazare used the fast to circumvent the rotten institutions of power to force the departure of corrupt officials or politicians. His efforts gained him powerful enemies and a new profile as one of the country’s foremost moral voices.
The last two years have seen an extraordinary series of corruption scandals in India. These have included the apparently deliberate underselling of telecoms licences—which cost the country up to $42-billion—and fraud which almost turned last year’s Delhi Commonwealth Games into a fiasco. More than the headline-grabbing scams, however, it is the endemic low-level corruption that is angering India’s new urban middle classes more than ever before. They may have a car—but they have to pay officials bribes to have it registered and to get a licence. They also have to pay off traffic police continually when they drive it. To get a school place, “donations” to the headmaster are required. Anyone doing business is faced with a multitude of demands. As is anyone going to court, seeking a passport, buying or selling property.
Agitation for legislation
So when last April Hazare headed a new agitation for legislation that would create a powerful new national anti-graft ombudsman, it was inevitable that he would attract support. Through the late spring and summer, helped by the clumsy counter-efforts of the government, the movement has gathered momentum. Hazare’s arrival at the parade ground on Friday signalled a new peak of intensity.
It also signalled a new examination of the old man who, with rhetoric, his white cap and the huge poster of Gandhi on the stage behind him, has claimed the legacy of the independence struggle and its most famous leader as his own. For if there is much that is attractive about Hazare, there is much that worries many onlookers too. Some have been concerned by his populist contempt for institutions, such as Parliament, which, whatever their evident flaws, are none the less elected. Others argue that the creation of an ombudsman would do little to fight graft as wholesale change is needed and that is best done through myriad, less spectacular, lower-level measures which together would have a much greater cumulative effect.
Then there are those who are concerned by Hazare’s apparent authoritarianism—he has called for corrupt officials to be hanged, for example. If Hazare himself has studiously avoided any political statements, his vision of an India of teetotal, vegetarian rural communities is, despite its roots in Gandhi’s vision of rural-based development, a conservative one that appeals to India’s right wing. So too does his faith.
But Hazare’s asceticism—he eats yoghurt for breakfast, chapatis and a single portion of vegetables for lunch and has just a glass of lemon juice for dinner—has a deep resonance in a time when unbridled materialism is the dominant social ethic. He is also, as the display of flags at his rallies shows, a patriot in an era of a newly powerful Indian nationalism.
Villagers from Ralegan Siddhi talk of the other changes that have come to their small community in recent years. Along with the now ubiquitous mobile phones, there is satellite TV and an internet cafe. The village is prosperous and many farmers are investing their surplus income in the transport business, running trucks and buses. Vijay works in a hotel in Pune, the city 80km away. The days of drought and back-breaking labour in the fields are passing. New challenges are coming with this transition. On a small scale, therefore, the village is an example of the stresses and the strains of the astonishing transformation of India itself.
Last week, the flags, the reference to the independence struggle and the protest in the rain were all components of a greater question: what is this new India that is being created with its 8% year-on-year economic growth rates? Hazare does not, it is fairly clear, have the answer. But he is forcing powerful people to think about the question. - guardian.co.uk